The governor’s race in Georgia is already one of the most closely watched in the nation, as a potential harbinger of the expected “blue wave” in 2018. Democrats haven’t held the office since Roy Barnes lost it in 2002, and winning it back is still a long shot. But the race remains notable for a couple of reasons.
The first is history. Over the course of the state’s 242 years since the Declaration of Independence, all 81 of its governors have been white men. This year, the Republican candidate for the open seat will be yet another white man, almost surely Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle. Nothing about this monopoly by race and gender is unique, certainly not in the South. What’s special in Georgia is that both Democrats vying to challenge this year’s white man are women: Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans. In fact, it may turn out that 2018 is only tangentially a year of Democrats rising, and primarily a year of women persisting.
In any case, Georgia’s Democrats vote on May 22, and both the polls and the early-voting pattern suggest Abrams will win. That shouldn’t be surprising: She was the minority leader in the State House of Representatives for the better part of a decade, has an impressive history working for voter registration, and has proved to be a strong fund-raiser. Indeed, Abrams is the far better candidate by every fundamental measure save one: She’s not white. Abrams would be the first black woman to serve as a state governor in US history, and that fact means she had to challenge the party’s conventional wisdom on Southern politics.
From the start, Abrams was dogged by the insinuation that she can’t win in the general election. Even if this is true, it’s a silly point, given that no Democrat stands a terribly good chance at winning statewide in Georgia at the moment. Which actually points to the second notable thing about the race: Abrams is trying to rewrite the rules of Southern—or at least Georgian—politics, by making the electorate more closely reflect society at large. If she succeeds, she’ll teach progressives much about the future of American politics.
Political operatives like to talk math, and rightly so: Democracy boils down to a tally. My Nation colleague Joan Walsh has done some of the math already with her profile of Abrams in June 2017, but it bears repeating. As Abrams tells it, there are two schools of thought on Georgia for Democrats. The first, the old school, centers white power and is definitionally conservative, in that it holds tight to an outdated idea. Its heyday was arguably Bill Clinton’s Blue Dog reign, during which Democrats still took up to 40 percent of the white vote, at a time when white voters were more than 70 percent of the electorate. Combined with a strong share of black voters—who were about a quarter of the electorate, and were left to choose between a conservative Democrat and an openly racist Republican—this was enough for the Democrats to win consistently statewide.