The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia’s gubernatorial race may be the purest example of politics in the Trump era

Stacey Abrams is the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia.
Stacey Abrams is the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Stacey Abrams isn’t yet a nationally known politician, but one sign that she could become one is her picture appearing on the cover of Time magazine’s latest issue.

The Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia is the central character in one of the most intriguing political campaigns of 2018, as she bids to become the nation’s first female African American governor.

The Time cover is indicative of the interest in the Georgia race. Few gubernatorial contests will attract as much attention or produce as much speculation. Much will depend on Abrams’s skills as a candidate and on the skills of her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, who, with an endorsement from President Trump, won a decisive victory in Tuesday’s GOP runoff.

But just as much or more could depend on whether Georgia turns out to be the new Virginia or next Alabama, or instead becomes the latest example of Democrats’ hopes being dashed in a politically changing state. Which is to say: Can Abrams and the Democrats alter the electorate in November and thereby accelerate the changes already underway, or will the current structural advantages enjoyed by Republicans prove strong enough to block her path?

Abrams is a liberal Democrat, who as a result of her convincing victory in the primary has quickly become the darling of the party’s base nationally. First elected to the legislature in 2006, she rose to become Democratic leader in the state House at a time when Republicans were in control.

Republicans already have signaled how they intend to run against Abrams. The Republican Governors Association released its first ad several days ago. The ad describes her as “the most radical liberal ever to run for governor,” someone who is “funded by [House Minority Leader Nancy] Pelosi’s friends” and “loved by” 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The ad says Abrams wants to raise taxes to support a big government agenda.

Kemp is the Georgia secretary of state, a former state senator and a small-business owner. Unlike the current and previous Republican governors, both of whom began their careers as Democrats, he has been a Republican throughout his career in elective office.

He was the underdog in the Republican primary, coming in second in the first round of voting to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. But with provocative television ads and the late support from Trump, he ran away with the runoff, winning with about 69 percent of the vote. Although some strategists believe Kemp was already moving ahead of Cagle before Trump’s endorsement, the president’s support ended up turning the runoff into a cakewalk.

Trump-favored candidate wins GOP runoff in Georgia

Kemp’s ads featured the candidate with a shotgun on his lap interviewing an actor portraying a young man who wanted to date the candidate’s daughter (and being forced to swear fealty to the Second Amendment). Another showed Kemp revving up a chain saw to “rip up some regulations” and in a pickup truck talking about rounding up “criminal illegals.” Like the president, he ran proudly and overtly as a blunt, politically incorrect candidate.

National Democrats are as enthusiastic about casting Kemp as a social and cultural warrior as Republicans are about casting Abrams as too radical for a conservative Southern state. Both probably will try to counter those portrayals. Abrams can point to having worked cooperatively with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal while in the legislature, for which she was criticized during the Democratic primary. Meanwhile, even some Democrats say Kemp’s television ads may overstate just how much of a Trumpian firebrand he is or will be as a general-election candidate.

The contrasts between the two, however, are real and stark. As a result, both will depend heavily on turning out their respective bases.

Both also will face challenges in trying to win what is left of the middle of the electorate. One battle will be to win support in Atlanta’s business community, where Fortune 500 companies want business-friendly policies from the statehouse and are not eager for state leaders to engage in culture wars.

In the days since the runoff election, Abrams has focused on economics and a jobs agenda. Republican strategists say Kemp must make economic issues more prominent in his campaign than they were in the primary. But social issues already are sparking divisions. Kemp has reaffirmed his pledge to sign a religious liberties bill, of the kind that Deal vetoed in 2016. Abrams opposes such a measure and says she supports policies that would make the state more open and inclusive.

Georgia offers a gubernatorial race that 2018 deserves

The contest is playing out against the backdrop of a politically changing Georgia. Demographic and other changes are pushing what has been a solidly red state toward something more purple and competitive. The question is how rapid is that change.

The key battleground that will answer the question is the Atlanta suburbs. Nationally, there are just six counties that voted at least four times consecutively, and in some cases many more, for Republican presidential nominees before backing Hillary Clinton in 2016. Of those six, three are in suburban Atlanta: Cobb, Gwinnett and Henry. In 2004, then-President George W. Bush won the Atlanta suburbs by low double digits. In 2016, those suburban voters backed Clinton over Trump.

For Abrams, potential models for success can be found in Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s win in November and in the special-election victory of Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama in December.

Northam, whose victory margin exceeded all pre-election forecasts, was aided by a surge in voter turnout and a huge gender gap. Women backed him by 61 percent to 39 percent. Men favored Republican Ed Gillespie by 50 percent to 48 percent.

Female voters will be crucial to Abrams’s hopes of winning. Her efforts to turn out more of the college-educated female voters who are strongly opposed to the president could be aided by the fact that in two potentially competitive suburban congressional districts, Democrats have nominated women as their candidates.

Jones’s victory in Alabama was powered in part by strong support in the African American community, particularly among women. Black turnout in the special election was almost of presidential-year proportions. If Abrams can bring out substantially more black voters than typically participate in midterm elections, she could change the composition of the overall electorate enough to put her on track for a possible victory.

Democratic pollster John Anzalone offered a back-of-the-envelope calculation and suggested that if Abrams can increase the black vote share of the electorate in the way Jones did, or roughly so, and dominate among other minority voters, she would be in range of a majority by capturing barely 30 percent of the white vote.

Republicans recognize the potential for all this to take place: After Virginia especially but also after Alabama, they are mindful of how Democratic energy and enthusiasm could cut this fall. But they see differences between Georgia and those other two elections.

Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, noted that while the Atlanta suburbs are not as conservative as the rest of the state, they are more conservative than the precincts in Northern Virginia that are becoming Democratic strongholds. A Democrat who was senior in Clinton’s campaign also expressed skepticism that Georgia is as ripe for the Democrats as some others want to believe.

Ayres also pointed to another difference: “Brian Kemp is not Roy Moore. Stacey Abrams is not Ralph Northam.” By that he meant that Kemp carries none of the baggage of Moore, who was accused of molesting a young woman many years ago, and that Abrams is considerably more liberal than Northam.

Right now, most strategists — Republicans, Democrats and those who are nonpartisan — say the Georgia race leans in the direction of the GOP nominee. Abrams’s hopes could depend on whether she can accelerate the changes underway in Georgia by changing the November electorate dramatically in her favor.