Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams sparked excitement among many progressives around the country with her announcement over the weekend that she is running for governor.
If Abrams, the Democratic leader of the Georgia House, wins the primary and general elections next year, she would become the first African American woman to be elected governor in U.S. history.
And she would be just the third woman of color to win a gubernatorial contest, joining former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, both Republicans. She also would be a political maverick in Georgia, which has not elected a Democratic governor since 1998.
Women, who make up more than half the U.S. population, are underrepresented at all levels of elected government. In Congress, women comprise 19.4 percent of its 535 members, according to the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University.
Among the nation’s 50 governors, six are women. When President Trump appointed Haley, who is Indian American, U.N. ambassador in January, Martinez was left as the only woman of color serving as governor.
In 2017, according to CAWP, 75 women hold elected statewide executive office nationwide, or 24 percent of the available 312 posts. Among statewide female officeholders, just seven, or 9.3 percent, are women of color.
Scholars and female political strategists say political parties and organizations that provide money and other campaign resources are often reluctant to back female candidates for higher office. They say the political establishment is even more wary of investing in women of color out of fear that voters might not be ready.
And gubernatorial races are expensive undertakings, with Georgia no exception. Four years ago, Democrat Jason Carter, a former state senator and grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, raised more than $7 million in his unsuccessful bid against Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who raised more than $14 million.
Groups focused on increasing diversity among the country’s elected officials are making special efforts to support women of color running for office, with an emphasis on Abrams’s race because Georgia’s changing demographics give Democrats a chance to become more competitive there.
Between 2002 and 2014, seven black women ran for governor and none have made it past the primary. Democrat Donna M. Christian-Christensen, a former House delegate, won the first round of voting in the contest for governor of the Virgin Islands, but she lost the runoff.
In Oklahoma, Connie Johnson, a state senator, has announced her campaign for next year’s gubernatorial race and in Connecticut, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp is reported to be exploring a bid for governor. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), a Latina who is endorsed by Emily’s List, is running for governor in her home state, where Martinez cannot run again because of term limits.
Women of color have had more success getting elected to Congress and state legislatures. Thirty-eight women of color, including nine elected last November, are members of the U.S. House and Senate, comprising 36.5 percent of the 104 women currently serving in Congress, according to CAWP data. Of the 1,840 women who serve in state legislatures nationwide, 23.8 percent are women of color.
Kira Sanbonmatsu, a political-science professor at Rutgers, noted in a 2015 paper that “women of color in state legislatures are a natural pool of women who might launch bids for statewide office.” She said the paltry number of women running for statewide office is particularly glaring for the Democratic Party because the vast number of women of color in elected office are Democrats.
After Hillary Clinton’s loss in last year’s presidential election, groups are reporting increased interest among women in running for elected office at all levels.
Political parties often cite rules or tradition that prevent them from taking sides in primary contests, leaving candidates to fend for themselves in securing money and endorsements. But, Sanbonmatsu said via email, “The parties do sometimes help clear the field for a preferred candidate, albeit informally. Individuals and groups endorse, too, so concerted efforts could help both parties diversify.”
In Georgia, Abrams, 43, starts the contest for her party’s nomination as the front-runner because of her position as the top-ranking Democrat in the State House, her fundraising track record and interest in her candidacy from some national progressive organizations. Observers say she also could energize the state’s sizable share of voters of color, led by African Americans who make up 30 percent of the state’s registered voters. Hispanics and Asian Americans comprise just more than 4 percent of voters.
So far, one other Democratic candidate, state Rep. Stacey Evans, has announced her candidacy for governor. A spokesman for the Georgia Democratic Party said the organization will remain neutral in the primary.
Progressive groups, who see Abrams as the type of political leader who can help the Democratic Party regain its footing by energizing the growing numbers of voters of color in some red states, are preparing to go all out to help her.
Aimee Allison, president of Democracy in Color, will launch an initiative called “Get in Formation” to rally black women around the country to support Abrams’s gubernatorial bid. Allison said several groups will aim to raise money and recruit volunteers to get black women to the polls to vote for Abrams.
The initiative, borrowing its title from singer Beyoncé’s hit empowerment anthem, “is about black women not waiting anymore for an investment from the Democratic Party or any structure that’s taken us for granted,” Allison said. “We are organizing and galvanizing to elect one of our own.”
Emily’s List, which helps raise money to elect female candidates who support abortion rights, has endorsed Abrams and Lujan Grisham in New Mexico. Leila McDowell, vice president of communications, said the organization is committed to electing women of color. She said 40 percent of the candidates that Emily’s List helped get elected to Congress have been women of color, “including every single Latina, African American, and Asian American Democratic congresswoman currently serving.”
Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, which encourages black women to run for office, said support for candidates like Abrams “must begin long before primaries.”
“State and national party organizations must make a conscious effort to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ when building their bench,” Peeler-Allen said, noting that a “sustained and culturally competent effort to recruit, train and support candidates that are more reflective of the populace, women of color will be better prepared and resourced to run for high office.”
Last month, two dozen black female activists and elected officials signed an open letter to Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, criticizing him for seeming to take for granted the party’s loyal voters. They also said the party needs to do more to recruit and support black women candidates.
In last year’s presidential race, 64 percent of black women voters went to the polls, a noticeable drop from the record 70 percent turnout — higher than any other group — in 2012. In 2016, black women voters turned out at the same rate as white men and 10 points higher than black men; 94 percent of black women who voted cast a ballot for Clinton. White women, 52 percent of whom voted for Trump, had a turnout rate of 68 percent.
Democracy in Color argues that instead of spending heavily trying to win over white swing voters, the Democratic Party would do better to invest its resources in registering and mobilizing the growing number of people of color, particularly in the South and Southwest.
“It’s never asked of black women how we feel when campaigns ignore our issues,” Allison said. “Black women are tired of being taken for granted. We don’t want to be approached in October, just before the election. We’re asserting our power in a different way. The times we are in are calling for a new approach.”