Is Being Authentic, Progressive, and Inclusive a Winning Strategy for Democrats?

Back in May when Stacey Abrams won the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Georgia, I wrote about a new strategy for Democrats in the old south. Bob Moser summed it up quite well.

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.

Ed Kilgore, who is an expert on Georgia politics, put it this way:

African-Americans in the South have struggled to construct two-way biracial coalitions within the Democratic Party, and when they could it often required conspicuously nonprogressive messages. As the parties have continued to polarize, that path has become less viable than ever. There just aren’t that many white swing voters to whom to “reach out,” as the saying goes…

But the very different strategy pursued by Stacey Abrams looks like the future of biracial Democratic politics in the South: a strongly progressive (though not abrasively so) African-American who can expand turnout among a rising minority population while still appealing to increasingly liberal white Democratic and independent voters as well.

Yesterday in the gubernatorial primaries in both Florida and Arizona, Democrats chose nominees who will join Abrams in testing this new strategy. Both of them are men of color who faced white candidates with a strategy more closely aligned with the one Moser described that is rapidly being inverted. Andrew Gillum would be Florida’s first African American governor and David Garcia would be the first Latino governor of Arizona in more than 40 years.

Here’s how Garcia captured the change in strategy that is happening in these races.

By galvanizing Latino voters and activating the millennial vote, the campaign contends, it will be able to flip the Republican stronghold. “The Democratic playbook in Arizona has historically been, go to the middle to try to embrace moderates and then in the end — I have literally heard it said this way — going out to young people and people of color to get you over the top,” Garcia said. “That is what the Democrats have tried to do in Arizona forever … and we are flipping that.”

Political operatives may be uncomfortable with the strategy, Garcia said, but “it’s about talking to our folks first and foremost, getting them excited, and then moving toward the traditional Democratic base.”

But just as Stacey Abrams has made it clear that she is running to represent all Georgians, here’s what Garcia talked about as he campaigned in a deeply red part of the state where residents are 93 percent white:

“Did you hear me beat up on Republicans today?” Garcia asked. “No,” the crowd responded. “Did you hear me talk about us and them?” he followed. “No,” the crowd assured.

“You are not going to hear that from me, and let me tell you why,” he continued. “When you walk away from here, I want you to walk away with a set of values. A value about the importance of immigration, a value about public education — because I don’t care what party you’re in. If you share those values, I want you to be welcome to mark my name on that ballot, because when we do this approach — this ‘us and them’ approach — we turn people off.”

Both Gillum and Garcia are running unapologetically progressive campaigns. And just like Stacey Abrams, they are being bold in embracing their heritage. As an example, Gillum has a long history of fighting against the gun lobby in a state that has been mobilized on the issue ever since the Parkland shooting. He’s also running on a strong platform of criminal justice reform, which is a priority for African American voters. Meanwhile, Garcia is focusing on public education and said this about mobilizing the Latino vote in Arizona:

Garcia believes the Democratic party’s Latino base has not yet been incited in part because the community has been asked to “play defense over and over and over again.” Almost every call to bring out the Latino vote has been negative, he said, because Latinos have been asked to “vote against [former Sheriff Joe] Arpaio; vote against Russell Pearce; vote against those who implemented 1070; vote against those who got rid of Mexican-American studies in Tucson,” which is a hard approach for voters to get behind. Pearce is a former state senator who was the primary sponsor of SB 1070, a controversial measure targeting undocumented immigrants.

“I believe that you’re going to see a change this time around,” he added. “And I don’t just believe it; we continue to see it in poll after poll and door-knock after door-knock. … For the first time in a long time, we’re going to give the Latino community something to vote for.”

Over a year ago I wrote that Democrats faced a challenge of mobilization, not just persuasion. In other words, in order to win elections—especially at the state and local level—they needed to mobilize people who haven’t typically voted as well as persuade those who might be willing to vote for Democrats instead of Republicans. To demonstrate that, I referred to a report from a group called Democracy in Color that had tracked some of the numbers of non-voters of color who could be mobilized in states that Trump won. They were spot-on in one of their findings:

Population trends are propelling South and Southwestern states toward Democrats.

* Democrats came closer to winning in Florida, Georgia, and Arizona than in Ohio.
* They are closer to winning in Texas than in Iowa.

2018 presents a chance to seize significant opportunities.

* Florida, Georgia, and Arizona all have rising stars of color running for governor in 2018.
* To flip those states will require massive mobilization of people of color.

Those three candidates have now won their Democratic primaries, something not many people would have predicted a year ago. But the real test of this new strategy will come in November.

There has been a lot of talk about how the Democratic Party is changing, combined with endless prescriptions of how it needs to change. Much of that has gotten caught up in the old news about the Democratic presidential primary between Clinton and Sanders or in questioning whether Democrats are developing something similar to the Republican’s tea party.

What these three governors races demonstrate is that there is a whole new strategy being developed that doesn’t buy into most of that analysis. It’s not about insurgents vs establishment or mobilization vs persuasion. It’s also not about furthering the racial divide or the one between Democrats and Republicans. It is about whether being authentic, progressive, and inclusive is a winning strategy for Democrats. I am reminded that the black guy who held his campaign to the standard, “Respect, Empower, Include” did pretty well ten years ago.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.