The newest hope for a Democratic resurgence in the Deep South, Stacey Abrams, won her party’s nomination for governor of Georgia this week in a walk — with a 53-point margin, a massive voter turnout and a campaign victory speech that recalled the optimism of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.
Her next challenge is to figure out how to do what Obama never could: win statewide in Georgia, a red state that Democrats have long hoped to lure into their column.
Party strategists are hoping she can follow in the footsteps of two recent Democratic winners, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who succeeded by appealing to suburban Republicans disaffected by President Trump and energizing minority voters in the Democratic base.
But she will attempt that feat without two big advantages they enjoyed: In Northam’s case, the blue tilt of Virginia, and in Jones’s, the accusations against his GOP opponent of sexual contact with teenagers when he was an adult.
“Creating a buzz during the primary is awesome, but you cannot stop there,” said Jones, who is scheduled to address the Georgia Democratic Party on Thursday, where he hoped to meet Abrams. “You have to roll past Democrats to make the case that you will be the candidate for all people.”
Jones argues that the political moment has presented an opening across the country for a reshuffling that favors anyone who can rise above old political definitions. If elected, Abrams would be the first black woman to win a gubernatorial race.
“For anybody who thinks that a black woman can’t win in Georgia, all they have to do is look at a white Democrat winning in Alabama in December,” Jones said.
Abrams’s team is debating the best way to turn out its coalition of minorities, women, young people and liberal whites in the general election.
“There’s no one consultant who knows how to do this; there’s no one vendor who knows how to do this, there’s no one media expert who knows how to do this,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’s campaign manager.
Jones’s and Northam’s victories will also serve as templates for two long-shot Democratic Senate campaigns this year in Mississippi, a state that has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1982.
Joe Trippi, a former campaign consultant for Jones, has started advising Mike Espy, a former member of Congress who is running for the seat held by Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith. Trippi is also working in a more limited capacity with businessman Howard Sherman, who is running in the Democratic primary for the seat held by Republican Roger Wicker.
In both cases, Trippi said, there is an opportunity to capitalize on lagging excitement among suburban Republican voters and high enthusiasm among the Democratic base. Given the higher share of black voters in Mississippi, Trippi said, if blacks vote at the same rates as in the Alabama special election, a Democrat would need only about 22 percent of the white vote to win statewide.
“It’s not just African Americans,” said Trippi of the political mood in Southern states. “There are Republican women, college-educated Republicans and younger Republicans who are open for voting for a Democrat.”
While leading with appeals to the Democratic base, Abrams, 44, a Yale Law School graduate and former state legislator, has been careful to infuse her campaign with broader messages. During the primary, she often cited her work with Republicans as minority leader in the Georgia House to assure voters that she knows how to reach across party lines — a typical pitch among Democrats in the South.
In Milledgeville, a small town in North Georgia, Abrams told voters that when she was in the state legislature, her GOP colleagues would tell her privately that they wanted to support Medicaid expansion, but they were afraid of the governor. “Well, they won’t need to be afraid of the new governor,” she told the voters.
“Stacey’s path to victory absolutely is predicated on getting more minorities and people of color to turn out in November, but she will also absolutely run an inclusive campaign with a message that speaks to the broader electorate,” said Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster who has been advising Abrams.
She will face either Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle or Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who advanced to a July runoff, and the GOP is preparing for a fight. The Republican Governors Association released its first attack ad against Abrams on Wednesday.
“That is the million-dollar question. Does she morph herself and her candidacy into Ralph Northam and Doug Jones?” said Chip Lake, a consultant working for an outside group supporting Cagle. “We don’t know.”
Though Georgia has become more diverse and liberal in recent years, the underlying electoral math in the state remains challenging for Democrats. In recent cycles, black turnout in Georgia has been declining, while white turnout rose in the most recent presidential election.
In 2016, 69 percent of registered African American voters cast a ballot, down from 76 percent during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008, according to the Georgia secretary of state. By contrast, Trump’s candidacy appeared to drive up white voter turnout in 2016, with 80 percent casting ballots, compared with 77 percent in 2008. Trump won the state by 6 points.
“It’s possible for a Democrat to win statewide office in Georgia, but it would have to be under unusual circumstances,” said Trey Hood, a professor and pollster at the University of Georgia, who has polled the race for local news organizations. “There would have to be probably depressed Republican turnout as well, and Abrams will have to win a certain share of the white vote.”
Hood points to a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the challenge facing Abrams. Based on the 2014 midterm turnout rate, if Abrams won 95 percent of the black vote, she would need to capture about 36 percent of the white vote to win a two-person race. In a January statewide poll by Hood, only 24 percent of white Georgia voters identified as Democrats.
Abrams and her supporters insist that increased Democratic enthusiasm will help smooth her way.
A leaked campaign memo in February from Abrams’s campaign manager explicitly cited the Alabama and Virginia campaigns as models for grass-roots organizing. Citing internal data, Groh-Wargo claimed that 11 percent of the campaign’s identified supporters did not vote in the 2014 general election, and 60 percent did not vote in the 2014 primary.
“These voters are racially and ethnically diverse,” she wrote.
The effort to reach them paid off Tuesday. In the 2014 midterm primaries, Republican voters nearly double the number of Democrats. This week, the Republican advantage shrunk to just 52,662 votes, as an additional 248,974 Democrats showed up at the polls.
Williams reported from Atlanta.