A New Strategy for Democrats in the Old South

In the most watched primary race yesterday, Stacey Abrams won a commanding victory (76/23) over Stacey Evans to become the Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia. In doing so, she became the first African American woman to be a major party nominee for governor in the country’s history. So regardless of what happens in November, this was an historic win.

As I mentioned previously, some commentators are attempting to put a spin on this race that doesn’t fit the dynamics and avoids the key issues that are at stake heading into the general election. On the one hand, it is true that Abrams is breaking the mold of how Democrats have typically run in the South.

Abrams isn’t just idly proclaiming herself a “candidate of the future,” the way young politicians are contractually compelled to do. She is a living, breathing vision of the South’s likely political future, as well as the national Democratic Party’s. She makes a clean break, too, from the black middle-class candidates, especially in the South, who practiced a version of “respectability politics” to get ahead. (Picture Condoleeza Rice of Birmingham.) Far from “knowing her place,” as “good” blacks in Georgia were always supposed to do in the eyes of “powerful white men,” Abrams is sharp-witted as well as sharp-elbowed…

The strategy that Democrats have been using in the South (and nationally) to try and win for 40 years – business-friendly centrism, with heavy doses of gunfire and Jesus – is rapidly being inverted.

On the other hand, cable news hosts like Stephanie Ruhle are wrong to suggest that the primary between Abrams and Evans was a repeat of the Clinton/Sanders primary. Interestingly enough, Abrams won the endorsement of both Clinton and Sanders in this race and when it comes to positions on the issues, there wasn’t a lot of daylight between Abrams and Evans.

…you don’t have to step back too far from this “two Staceys” primary to see what a big, flashing symbol of progress either person would be (will be) as the Democratic candidate for governor. “No matter who emerges in the May 22 race,” marvels Greg Bluestein at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Democrats will nominate someone who pledges to adopt broad new firearm restrictions, oppose socially conservative legislation, pump tens of millions of dollars into a Medicaid expansion and take steps to decriminalize marijuana.” Former state labor commissioner Michael Thurmond, put it a little differently: “One thing I do know – not only will the winner of the primary be the first Democratic woman or African-American nominated for governor; she’ll be the first liberal in a long time.”

There are a couple of dynamics that people miss with the continuing focus on shoving these races into the narrative of the 2016 presidential primary. The first is that Abrams and Evans laid out two very different paths to winning in November. Evans aimed to reach out to white voters who might be turned off by Trump’s extremism, while Abrams emphasized a different approach.

Ms. Abrams has signaled that she is unlikely to spend much time pleading with rural whites to return to a Democratic Party that they have largely abandoned. She has embarked instead on a strategy of energizing a coalition of young and nonwhite Georgians who represent a growing share of the state’s population, an approach national Democrats are watching closely as they grapple with how to reclaim the presidency.

In a state where only 30 percent of eligible black voters are registered, white people are projected to be a minority by 2025 and Donald Trump’s approval rating stands at an abysmal 37 percent, party politics in Georgia are changing rapidly. Will 2018 be the year that those dynamics are strong enough that a focus on mobilizing disenfranchised voters can help elect the country’s first African American female governor? That is precisely what everyone will be watching come November.

The other dynamic that is important to recognize in this governor’s race is that the “establishment” Republican, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, did not win a majority of votes in yesterday’s primary and faces a run-off with Secretary of State Brian Kemp in July. It is actually the Republican side where extremists are pulling the contest pretty far outside the mainstream.

Cagle’s rivals tried to outflank him – and each other – at every turn during the yearlong race…The Republican race featured what seemed like a constant effort by the candidates to outdo one another with soaring campaign promises to cut or eliminate taxes and new initiatives to expand gun rights or crack down on illegal immigration.

This ad from Kemp pretty well sums things up:

On the other hand, it was Cagle who initiated the move to pull a tax cut for Delta because they eliminated a discount for NRA members after the Parkland shooting. Guns and deporting undocumented immigrants have dominated the debate so far and will likely do so heading into the July run-off election, which is sure to get pretty ugly.

At his campaign party in an Athens hotel, Kemp told hundreds of cheering supporters he would work to relentlessly paint Cagle as a moderate.

“He’s not a leader. He’s a puppet,” said Kemp. “Yeah, I just said that. He’s not fighting for us. He’s fighting for those with deep pockets whose interests are not ours.”

Cagle won 39 percent of the primary vote against Kemp’s 25 percent. But three other candidates who were even more extreme split the remaining 35 percent of the vote. So that run-off in July will be interesting to watch. The pundits are all projecting an Abrams/Cagle race in November, but that is far from a sure thing.

This election in the old South state of Georgia was destined to be an uphill battle for Democrats no matter who won the primaries. But with a dynamic candidate like Stacey Abrams working to mobilize disenfranchised voters and Republicans attempting to out-Trump each other to win the primary, it will be a test-case for whether a new Southern strategy for Democrats is developing on the horizon.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.