The Battle for the Soul of the Democratic Party

The governor’s race in Georgia will test whether a proudly progressive platform will win over voters in a traditionally Republican state.

Then-Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams speaks during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 25, 2016.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Dec. 5, 2017, 4:20 p.m.

Of all the elections taking place next year, none will be more instructive in laying out the future of the Democratic Party than a showdown between two women vying to break the GOP’s stranglehold in Georgia politics. The two Democrats running for the state’s governorship are both named Stacey, they served together in the state legislature, and they boast inspiring stories of overcoming hardship to achieve professional success.

But the two compelling candidates—former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and former state Rep. Stacey Evans—have dramatically different views on what it will take for Democrats to win in a diversifying Southern state where the party has struggled badly. The race has become a tactical proxy war between Democrats who believe it’s most important to win over swing suburbanites against those who believe that the party’s priority should be mobilizing its progressive base.

Abrams is vying to be the first African-American woman elected governor in the country, and she is explicitly arguing that she can win in the South with a rainbow coalition of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and progressive whites. Evans believes that she’s better positioned to get the support of Republican-leaning moderates who have emerged as being up for grabs in the Trump era.

“I could do better in a midterm election by turning out more of our voters,” Abrams told National Journal. “We have taken for granted the idea of mobilizing base voters. The challenge is getting them to believe that voting matters.” Countered Evans: “We cannot be afraid to talk to people who might not agree with us; we have to persuade. I can do that.”

There aren’t many glaring policy differences between the two candidates. Evans has attacked Abrams over a bipartisan education deal she struck with the state’s GOP governor that ended up trimming benefits from the state’s signature Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally scholarship program. In response, Abrams slammed Evans for supporting legislation expanding access to charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools. Abrams casts her opponent as a mere backbencher under her leadership in the state House. “I appreciate that she thinks she’s ready for this job,” Abrams said with a dose of sarcasm.

Abrams has drawn early endorsements from EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America, making her a favorite of progressive activists around the country. A recent profile of Abrams in Cosmopolitan leads with her goal of running for president sometime in the future, prompting Evans to quip to National Journal that she has no interest in a presidential campaign if she wins.

Abrams pointed to the unsuccessful statewide candidacies of moderate whites in recent years—from Michelle Nunn to Jason Carter to Roy Barnes—as proof that the party needs to take a different approach. But she’s betting something even riskier: that Southern red-state voters will back an African-American candidate running as an unapologetic progressive. Abrams’s strategists struggled to identify any other Democrat in the country who won in a red state with the rainbow coalition that she’s banking on.

Barack Obama boosted black turnout in Georgia in 2008 and 2012, but he didn’t come close to winning the state. Hillary Clinton poured resources into Georgia hoping to turn it blue, but still lost to Donald Trump by 5 points. Most surprisingly, a sizable minority of the state’s Hispanic (38 percent) and Asian-American voters (44 percent) backed Trump, according to an analysis from the liberal Center for American Progress. That complicates Abrams’s belief that mobilizing minorities will carry her to victory.

By contrast, Evans is taking a page from the Clinton playbook. Her introductory campaign video details her rough-and-tumble childhood when she was raised by a single mom (a la Bill), while making a gendered appeal as a trailblazing candidate (a la Hillary). Former Clinton campaign strategist Paul Begala is one of her stalwart supporters; he held a fundraiser for her last month.

The wave of Democratic energy around the country should make the Georgia gubernatorial race competitive, whoever wins the primary. For a candidate like Abrams testing out a new political strategy, 2018 is shaping up to be a best-case political environment to ride an anti-Trump wave. If she prevails, she’ll pave the way for a diverse lineup of liberals to run in critical statewide races. But if she falls short, it would show how hard it is to sell authentic progressivism outside the movement’s coastal enclaves.

“If she doesn’t win in a really good environment, you’d have to say the South wasn’t quite ready; she was a candidate before her time,” said Abrams pollster Fred Yang. “But the time is coming—whether it’s 2018 or 2022 or 2024, it’s coming.”

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