The Impact of the 2018 Midterms on the Democratic SOTU Response

Coming right after the 2016 presidential election, Democrats chose former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear to give the response to Trump’s address before a joint session of Congress (not technically a State of the Union). You might remember that Beshear spoke from a diner surrounded by white people.

The idea of choosing a moderate white southerner to give the response was conventional thinking as recently as two years ago about what Democrats needed to do in order to turn things around after a debilitating loss.

The 2018 midterm elections changed all of that. Women and people of color ran for office in record numbers. Many of them won. And while Stacey Abrams didn’t, perhaps as a result of her opponent’s success at voter suppression, she will give the Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union address tonight—demonstrating that the face of the party has changed.

I am reminded of what Bob Moser wrote about Abrams last May.

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…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…

Abrams is hailing the day: “Democrats in the South have to reject the notion that our geography requires that politicians soften our commitment to equality and opportunity and that you have to look a certain way,” Abrams recently told an interviewer. “We have to be architects of progressive solutions.”

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.

For those who might assume that Abrams’ message is divisive, I’d simply remind you of what she said during her speech on the night she won the Democratic primary.

We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired. We are writing a history of Georgia where we prosper together…For the journey that lies ahead, we need every voice in our party and every independent thinker in the state of Georgia…That is why we are here to ensure that all Georgians, from farmers in Montezuma to mill workers in Dalton, know that we value them. So that educators in Sparta and airport workers in College Park know that we see their efforts. So that former prisoners across our state who are working towards more know that we believe in their redemption.

With the kinds of victories Democrats won in the 2018 midterm elections, it has become clear that Stacey Abrams is exactly the kind of candidate who represents the future of the party in the South, and perhaps even nationally. That is why she will be giving the Democratic response to the SOTU address tonight.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.