Last November, after Democrats surged in Virginia’s statewide races and won 15 seats from the GOP in the House of Commons, the competition for 2018 was on: Which state would become “the next Virginia”? Where else would a female-driven, multiracial coalition of voters and candidates face the extremism of Donald Trump and his enablers—and win?
It’s looking like that state could be Georgia. In a Republican gubernatorial primary in which all the competitors went to great lengths to show off their racism, gun lunacy, and anti-immigrant bona fides, Secretary of State Brian Kemp defeated Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle on Tuesday. Worried about Kemp’s profile as a Mike Pence–style social conservative who could damage the state’s efforts to attract business, moderate Republican business leaders, along with sitting Governor Nathan Deal, backed Cagle. But Kemp, who branded himself as “the politically incorrect conservative” and ran to Cagle’s right, was endorsed by Trump. He’ll take on former state representative Stacey Abrams, the African-American leader who won her May primary with 76 percent of the vote.
In Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, which saw the first stirrings of the 2017 resistance when newcomer Jon Ossoff almost won a seat that hadn’t gone to Democrats since the 1970s, Moms Demand Action champion and racial-justice crusader Lucy McBath won her runoff against South African immigrant businessman Kevin Abel. McBath will take on Representative Karen Handel, the scourge of pro-choice groups everywhere, in November. The mother of Jordan Davis, a black teenager who was murdered for playing his music too loud in Florida in 2012, McBath won support from gun-reform groups, along with Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood.
Next door, in Georgia’s seventh, Emily’s List endorsee and Georgia State professor Carolyn Bourdeaux won her runoff against self-funded businessman David Kim. She’ll face GOP incumbent Rob Woodall in the general election. Although the Republicans are somewhat favored in both races—Handel less so—a blue wave could carry McBath and Bourdeaux into the House.
McBath was not a shoo-in to win the runoff. She entered the primary late, and many progressives had already chosen between Abel and former television anchor Bobby Kaple, who courted local activist groups led in large part by mothers who had worked to elect Ossoff. When I talked to them in April, some of them were irritated that McBath had left a campaign for a State Assembly seat to go for Congress. But when she made it into a runoff with Abel, most progressives quickly coalesced behind her. Abel turned off many when he claimed in a debate that “in this 6th District, I am the best candidate to defeat Karen Handel and represent our demography.” The choice of the word “demography” rankled a lot of women, not just black women.
“He better represents our district because he is a white man?” marveled activist Louise Palmer, who backed Kaple in the primary but swung to McBath in the runoff. “That made people come behind Lucy—the moms really swung behind her. We definitely want to flip this district, but not at the expense of our values.” The sixth is roughly 70 percent white—not exactly the vanilla suburban enclave it was when Newt Gingrich held the seat.
Like Virginia, Georgia is a former Confederate state that is trending purple, thanks to the rise of voters of color, as well as Trump-loathing white suburban women. But when a multiracial blue tsunami swept a record number of women into the statehouse in Richmond last year—including an African American, two Latinas, two Asian Americans and a trans woman—it was a white man, Governor Ralph Northam, who topped the ticket. A similar coalition propelled Senator Doug Jones to his unlikely victory in Alabama. Can a similar Democratic wave sweep the nation’s first black woman governor to power in Georgia?
Adrianne Shropshire, head of the influential BlackPAC, says yes. “Look at how she [Abrams] won in the primary—she won all but six counties, and she won large margins in white counties. She won rural, suburban, urban voters, white voters,” against a white candidate, Stacey Evans. Shropshire’s group worked hard in both Virginia and Alabama and has made Georgia a high-priority state this year. She says Abrams’s overwhelming primary victory showed that Democrats “understand the historic nature of her candidacy.” Up against Kemp, “an opponent who is running on the culture wars, who is a nationalist,” Shropshire believes that Abrams can prevail because “people are rejecting that kind of talk, that kind of language.”
“Stacey Abrams is the most talented candidate I can recall in Georgia, and Brian Kemp is running a phony MAGA campaign,” says Ossoff, who narrowly lost his special election to Handel last year. “It’s seen him well through a Republican primary, but I doubt it’s a message that he can count on in the suburbs.”
Abrams’s candidacy has triggered a surge in Democratic participation. Democratic primary turnout jumped 57 percent from 2014, with 200,000 more Democrats voting. In all, 551,000 Democrats turned out in May versus 585,000 for Republicans in the July runoff. That GOP turnout was down from the last competitive Republican gubernatorial primary: Only 10 percent of Georgia Republicans turned out Tuesday versus 12 percent when Governor Nathan Deal ran against Handel in 2010—even though this year’s runoff had been nationalized by Trump’s endorsement of Kemp.
That endorsement will cut both ways, galvanizing Trump supporters while repelling suburban moderates. Certainly Trump’s intervention spurred conservatives to come out for Kemp on Tuesday; although Cagle came in first in the May primary and was winning in almost every poll before the runoff, Kemp crushed him 70-30. But the Trump endorsement will also spur liberals to turn out for Abrams in November. Trump is particularly toxic in Atlanta’s sprawling suburbs, where moderate and independent women, some of them former Republicans, have been catalyzed into political activism since his victory.
