The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What’s up with all those black men who voted for the Republican in the Georgia governor’s race?

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White female voters in Georgia showed little interest in helping black women fulfill their dream of electing Stacey Abrams as governor, which would have made her the first African American woman to head a state in the nation’s history.

Seventy-five percent of white women voted for Republican Brian Kemp, who was declared the winner late last week, more than 10 days after disputes over absentee and provisional ballots.

Among black women, 97 percent supported Abrams, who is the first black woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor.

Although white suburban women were praised for helping flip the U.S. House from Republican to Democratic control, liberal political pundits and activists criticized them for backing Kemp over the female Democratic candidate.

But another group of voters also raised eyebrows for how they voted in the race, in which Abrams fell about 17,000 votes short of forcing a runoff with Kemp.

Black men voted for Kemp at a higher rate than black women, according to exit polling, a data point that drew gasps and rebuke on social media and news commentary.

Stacey Abrams admitted defeat on Nov. 16 in the contentious Georgia governor's race, which she alleged was tainted by voting irregularities. (Video: Reuters)

According to network exit polling provided by CNN, 11 percent of black men voted for Kemp; the Associated Press’s VoteCast reported 8 percent.

Those numbers are reminiscent of the double-digit level of support that Donald Trump got among black men in the 2016 presidential election. Trump endorsed Kemp, which helped him win a runoff primary contest in July, and he traveled to Georgia to stump for Kemp two days before the Nov. 6 election.

Kemp’s campaign mirrored Trump’s political themes and rhetoric. During the primary, Kemp promised to protect the Second Amendment by running a campaign ad in which he brandished a shotgun at a teenage boy who wanted to date his daughter. Another ad showed him sitting in a pickup truck that he said he’d use to personally “round up criminal illegals.” He described Abrams, who campaigned on expanding Medicaid, increasing spending on education, and protecting the rights of women, immigrants and people of color, as “radical” and “extreme.”

“How can so many black men still align with a party that, now more than ever, is unified by white identity politics?” Renée Graham asked in a Boston Globe column after the election. “This Republican Party is not the party of Lincoln. This is unabashedly the party of white supremacy, migrant family separations, racist fearmongering, and Brett Kavanaugh.”

Ted Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, said black male voters’ behavior in Georgia’s gubernatorial race reflected a return to how they voted before 2008, when Barack Obama made his successful bid to become the first black president of the United States.

Before that election, around 82 percent of black men voted for Democrats, about 10 points lower than black women. “Now that Obama is out, basically black men have gone back to where they were before” in terms of supporting Democrats, Johnson said. “The fact that Abrams got in the high 80s or low 90s means she outperformed Democratic candidates, pre-Obama, among black men.”

Sexism was probably not a major factor in black men supporting Abrams at a lower rate, Johnson said. He cited a paper published earlier this year that looked at how gender stereotypes affected black and white voters’ behavior in the 2016 presidential election.

Johnson said the paper found “sexism plays more of a role in white voting behavior than black voting behavior.” That research, along with other literature, shows a higher level of sexist attitudes among men across racial groups. Black female voters show the least susceptibility to sexist attitudes, voting for female candidates, particularly black female candidates, at a higher rate than any other group. Johnson said it is noteworthy that sexism appears to have the greatest effect on the electoral choices of white women, who are the least likely to support female candidates.

Black men who voted for Kemp were not so much rejecting Abrams as embracing the conservative messages of rugged individualism and free-market economics.

“I think it boils down to — the conservative mantra of self-determination and economic empowerment resonates with men, period, but especially with a certain cohort of black men,” Johnson said. “Like the brothers that are hustling CD to the brothers that open barbershops, that entrepreneurial spirit is alive in the black community.”

He said those voters believe the GOP talking point of “getting government out of the way and letting people determine their own economic path. That sounds good to black men, and it’s a mantra they can support rather than having the government say we’re gonna help you to be a man.”

But black voters' support for Republicans rarely rises above the low teens because of the GOP’s increasingly racially charged politics, especially in recent years, with Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies going largely unchallenged by party leaders. Trump’s election has been applauded by people who espouse racist beliefs, and he has often declined to criticize their actions, such as last year in Charlottesville, when a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman.

Johnson said there are a lot of black people who “may be social conservatives or fiscal conservatives but are liberal on the issue of civil rights and race.”

“To be a racial conservative means you’re okay with Jim Crow,” he added. “There’s only one party that you can support and be progressive on race, and that’s the Democratic Party.”

He said the Republican Party will continue to struggle to win support among black voters, even those who hold social and economically conservative beliefs, so long as it is perceived as racist.

“Every election becomes almost a single-issue election for black voters: Are you for or against civil rights?” Johnson said, adding that all the other social and economic issues “get muted by racial issues.”