How Stacey Abrams has gotten within one point of Georgia governor’s mansion

Why We Wrote This

In the closest governor’s race in the US, Democrat Stacey Abrams is hoping Southern Millennials' shift in focus from social to economic issues can help propel her to become the nation's first black woman governor.

Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Stacey Abrams speaks during the Georgia Democratic Convention in Atlanta Aug. 25. The former state House minority leader could become the first black woman ever to lead a US state.

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Stacey Abrams, former Georgia House minority leader and a self-described “nerd,” is on a mission to capture the governor’s mansion. With 1 point separating her and her opponent, Ms. Abrams could become the first black woman in America to lead a state. “Leadership is combining vision with good government while also carving out new spaces for progress,” Abrams said in an interview. She believes that message is unifying in a “moment of tumult.” To win, political observers say, Abrams has to walk a tightrope: excite disgruntled Millennials by offering transformational change while offering competent leadership for all. How that plays out among women voters in the suburbs will be key. Millennial mom Tiffany Cowley finds an attack ad calling Abrams a socialist “worse than Nancy Pelosi” preposterous. “This election has made me realize that I am a lot more progressive than I ever thought I was,” she says. But Abrams is also attempting to appeal to those unlikely to vote for her, touring all 159 counties. In Glenwood, a dying timber town as desperate as they come for revival, Jacob Raiford says he is concerned that a liberal mind-set will melt away values that make America great. “You know what? It ain’t worth it if we get Obama Jr. in return,” he says.

On a wall on the 16th floor of the Hurt Building in Atlanta, next to a colorful “Shirley Chisholm for President ‘72” poster, guests to the Undivided tech incubator are asked to jot down their dreams.

Stacey Abrams took a second the other day to think, then quickly wrote: “To be governor of Georgia & own a transporter like in ‘Star Trek’.”

Just a few years ago in this rose-red state, both of those would have been seen as highly illogical.

But now the first one has drawn surprisingly close to reality for Ms. Abrams, the former Georgia house minority leader and a self-described “nerd” on a mission to capture the governor’s mansion. With one point separating her and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Abrams could very well become not only the first black governor of Georgia, but the first black woman in America to ever lead a state.

“Leadership is combining vision with good government while also carving out new spaces for progress,” she said in an interview with the Monitor. She says she believes that message is unifying in a “moment of tumult.”

The razor-tight race has been accompanied by record early voting, national scrutiny, and heated controversy. After an Associated Press analysis found that 53,000 voter registrations had been suspended, about 70 percent of them African-American, Abrams and other Democrats called for Mr. Kemp to resign as the state’s top election official to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest. Kemp, for his part, has called the allegations of voter suppression a politically manufactured story.

All week, people have been waiting up to three hours in line to vote – with some 296,000 Georgians already having cast their ballots by Thursday. On Monday, the first day of early voting, about 129,500 people had voted either in person or by mail, compared with just over 46,000 four years ago. The Trump-anointed Kemp was leading Abrams 47 to 46 percent, with only 4 percent of likely voters still undecided, according to a poll out Wednesday from Reuters/Ipsos/University of Virginia Center for Politics. That’s well within the margin of error.

But in the past, calling for the razing of the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain, as Abrams has done, would have disqualified any gubernatorial candidate – as would proposing an assault-style weapons ban. Yet the close race suggests what Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie says is the emergence of a cross-generational and cross-racial moment that could transform the face of the Deep South state. 

To win, political observers say, Abrams has to walk a tightrope: Excite disgruntled Millennials by offering transformational change while offering competent leadership for all. Abrams has pointed to her history of bipartisan compromise while in the state house.

How that plays out among women voters in the suburbs will be key. But so will her outreach to rural Georgia, where she may not gain many votes, but where she is vying at least for a measure of acceptance.

“Stacey Abrams is running a new kind of campaign,” says Georgia State University political scientist Daniel Franklin, author of “Pitiful Giants: Presidents in their final terms.” Unlike the big-name Clintonesque centrists who have lost – badly – here, “she is running from the left. She ain’t fooling around. She is trying a new model, a turnout model.”