Why Trump intervened on Kemp’s behalf is a mystery, since there’s little policy separating him from Cagle. The New Yorker notes that Kemp and Trump share the same cavalier attitude toward reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election. When Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson tried to shore up state election security, because of evidence of state-level Russian hacking attempts in the weeks before the 2016 election, Kemp rejected the help, calling it an effort to “subvert the Constitution to achieve the goal of federalizing elections under the guise of security.” Then, after a security researcher discovered shocking vulnerabilities in the state’s paperless electronic-voting system in 2017, the local Coalition for Good Governance sued Kemp for failing to insure a fair election in that Georgia sixth race, a suit that continues (four days after that suit was filed, all the records from that race disappeared). When special counsel Robert Mueller’s July 13 indictments of Russian officials included evidence they tried to hack county voting systems in Georgia, Common Cause and other groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the suit against Kemp. The secretary of state’s indifference to election security could make him a valuable Trump ally in 2020. “This is a real concern,” says Shropshire.
And Kemp has more in common with Trump than just an indifference to election security. Earlier this month on Twitter a ProPublica reporter revealed that he watched the first Trump-Clinton post–Access Hollywood debate with Kemp at a Kansas hunting lodge, at a lobbyist-funded retreat, and Kemp joked that “Trump should have gone over there and groped her!” (That should irk Karen Handel, who played the moralist when interrogating FBI analyst Peter Strzok for his affair with a colleague. Sexual infidelity, she harrumphed, opens up a public official “to exploitation and even blackmail.”)
Noting that Kemp “actually pointed a gun to the head of a teenager in an ad” (he was jokingly threatening a potential suitor for his daughter) barely six weeks after the Parkland massacre, Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts predicts that Abrams can mobilize a growing constituency for gun-safety laws, even here in Georgia. Gun advocates, of course, are betting against that.
Gun politics also played a significant role in McBath’s runoff. Her opponent, Kevin Abel, frequently suggested that McBath’s association with Moms Demand Action and Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety, both of whom spent heavily on her behalf, would make it hard for her to beat Handel. It took him a day and a half to concede and endorse McBath, and then only in a bitter Facebook message in which he quoted the nonpartisan group NoLabels and denounced those who called him too moderate as “vile.” Obviously, a majority of the district’s Democrats disagreed with Abel’s characterizations. “Lucy is not anti-gun. She lives there in the South. She has volunteers who own guns, or they’re married to gun owners,” says Watts. As a two-time breast cancer survivor and a Planned Parenthood advocate, McBath was hardly the one-issue candidate Abel made her out to be, Watts notes.
“Lucy is a formidable candidate who’s persevered through tragedy to become a powerful force for reform,” says Ossoff, who stayed neutral in the race but came out strongly for McBath when she won. “And this time, the GOP can’t put all its firepower in one congressional district,” as it did against him in 2017. “I am on cloud nine,” says Essence Johnson, an African-American local activist who is running to be a state representative within the sixth district, “to be on that ballot in November with two other women of color.”
There are still signs that the massive surge behind the Ossoff campaign paid dividends in the sixth, where 11,000 more voters turned out for the runoff than in the neighboring seventh (the total was roughly 26,000 to 15,000). Still, that’s way down from the 2017 runoff, when almost 260,000 voters turned out, including 125,000 Democrats for Ossoff (an astonishing $50 million was spent turning out those 260,000 voters, most of it for Handel.) With the right operation, sufficient funding, and a blue wave, there are clearly a lot more Democrats for McBath to reach. In a district that still tilts Republican and with a $1 million war chest, Handel has the advantage, although The Cook Political Report lists the sixth only as “lean[ing] Republican.” That’s not great news for any GOP incumbent, who would normally expect to be running in a “likely” or “solid” Republican district.
There are other signs Georgia is tiring of paranoia and racism: On Wednesday, GOP State Senator Jason Spencer resigned after he was outed as not just a racist but a fool by Sacha Baron Cohen on Who Is America. The show featured Cohen’s standard “Israeli terror fighter” Erran Morad instructing Spencer on how to fight off a Muslim terrorist, by screaming the N-word, doing a racist impression of a Chinese tourist, and literally showing his ass—dropping his pants to touch “Morad” with his bare behind. Many Georgia Republicans, including Deal, demanded that Spencer resign; Kemp stopped short of that, suggesting “he should issue a public apology.”
This is certainly Abrams’s moment. She graces the cover of Time magazine, with a positive profile by writer Molly Ball. CNN wrote Thursday about “the Stacey Abrams primary“—the rush of 2020 contenders, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand—to stand beside the Georgia Democrat. In the primary, she won the endorsement of both Hillary Clinton, who she supported in 2016, as well as Bernie Sanders and his close ally Nina Turner. The “Democratic civil war” storyline that followed the New York primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (which is mostly fiction anyway) has thankfully passed over the Peach State.
Still, Georgia Democrats recognize they’re fighting the historic dominance of Republicans to elect a historic governor. But Abrams has a formula for victory—making sure at least 40 percent of the November electorate is voters of color, while getting 25 to 30 percent of the white vote. In the May primary, black turnout was up 43 percent over 2010, while white turnout declined.
Ossoff likes Abrams’s chances. “Stacey is working to reach every voter in Georgia,” he says, noting that the Republican Governors Association is spending money to defeat her. “The RGA does not want to be spending money here in July. That shows Georgia really is a battleground, and if anyone can do this, Stacey can.”