National Groups Back Diverse Field of Democratic Governor Candidates

But they all face formidable primary opponents.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum
AP Photo/Brendan Farrington
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
Feb. 22, 2018, 8 p.m.

Democratic activists are working to help a diverse slate of governor candidates compete in what is turning out to be a long list of competitive primaries.

While each one currently has better-funded primary opponents, the hope this cycle is to both make these ideologically aligned candidates more competitive now and to help build a bench of progressive minority candidates to be viable in future statewide elections.

“What we know with black candidates is they have barriers of structural racism,” said Quentin James, the founder of Collective PAC, a group dedicated to electing African-Americans. “We are trying to do our small part to level the playing field for these folks.”

National progressive groups are directing donors—or contributing directly—to support candidates running in key Democratic pickup opportunities in what is a critical election year for the party as it seeks control of offices that will determine redistricting in 2021.

“People are recognizing that this new model—of electing people who look like America—I think is a proven winner,” said Michael Keegan, president of progressive advocacy organization People For the American Way. His group endorsed three governor candidates in contested Democratic primaries last week, which Keegan said grants them access to direct contributions and fundraising support.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum was one of those three candidates as he runs for the open governor’s mansion in Florida. The day after the PFAW endorsement, he headlined a rally by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. PCCC cofounder Adam Green said the group had been in conversation with Gillum and former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams about their respective bids and would be “rolling out some endorsements in the near future.”

This week Gillum got $100,000 from Collective PAC, and last month George Soros gave Gillum another six figures. The money comes just in time, as Gillum trails in fundraising to former Rep. Gwen Graham and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a wealthy cruise-ship-entertainment businessman. Gillum in an interview last week chalked that up partly to his being “the only non-millionaire in this race” and to the long-running FBI investigation into his city’s administration.

But a recent Tallahassee Democrat report that a city commissioner and lobbyist were the probe’s targets, rather than the mayor, offered “a bit of a reset, frankly,” he said, adding that he has, “thank God,” heard lately from once-reticent donors.

Collective PAC is also backing former NAACP President Ben Jealous in Maryland and Setti Warren, a former Newton, Massachusetts mayor. Both are hoping to take on popular Republican incumbents in states Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.

Warren has a particularly tough campaign. His most notable opponent, former Deval Patrick aide Jay Gonzalez, reported more in the bank than Warren as of the latest disclosures filed last week. Jealous in recent polling and fundraising balances trailed two county executives also running for the nomination, Rushern Baker (who is also black) and Kevin Kamenetz.

But Jealous is rich in endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker, the Soros family, and national groups that include former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, National Nurses United, and other unions.

Abrams of Georgia has received perhaps the most national attention of any candidate, given her potential to be the nation’s first female African-American governor. Abrams also won early endorsements from progressive organizations including PFAW, DFA, EMILY’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America,, the Working Families Party, Daily Kos, and a gun-control organization founded by Gabrielle Giffords.

But her campaign to replace term-limited GOP Gov. Nathan Deal in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat for governor in 20 years is an expensive one. Abrams, who is hoping to boost turnout among African-Americans and young voters, reported last month having only $177,000 on hand for the primary after raising $2.2 million. The rest of her reported cash-on-hand is reserved for the general or runoff elections.

Abrams’s Democratic opponent, Stacey Evans, boasted a $1.5 million primary war chest thanks almost entirely to $1.25 million in self-funding by the former legislator.

“I have always been a very formidable fundraiser,” Abrams said in an interview. She added that her “hyper-local campaign that is attracting national attention” allows her to continue to fundraise from small-dollar donors who have yet to max out as well as continue outreach to donors in all 50 states.

PFAW’s third endorsee, Arizona Democrat David Garcia, released polling last month showing him ahead of Democrat Steve Farley, a state senator, in their race to take on Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. But Farley reported more than twice as much on hand as Garcia as of Dec. 31.

Garcia said in an interview that he is not accepting donations from lobbyists and that he has more donors than either Farley or Ducey. The “donor class,” Garcia said, is “comfortable” with Farley.

“There’s a reason why somebody with my last name hasn’t made it to the top of the ticket,” Garcia said.

About half of Michigan Democrat Abdul El-Sayed’s fundraising so far has come from out of state in his bid to be the first Muslim governor in America. The former Detroit Health Department director also has the support of the Michigan branch of Our Revolution and the Michigan Nurses Association, two groups supporting candidates sympathetic to Sanders. And on Thursday, he won the endorsement of Justice Democrats, another progressive group founded by former Sanders staffers. Our Revolution President Nina Turner, who called El-Sayed’s candidacy “exciting,” said the national group would consider weighing in for him in the next two weeks.

But he’s out-funded by front-running Gretchen Whitmer, a former state Senate minority leader who reported about double on hand what El-Sayed had in their latest filings. A third candidate, Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar, has largely self-funded his bid to the tune of $6 million. El-Sayed also faces challenges to his residency eligibility given his recent stint at Columbia University in New York.

The Sanders-aligned Our Revolution has also endorsed white governor candidates in Ohio and Illinois who have black running mates: Illinois state Rep. Litesa Wallace and Akron City Councilwoman Tara Samples.

“If they actually win, we’re creating a pipeline to be able to create the opportunity for more African-Americans to be governors in this country,” said Turner, a former Ohio state senator.

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