Democrats across the country are absolutely thrilled Stacey Abrams is their candidate for governor in Georgia this November. If she wins, the state House minority leader would be the first black female governor of any state.
If she wins. On paper, Abrams faces an uphill battle to the open seat in the governor's mansion. This is Georgia, after all. Democrats have not been a major player in statewide politics in Georgia for nearly two decades.
Plus, Abrams is trying an unproven strategy in Georgia: To mobilize traditionally hard-to-mobilize black voters rather than reaching out to moderate swing voters.
National and grass-roots Democrats say Abrams, with her compelling personal story of growing up impoverished, has the potential to at least make the race competitive. The most optimistic among them say she can pull out a win if she does everything perfectly for the next six months.
They argue Abrams's candidacy has the potential to transform what Democrats think is possible in the Deep South, following on the heels of black voters helping to send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in Alabama last year.
Her candidacy is also going to test one of Democrats' defining debates of 2018: Do they continue to try to reach out to moderate and swing voters in a state like Georgia? Or do they prioritize their resources toward motivating their base and base-like nonvoters, which could come at the expense of reaching out to swing voters?
There are indications Abrams will chose the latter approach. She campaigned in the primary on expanding Medicaid and voting rights, two solidly Democratic issues. Annie Weinberg, electoral director with the grass roots group Democracy For America, worked with the Abrams campaign and said they are planning to target voters of color in a way past Democratic campaigns have not.
“There is a pool of overwhelmingly white, affluent ticket-splitting voters that cycle after cycle many Democratic candidates have prioritized above anyone else. And that hasn't worked,” she said. “The new American majority — including voters of color — many of them have never had a statewide campaign to prioritize their needs and values.”
To win, Abrams will need to find more than 200,000 more voters than the Democratic candidate did in 2014. Democrats think they can do this by mobilizing some of the 1 million people of color who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election.
But getting those people to pay attention to the race, let alone vote for Abrams will require a herculean effort on Democrats' part. They will need to build a voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaign to reach hundreds of thousands of Georgia residents who normally either tune out in the midterm elections or just do not participate.
That takes fundraising millions of dollars. It takes Abrams convincing local and national donors a Democrat can actually win at this level in Georgia and that they should cut checks to her.
Democrats say they are off to a good start, citing “remarkable” turnout in Abrams's Tuesday primary. Democrats voted at an estimated 50 percent higher rate than in their party's 2014 primary, and Abrams beat state Rep. Stacey Evans by an impressive 53 percentage points in her primary on Tuesday.
There is also evidence Georgia has the potential to be less red. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got more votes than Barack Obama ever did in the state. President Trump won it by 5 points, which does not rank in the top tier of states for him.
Plus, Abrams's historic nomination (she is the first black major-party female candidate for governor of any state) has the potential to attract outside interest and money into the race.
The Democratic Governors Association has Georgia on its list of potential pickup opportunities, meaning it is open to devoting resources to winning this race even in an election cycle where it could pick up a number of other Republican-held governor's mansions in less-red states like Maryland and Illinois.
Abrams also has some room to breathe after her primary. Republican candidates for the open seat for governor will spend the next two months battling it out in a runoff, since neither Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle nor Secretary of State Brian Kemp got a majority of the vote in their crowded primary on Tuesday.
No surprise: Republicans think Democrats' focus on Georgia is a waste of time and a pipe dream. “Her campaign is more fit to be for governor of California or New York — not Georgia,” said one national Republican operative watching the race of Abrams.
For Abrams supporters, that is precisely her appeal.
“I don't think anyone is under the delusion this will be easy,” said Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy For America. “But what we've been doing over the last 20-plus years has not been working in Georgia, and Stacey Abrams has put forward something that is fundamentally different, and there is a tremendous opportunity here.”