That said, Professor Franklin says, Abrams’s “problem is that, if most of us are either donkeys or elephants, there aren’t enough donkeys in Georgia” to form a political majority.

Without a lot of political role models, Abrams is her own unique self, a self-described “Star Trek nerd” but also a Yale Law School graduate equally at ease crunching tax code as churning out pages for her latest romance novel, of which she has written eight. Her ninth book is her memoir, “Minority Leader.” The résumé sounds “like a reality-TV show,” she quips.

As Avondale High School valedictorian, she was once denied entry to celebration of the state’s academic stars at the governor’s mansion. The high-schooler had arrived on a city bus. That incident made a deep impression on her and the story has made her campaign deeply evocative for many Georgians who feel forgotten by the state’s rock-solid Republican majority.

But she has said she is not bitter. As minority leader, she collaborated with Republican colleagues to reshape a popular college scholarship and partnered with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal to reform the state’s criminal justice system.

“I am willing to work across the aisle, but not without carving out a slice,” she says.

‘Eat grits, be happy’

With only 4 percent of Georgians undecided, there is little wiggle room for either candidate.

Abrams needs usually apathetic Democrats, including black voters, to come out in droves. She is banking on a re-run of the Doug Jones Senate win in Alabama last year, where black women made a statement by defeating controversial former Judge Roy Moore, who had been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls.

Kemp, for his part, needs the Trump base to turn out.

The campaign will be fought and won in the suburbs, where Trump remains unpopular, says Brent Buchanan, a GOP pollster out of Montgomery, Ala.

Last week, both candidates turned out national figures for fundraising events. Donald Trump, Jr., attracted about 50 people to a $50 a plate fundraiser for Kemp. Nearly 400 showed up to Abrams’s free event in suburban Morrow, where she was flanked by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts and Ayanna Pressley, who won a stunning upset against a 10-term incumbent in the Massachusetts primary.

As supporters wore T-shirts with slogans like “Eat Grits, Be Happy,” and “Larry David for President,” Ms. Pressley warmed up the rally, exhorting them to urge their friends and family to vote: “If I’m speaking to the choir, well, I need you to sing!”

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Tiffany Cowley came to her first political event in Morrow, Ga., on Oct. 9, to support Stacey Abrams. The contest between Trump-supported Brian Kemp and Ms. Abrams, a Democrat, will likely be won and lost in the state's vast suburbs, and likely decided by women like Ms. Cowley, a mom and business owner.

Tiffany Cowley stood listening nearby. A self-described “Millennial mom” from the suburbs, this is her first political event. Her issues are education and gun safety. What she saw as the naked insults of the Brett Kavanaugh nomination are also swirling in her mind as she prepares to vote for Abrams.

She has noticed a phenomenon of white women, including friends, “putting their husbands on a pedestal.” Both her parents owned businesses and worked hard. “Just like they did, I now co-parent with my husband, a partnership of equals.”

Attack ads on Abrams as a socialist “worse than Nancy Pelosi” who wants to let sexual predators onto playgrounds ring preposterous to Cowley.

“This election has made me realize that I am a lot more progressive than I ever thought I was,” she says.

Such personal realizations among educated suburban women may, in fact, drive the outcome.

“What realigned the American South over the last half century does not resonate as strongly with [Southern Millennials]” – issues like “social issues, gun issues, fears of the browning of America, fears of Muslims,” says James LaPlant, who studies Southern politics as a dean at Valdosta State University. “What is resonating are campaigns that emphasize economic issues, what the future portends for you, how to deal with large amounts of student debt.”

A heifer named Bessie

Andre Dickens, an Atlanta city councilor, says Abrams’s road to victory runs through Atlanta, her suburbs, and the Democratic cores of cities like Augusta, Albany, Macon, and Savannah.

On the other hand, Mr. Buchanan, the GOP pollster, says his firm doesn’t even bother to poll rural parts of South Georgia because, well, Abrams “doesn’t have a chance to pick off rural Republican voters in Georgia.”

