ATLANTA — Democrats have long pointed to a Georgia electorate that is increasingly urban and less white as a sign they may be able to break the Republican hold on statewide offices. This year, after previous disappointments, their gubernatorial candidate has already made history as the first black woman to win a major party nomination for governor. That’s raising Democratic hopes for an upset.
Stacey Abrams is a 44-year-old lawyer and former state legislative leader vying to become the first black woman in American history to be elected governor of any state. She’s already got star power, having turned heads nationally when she won more than 76 percent of the vote in what was once framed as a competitive primary.
She’ll face the winner of Tuesday’s Republican runoff between Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp, two state officials who’ve made their battle a contest of who is the most conservative and most loyal to President Donald Trump.
Abrams would be just the third black governor elected in U.S. history, joining Virginia’s Douglas Wilder and Massachusetts’ Deval Patrick. If that’s not enough history, Abrams would be the first woman to lead Georgia, one of the original 13 states.
But for all the Democratic excitement, Abrams still will be the underdog against the Republican.
Abrams’ candidacy headlines a year when record numbers of women are running for office. (Only about a fifth of Congress is female and just five out of 50 governors are women; dozens of nominees could push those numbers higher after November.)
Abrams’ bid also comes as African-American women are raising their profiles in the party — after spending decades as Democrats’ most consistent voting bloc only to see white men and women and black men dominate elected office.
Campaigns by other black women are drawing national attention. Lucy McBath, the mother of slain black teenager Jordan David, is also in Georgia’s upcoming runoff election as a congressional candidate in metro Atlanta. In Iowa, Deidre DeJear is a candidate for secretary of state.
Pioneering Boston city councilwoman Ayanna Pressley is looking to become the Democratic nominee for Congress in the Massachusetts’ 7th District in September. Lauren Underwood, a nurse and first-time candidate, is seeking to unseat a Republican House incumbent in a northern Illinois district.
Independent groups like Higher Heights and Black PAC are trying to help hundreds of black women seeking for federal, state and local offices. The Democratic National Committee is conducting a national tour — Seat at the Table — to help elevate many or the same candidates.
An Abrams victory would offer an invaluable boost to all those efforts, inspiring other candidates to run and affirming for donors and party leaders that those candidates are worth the investment.
Beyond the potential for a momentous national first, Abrams is testing several other potential variables.
National Democrats are looking for red states that are nearing presidential battleground status. An Abrams victory would prove Georgia is ready to be in the mix for 2020; a loss would suggest they’re still short. Democrats haven’t won a governor’s race or Senate race in Georgia since 1998. Bill Clinton was the last Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state, winning in 1992.
What to watch
Will a Republican-leaning Deep South state that voted for Trump by 5 percentage points change course and choose a black woman from Atlanta as governor?
Abrams admits she’s trying to thread a needle to “build a broad and diverse coalition.” That’s a diplomatic way of saying she has to maximize turnout among young voters, non-white voters and urban liberals, while coaxing support from just enough suburban swing voters and white women.
She’s critical of recent Georgia Democratic campaigns, suggesting they were too milquetoast as they tried to regain white votes the party has lost since the days of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Sen. Sam Nunn. She’s a forceful advocate for expanding Medicaid insurance, defending abortion rights, and spending more on education, job training and infrastructure.
In a nod beyond the Democratic base, Abrams touts her experience as a state legislative leader, when she often angered members of her own party by cutting deals with the Republicans who control the Capitol. She’s fond of noting that she’s won legislative awards from both the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and state labor unions. She reminds voters it was Republicans, including Cagle, who ran afoul of the business community, pushing anti-gay rights legislation as Amazon considered Atlanta for its second headquarters and chiding Delta when the Atlanta-based airline giant cut ties with the National Rifle Association.
The enduring racial politics of the South also is on display as some Republicans gear up to remind voters that Abrams backed the removal of Confederate monuments from state property, including the depiction of rebel leaders on Stone Mountain.
Abrams, the daughter of Methodist ministers, is a Yale Law graduate with years in city and state politics. She’s had a hand in a few small businesses. But she’s also a romance novelist, writing under the nom de plume Selena Montgomery.
Romance may be Montgomery’s chosen genre, but her eight titles suggest plenty of influence from Abrams’ political day jobs. Among them: “Rules of Engagement,” ”The Art of Desire,” ”Hidden Sins,” ”Secrets and Lies” and “Power of Persuasion.”