For Kattie Kendrick, the Georgia governor’s race was personal. It was about her late brother.
“He never really complained. I think his biggest complaint was not having money,” she tells me, sitting at her dining-room table the weekend before early voting would begin in Georgia. She’d always shrugged off her brother’s money problems. She knew he had lots of doctors’ bills, but he’d always worked, always kept money in his pocket. So she just couldn’t see him as poor. “He would say, ‘Y’all don’t believe it.’ And we didn’t.” She thought he was just talking. “It wasn’t until I was going through his papers that I realized how much he was paying in medical expenses.”
Mrs. Kattie, as her people call her, does not want to talk to me about her brother’s death. When she finds herself veering into his story, she stops and changes the subject to Medicaid expansion, her county’s sewage infrastructure, her plan for turning out early voters in the public-housing complex nearby. She wants me to understand her as a political organizer—as a woman who intends to sit on her county commission one day, and as a key part of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’s mobilization in Peach County. She doesn’t want to be a weepy septuagenarian. But her political and personal stories can’t be disentangled, so as she tries to explain her door-knocking strategy, she keeps tripping over her grief. “I wouldn’t have let my brother suffer like that, had I known.”
Peach County is a small rural community about 100 miles south of Atlanta. There are not a lot of votes there. So black residents like Kattie, and the people she’s trying to mobilize, are used to being a political afterthought for Republicans and Democrats alike. That’s true for black people all over rural Georgia, and in many parts of the country, frankly. In all the places the Democratic Party has written off as permanently red, people are just not used to being part of the debate.
Abrams crafted a campaign strategy meant to change this—not so much to turn the state’s reddest counties blue, but to activate Democratic voters and organizers in every single county, no matter how small. “Clay County may have 15 people who haven’t voted before,” Abrams told me during the campaign’s peak. “But if I can get them engaged and they decide they want to vote, they get added to 5,000 folks in Clayton County, who also haven’t voted before. And I add them to 15- to 20,000 Dekalb County voters. And over time, what we do is develop the 250,000 votes we need.”
Abrams didn’t win the election with this strategy. But she won a greater share of the vote than any Democrat had since 1998, and more than that, she did something that will redound well past this one election cycle: She connected people like Kattie to a statewide political movement for the first time in their lives. That may be the lasting story of 2018. Not only in Georgia, but in similarly deep-red states around the South, this election became one big consciousness-raising campaign—for voters, and for the Democratic Party overall.
Kattie Kendrick spent her career working at the nearby military base, enjoying the security of public-sector benefits like medical coverage and paid leave—stuff her brother never had. When she got breast cancer, she had the resources to get it treated and recover. So she didn’t think much about politics. “Basically, my vote was based on whatever the Macon Telegraph said was the best candidate and best decision to make,” she tells me.
That changed when her brother died in poverty after a lifetime of working. Now she sees how many of her neighbors are struggling—and she sees the inequity of that struggle. “The median income in this part of Peach County is around $19,000,” she says, then points north, to the part of the county where white residents live. “That part is closer to $50,000.” She saw her work for Abrams as part of an ongoing local fight to change this disparity, to get a county commission that cares about all of Peach County. That’s now how she plans to spend the rest of her retirement.
In the course of covering the midterms, I met people like Kattie all over the country. On The United States of Anxiety, a podcast I host, my colleague Amanda Aronczyk found a group of women in rural Texas whose political identity had changed so dramatically that they launched a secret organizing effort for Democrats. They live in a deeply conservative community, and they were so fearful of being alienated—from their employers, their fellow church congregants, even their families—that they concealed their identities. But they were so outraged by the state of today’s Republican Party that they came together clandestinely to work the phones for Beto O’Rourke. I got the sense listening to them that it was as much a support group as it was a canvassing operation. Either way, these women will never look at politics the same way again.
Hopefully, neither will the Democratic Party.
In the South, as Ed Kilgore pointed out in New York magazine, Democrats flipped at least nine House seats—and not by running blue-dog conservatives to narrowly target white suburban voters. Two of those nine Democratic winners were black, one was a Latina, one was Jewish. This is a new Democratic Party, built not just on changing demographics, but on actually mobilizing the whole electorate.
Progressives have been urging Democrats to make this change for years, to mobilize people who want to build a more just society in as many places as possible. Abrams nicely sums up the reason she chose to invest so deeply beyond Atlanta and its suburbs: “You miss people who were supporting you until they saw that you didn’t care about them.” With her unexpectedly strong showing, and that of O’Rourke in Texas, Laura Kelly in Kansas, and the victorious House winners in Republican exurbs all over the country, that message may have finally broken through.