Even as a remarkable number of establishment Democrats in Georgia looked backwards for a model for how to capture the governorship this November—winning back whites who fled to the GOP over the last 30 years —the state’s Democratic primary voters looked to the state’s multiracial future. Progressive African American Stacey Abrams, former state house minority leader, resoundingly defeated state representative Stacey Evans by a 3-to-1 margin on Tuesday night to become the first black woman nominated for governor in Georgia history. If she wins, she’ll be the first black woman governor in US history, not merely in the history of the former confederate state that is now only 60 percent white. Abrams staked her candidacy on the Georgia that is emerging. We’ll find out in November whether that support can carry her to victory. She will face one of two conservatives, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle or Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who are headed to a July runoff.
Abrams, remarkably, united the still-sparring national Democratic Party behind her, winning the endorsement of Hillary Clinton as well as Senator Bernie Sanders, Emily’s List and NARAL, plus the Working Families Party and Our Revolution, along with 2020 possibilities Senators Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Not surprisingly, Abrams was also endorsed by Atlanta Representative and civil rights icon John Lewis.
More surprisingly, Evans won support from much of Georgia’s black elected establishment (as well as its white elite), including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms plus former mayors Kasim Reed and Andrew Young. Those endorsements for Evans kept the race from becoming utterly racially divisive—for the most part. Evans lost some stature when she joined Georgia GOP Secretary of State Brian Kemp, now running for governor, in attacking Abrams’s work on the New Georgia Project, which registered at least tens of thousands of new minority voters but has been dogged by questions about voter-form accuracy. Kemp has compared the project to the wrongly attacked, now defunct ACORN. Abrams has been fighting him since 2014, and Evans, unexpectedly, piled on.
To her credit, Evans conceded and endorsed Abrams before 10 pm. “The Democratic party is trying to find a unified voice to rally against Trump. We must do that,” she said. She also sent Abrams a congratulatory Tweet:
— Stacey Evans (@EvansforGeorgia) May 23, 2018
Meanwhile, Kemp is headed to a runoff with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, as both men vie to be the cruelest on immigration. That didn’t work for Republican Ed Gillespie in Virginia last November. It could be more successful in Georgia, but that’s not guaranteed.
Polls never showed the Abrams-Evans race terribly close, but there remained a large undecided contingent until recently. Evans, who grew up in poverty and became a wealthy lawyer, had an appealing story and progressive bona fides of her own. She staked her campaign on defending Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, which helped her go to college, and which she claimed Abrams compromised as House minority leader. Abrams said she accepted an increase in the necessary grade point average for eligibility, in order to hold onto pre-kindergarten funding as well as prevent deeper HOPE cuts, but the issue seemed to cut Evans’s way for a while.
The real difference, though, was Evans’ and her coalition’s belief that victory lies in appealing to white rural and suburban voters, even Trump supporters, while Abrams bet on the new Democratic majority of voters of color, women and young people. Evans sometimes trimmed her progressive sails in pursuit of that goal, telling New York magazine: “I see myself as a champion for common sense. Sometimes that makes me moderate, sometimes that makes me liberal. Maybe every now and then it makes me a conservative.”
The Georgia Democratic establishment was “looking at her as trying to resurrect the Roy Barnes playbook,” Emory University’s Anita Gillespie told The Atlantic, referring to Georgia’s last Democratic governor who lost reelection in 2002. But using that playbook, white centrist Democrats Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter lost their bids for senator and governor in 2014.
”Establishment Democrats seemed to be churning out the same tired playbook. I guess they think this climate is different this year [given Trump],” agreed Louise Palmer, a suburban Atlanta co-founder of Indivisible in Georgia’s fired up Sixth District who was an early Abrams supporter. “Abrams will turn out the minority coalition, and progressive activists will help her do it,” Palmer predicted.
Also in the Sixth District, the site of the overhyped 2017 special election between Democrat Jon Ossoff and anti-abortion zealot Karen Handel which Handel won narrowly, Moms Demand Action advocate Lucy McBath is headed to a run-off with Democratic businessman Kevin Abel. Progressives were remarkably divided in the race, with Abel and former broadcaster Bobby Kaple aggressively courting the grassroots groups that almost brought Ossoff to victory last year, while McBath jumped in late. But McBath’s backing by gun safety groups—she has been a national leader since her son Jordan Davis was murdered in 2012—as well as by Emily’s List lifted her into the runoff.
There was other good news for women Democrats around the country. Almost as soon as the polls closed it was clear that in Kentucky’s Sixth District, former Marine aviator Amy McGrath beat Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, who was recruited to run against her by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in yet another wrongheaded gesture toward presumed “electability.” McGrath actually won the rural, Republican parts of the district, where Gray was expected to do better. She will face an uphill battle against GOP Rep. Andy Barr, who won by 22 points in 2016, but her upset defeat of Gray proves her outsider electoral appeal has been underestimated.
Women also won a several key Democratic runoffs in Texas. Latina sheriff Lupe Valdez, like Abrams, became the first woman of color to win the Democratic nomination for governor, defeating Andrew White. She’ll face a tough race against incumbent Governor Greg Abbott. Gina Ortiz Jones, supported by Daily Kos and Emily’s List, will face GOP Rep. Will Hurd in a district Hillary Clinton carried 50-46. In Houston, the DCCC fared better than in Kentucky: their preferred candidate, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, also backed by Emily’s List, defeated insurgent Our Revolution-endorsed Laura Moser. But newcomer Mary Wilson lost to well-funded Democratic businessman Joseph Kopser in Texas 21st district, which stretches from San Antonio to Austin. Incumbent Lamar Smith is retiring, so Kopser will face former Senator Ted Cruz chief of staff Chip Roy.
But the big news of the night was the decisive Abrams win. Congratulatory press releases streamed into my inbox, from Color of Change, Emily’s List, Black PAC and Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redisticting Committee. Donald Trump only won Georgia by 5 points, a smaller margin than Mitt Romney (and smaller than the margins by which he won formerly blue states like Ohio and Iowa.) There’s no doubt Abrams has a tough race ahead. But according to the Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel, Democratic turnout is up 50 percent from 2014, while GOP turnout is flat. Meanwhile, Democrats are uniting tonight, while Cagle and Kemp continue to fight it out until July. Trust me: this race will stay interesting.