She united the Democratic Party’s competing wings to launch her historic campaign. Now she has to turn out a different kind of electorate.
State Representative Stacey Abrams single-handedly united the clashing wings of the Democratic Party, at least for one night, behind her historic campaign to become Georgia’s first black and first female governor. There was former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, a stalwart supporter of Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution, beside former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, perceived as part of the Hillary Clinton wing of the party. They both came down to Atlanta to endorse Abrams at her campaign kickoff on Monday night at a middle school in the Kirkwood district where she lives. On the eve of a landmark congressional race in the adjacent sixth district—Kander had earlier canvassed with Democrat Jon Ossoff—the evening showed that win or lose, the special election is just part of a long and promising crusade to turn Georgia blue.
“This is about citizens in this state feeling left behind, and Leader Abrams is making everyone feel included,” said Turner, who has emerged as a national political figure, to a small group of reporters before the kickoff.
Kander agreed. “Leaders like Stacey are the ones saying yes. America is changing, but there is no reason to fear the future,” he said.
Earlier in the day over a quick lunch, the former General Assembly minority leader (she recently quit the leadership post to run for governor) explained why she’d invited these two very different faces of the party. “Jason has figured out how to move minds and hearts in a red state without ever giving up being a progressive. Nina has a strong belief system grounded in a fundamental passion for her people. Both of them have different ways of doing things, but I wanted people to see they are united behind my candidacy.”
Abrams is going to need both those wings behind her to win in 2018. She has already encountered unexpected turbulence in the race, with liberal, white Democrat Representative Stacey Evans, from suburban Cobb County, surprising many people by announcing she will also contend for the nomination.
“I’m a little concerned that there’s a perception that [Abrams] simply can’t win, and it seems as though that’s related to her race,” Amy Nosek, cofounder of the local Indivisible chapter, told me Monday morning. Indivisible will stay on the sidelines of the race, as the fledgling group doesn’t endorse in primaries, but its passionate activists are expected to choose a candidate—and they don’t relish having to pick between a black woman and a white woman.
“The language some use is there’s ‘discomfort’ about my candidacy, an ‘uneasiness,’” Abrams admits. But she is used to it. The founder of the New Georgia Project, established to do voter registration and outreach to the state’s growing population of color, Abrams has long argued that too many Democrats are using the same old playbook, pining for the white voters who began migrating to the GOP in the 1960s, when the two major parties essentially switched their stands on race.
“There are two theories of the case, running in a red state,” she says. “You convince conservative voters who left the party years ago to come back, by offering them a candidate who appeals to the value system they hold to be true. But if you look at Georgia, that’s about 23 percent of our base. John Kerry, Barack Obama, Michelle Nunn—they all got about 23 percent of the white vote. The likelihood that we can increase that by the margins necessary to win statewide is a theory I do not share.”
“I look instead at the greenfield opportunity of other progressive voters: African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and some white voters who don’t vote. I believe the alternative theory of the case, and one we’ve never tried in Georgia, is to cultivate voters who’ve never been reached.”
Ironically, when it comes to luring back white, working-class voters, mainstream Democrats and radical Sanders supporters often sound the same. To an extent, Abrams understands it. “That coalition got us the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society,” she acknowledges. “That coalition we understand. So whether you are Bernie Sanders or Bill Clinton, you may look to it.”
But Abrams sees a new path. “Why are we going after the same coalition we’ve been chasing unsuccessfully since 1968? This is going to be a majority-minority state in less than a decade—if we don’t figure out how to activate this body politic, it will have consequences for everyone.”
Still, Abrams says she rejects “zero-sum” approaches that pit white working-class voters against voters of color. “Working class is working class,” she told reporters. “I’m representing everyone.”
Turner agrees. “Struggle is struggle. There is no rural or urban way to be poor—poor is poor. The key is to make sure everybody, no matter where they hail from, feels welcome. Leader Abrams will do that.”
Kander says simply: “There are no voters in Georgia for whom Stacey Abrams won’t be the best possible governor. There is no group where I’d say, ‘Oh, no, maybe not.’ I believe in her and her message, and that’s why I’m here.”
On stage, Abrams described growing up in poverty in Gulfport, Mississippi, and how her parents’ commitment to education led to her own decision to center education in her campaign, to develop “bold and ambitious children” in Georgia, “who thrive and not merely survive,” by expanding pre-kindergarten to 3-year-olds and guaranteeing that “everyone goes to the 13th and 14th grades” through free technical college. “We are currently educating our kids for low-wage jobs,” she said.
Abrams rallied the crowd with a moving story of her father having to walk home, miles, from his night job, though on rainy nights her mother would wake her kids, pile them in the car and go look for him. One night, they found him walking in the cold rain without his coat. He’d given it to a man without one. “He told us, ‘that man didn’t have anybody coming for him, and I knew you all were coming for me.”
Abrams then pledged, “I’m coming for you, Georgia,” she promised. The multiracial crowd surged forward to surround her, and she stayed in the middle school gym until she shook every hand.