But she has attempted to appeal to those unlikely to vote for her, touring all 159 counties, playing up her rural roots in places like Wheeler County. In 2012, she notes, she won the livestock competition at the annual legislative games with a 1,000-pound heifer named Bessie.

Abrams has a bevy of proposals that could aid rural Georgia: 22,000 state-funded apprenticeships, Medicaid expansion to help devastated rural health care, needs-based student loan repayment. The bottom line message to conservative voters, says supporter Audrey Gibbons, is that “Stacey Abrams is more than qualified to govern Georgia.”

To many, she says, Abrams’s candidacy asks fundamental questions about citizenship and belonging.

“Conservatives would be disappointed if she wins like they were disappointed when we elected the skinny man with the funny name,” says Ms. Gibbons, the Democratic county chair in Glynn County in a phone interview. “Abrams was not born in Georgia, but she came to Georgia and made her home, became educated, did everything we are taught to do, believes in Jesus Christ. Then the question becomes: Why should we hold up because our views don’t equal up to your antique views?”

Jacob Raiford says he has three clues to the answer.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Brian Kemp voter Jacob Raiford, shown in Glenwood, Ga., on Oct. 9, says liberals like Stacey Abrams will destroy the 'real Georgia' by weakening gun laws and by allowing immigrants to change American values.

He lays them out one by one on the counter at his Glenwood, Ga., package store: a large .45 magnum revolver, a snub-nosed smaller caliber, and a shotgun.

The gesture of displaying guns to a stranger seems menacing – but only for a moment.

Guard down and guns stowed away, Mr. Raiford turns out to be a talkative 29-year-old who does not identify as a “coddled” Millennial. “I got the belt if I misbehaved, and I agree with that,” he explains.

He has worked as a prison guard, owned a restaurant by 20, and played for a championship basketball team.

“I was middle class once, but the middle class is gone,” he says. He blames the Obama administration and what he sees as the infusion of laissez-faire living through government support. He also speaks openly about his fear of Muslims – despite the fact that in 2014 fewer than 1 percent of Georgians identified as Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center. “Muslims in prison means that the mess can’t serve bacon. They are trying to turn us into them,” he says. Abrams is a practicing Christian.

Raiford says he is concerned that a liberal mindset will melt away values that make America great – even if Glenwood continues to struggle under President Trump – a dying timber town as desperate as they come for revival.

The hospital closed in 2012. “It killed this town,” he says matter-of-factly. Abrams wants to take a federal Medicaid expansion that could turn the lights on at the Lower Oconee and other shuttered or struggling rural clinics.

“But you know what? It ain’t worth it if we get Obama Jr. in return,” he says.

Raiford insists his opposition has nothing to do with race, noting that 90 percent of his clientele are African-Americans, many of them loggers, truck drivers, and prison guards.

Nevertheless, Raiford’s admission that he’d rather see a town suffer than watch a black woman become governor reflects “a long, long history of racial division in this state and the role of race in [the state’s political] realignment,” says Professor LaPlant. “That still plays a powerful role in Trump country down here, or in Kemp country.”

In her insistence on visiting areas where she has little chance of changing minds, Abrams, political scientists say, is explicitly ignoring a liberal canard: that people like Raiburn are morally suspect because they are willing to undercut the economic vitality of their own communities in defense of “heritage.”

There is an assumption that “people should focus on economic benefits to themselves when they vote, and if they don’t they are not voting correctly,” says University of Georgia political scientist Jeffrey Glas, author of a 2016 Presidential Studies Quarterly article titled “There is Nothing ‘Wrong’ with Kansas.”

“Most voters just know the Democrat versus Republican part, but they are not voting on that stuff. They are thinking about the one or two issues they really do care about, which could be social issues, identity groups, things like that. That is why it becomes a dangerous little area to talk about correct and incorrect voting.”

In that way, Abrams’s bid to govern Georgia is a test of something more profound, says Mr. Glas.

He notes that the vast majority of Americans are more practical than ideological. Because of that fact, he says, “I think that we all in our hearts want to get past [raw partisanship]. It’s just that our heads aren’t quite ready to do that.”

But as a gauge of that goal, adds LaPlant, an Abrams victory in November “would be an earthquake.”

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