Emboldened by statewide victories last year in Virginia and Alabama, Democrats are setting their sights this fall on another Deep South prize once thought to be out of reach: Georgia’s governorship, a seat the party hasn’t held in more than 15 years.
The party has two major candidates with a lot in common: Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans are both veterans of the Georgia state House. Both are running as unapologetic liberals who see a path to victory guided by tapping into black voters, whom they see as an electoral sleeping giant — and courting suburban whites who usually vote Republican but are repelled by President Donald Trump.
It’s a strategy that worked for Democrats in the special election for a Senate seat in Alabama last month. Doug Jones ran up huge margins among African-American voters, who showed up in droves, while running stronger than other recent Democratic candidates in the state’s suburban counties.
Now, Abrams and Evans are testing whether that model can work in Georgia, where the party has lost four consecutive gubernatorial races.
Democrats, of course, have been talking up their chances of competing in the Deep South for years, only to be disappointed until Jones’ surprise win. In 2013, former aides to President Barack Obama launched Battleground Texas, an effort to turn the state blue over several election cycles, only to watch Democrat Wendy Davis get crushed in her bid for governor in 2014. In Georgia the same year, ballyhooed Democratic candidates for governor and senator — Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn, both from political royalty — also lost handily.
In both cases, Democrats said shifting demographics in the South — specifically an influx of young and minority voters — could put some states in play. That wasn’t enough then. This time, though, they think the combination of demographics and Trump’s dismal ratings might be.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll earlier this month showed that only 37 percent of voters in the state approve of the job Trump is doing, while 59 percent disapprove.
“This is a unique moment,” said Carter, a state senator and grandson of Jimmy Carter. Though he conceded that the scandals surrounding Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore contributed to the party’s victory in Alabama, “The bottom line is if there’s a path to victory in Alabama — then in Georgia, the door is wide open.”
Abrams, who is seen as the nominal favorite, has sought to build a national profile in part with endorsements from some big-name Democrats: Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, who runs the Bernie Sanders-aligned outside group Our Revolution. Abrams’ campaign has focused on building a ground operation; she said last week she is opening nearly a dozen new field offices.
Evans, on the other hand, has been endorsed by more than a dozen lawmakers in the state Legislature, as well as the state’s most recent Democratic governor, Roy Barnes.
And while both candidates are seeking to build similar coalitions, there are some differences. Abrams thinks Democrats can change the electorate by targeting liberal and minority voters outside metro Atlanta.
“I know that to win this election, we have to be granular. We have to go to voters directly and have conversations, and I would say that in previous years on the Democratic side of the aisle, we have not gone deep enough,” Abrams said in an interview. “We have ignored potential voters because they did not fit a national narrative of the type of voter we should have. We ignored communities of color. We ignored progressive communities that were not in metro areas.”
Evans, in a separate interview, agreed — but stressed that the party needs to reach out to suburban and rural whites, too.
“Increasing base turnout, increasing African-American turnout is vital,” Evans said. “We’ve got to have that increased minority, base turnout. But we also saw in both [Virginia and Alabama] a huge increase in the white vote, particularly from suburban areas, coming over for Democrats.”
“We will not likely win the northwest and northeast Georgia counties, but we cannot perform as poorly as we have in the past and be afraid to compete for those voters,” Evans added. “I’m not suggesting that we go and get these votes by being Republican-lite.”
The state’s political map isn’t static, some Democrats say, and the party’s nominee could build a different coalition and ride it to victory this fall.
“You’re looking at a state where the demographics are changing in a much more rapid fashion than they are overall nationally,” said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who recently conducted surveys in Atlanta for the mayoral race there. “Georgia is one of the states where you are seeing more rapidly the demographic transformation from majority-white, to majority-minority.”
In 1990, 27 percent of Georgians were African-American, according to the census. By 2016, that percentage was up to 32 percent.
But blacks’ participation in elections lags their representation by population. According to the secretary of state’s office, African-Americans currently constitute 30 percent of registered voters. And only 41 percent of black registered voters submitted ballots in the most recent midterm election, in 2014, lower than the white turnout rate of 47 percent.
Jones’ victory in Alabama provides a blueprint for what can happen when African-Americans are motivated to vote — particularly in an off-year election, when minority turnout rates tend to lag behind those of whites. Tom Bonier, a Democratic data strategist, analyzed individual voter files and found that roughly 45 percent of black registered voters turned out in Alabama — including 48 percent of black women — and African-Americans made up roughly 3 in 10 voters, a higher percentage than even in the 2016 presidential election.
“That was driven largely by black women having a huge surge in turnout,” Bonier said. “There are components in the election in Alabama that are absolutely transferable because they’re representative of a larger trend happening in the country, and there are components that aren’t. … Certainly, the high level of engagement and intensity, especially among black voters, is absolutely transferable. Black voters are a large share of the electorate in Georgia already.”
Publicly, Republicans peg Democrats’ chances of winning the gubernatorial election as a faint possibility. But privately, some Republicans are less confident.
“The Republicans have a very weak field of candidates,” a veteran Georgia Republican strategist, offered anonymity to assess the field candidly, said of the gubernatorial race. The strategist said the two leading Republican candidates in the primary, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, are deeply flawed. (Incumbent GOP Gov. Nathan Deal is term-limited.)
More worrisome, the strategist said, is that Evans or Abrams could woo suburban women who usually vote Republican. “Georgia Democrats know our problem is women — white suburban women,” the strategist said. “We’re bleeding them.”
Illustrating their fears of losing a key demographic, Republican strategists who specialize in gubernatorial races have begun holding focus groups to gauge the likelihood of a suburban mass exodus to Democrats.
Chip Lake, another Republican strategist, said as long as Republicans aren’t complacent there’s no danger of ceding the governorship to Democrats.
“This state is changing much like the country’s changing. Although, look, Georgia’s been a red state for a long, long time,” Lake said. “The reality is we should be able to win the state if we don’t take anything for granted. I’m certainly not taking anything for granted.”
Still, some Republicans acknowledge that it’s a matter of when — not if — Georgia becomes more competitive.
“I think Georgia will certainly be in play — probably [in the] 2022, 2024 time frame,” another veteran Georgia GOP strategist acknowledged.
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