Stacey Abrams, the top Democrat in Georgia’s General Assembly, is among her party’s rising stars vying for a U.S. governor’s mansion next year – as she tests whether progressives can help rebuild the national party by taking control of statehouses.
Abrams, a 43-year-old former romance novelist, is also aiming to make history when she announces her candidacy in southwest Georgia on Saturday. She would be the nation’s first African American female governor and Georgia’s first black executive. Nationwide, there are just two female Democratic governors.
That Abrams could stand a chance in a formerly solid red state is among the signs of a shifting political landscape after the 2016 election.
In an important flex of support, Emily’s List, a major force in grooming pro-choice women political candidates, is offering its endorsement out of the gate. “Stacey has proven herself to be an absolute tour-de-force in a state that has never before elected a woman or person of color as governor,” Emily’s List president Stephanie Schriock said in a statement to USA TODAY.
“The state is in fact changing,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “There are other states I might write off. I’m not writing this one off” to Republicans, said Duffy.
Abrams is becoming a leading party voice in the Sunbelt and an example of how progressives can make gains in Republican-dominated states — by turning out low-propensity voters. In Georgia, she’s credited with helping to flip six Republican assembly seats by reaching out to and registering more minorities. That’s different from the Democratic Party formula for winning in swing states for the past 30 years, dating to Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” approach of moving to the center to attract moderates.
“I intend to scale our model,” Abrams said in an interview with USA TODAY ahead of her announcement. “You can be talking about white voters who are working multiple jobs just to make ends meet, rural black voters who have faced voter suppression for decades, Latino voters in suburban communities,” said Abrams, among the party rising stars who was given a speaking slot at the party’s nominating convention in Philadelphia.
The seat is now held by Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican who is term limited. At least three Republicans and Democratic state Rep. Stacey Evans have also announced gubernatorial bids.
While Democrats are playing defense in the U.S. Senate races, with far more of their seats up for reelection in 2018, the governor’s map is the reverse: out of 38 races to be held in the next 2 years, 27 are Republican held, meaning there are a lot of Republicans playing defense.
It is these newly elected governors who will oversee the next round of redistricting around the 2020 Census. It was the fact that so many Republicans controlled statehouses in 2010 that allowed the party to redraw districts, favoring them to cement their grip on the U.S. House. Democrats need 24 seats to take control of the House in 2018.
“That can happen if we have maps that are fairly drawn across the country and especially the Sunbelt. Georgia‘s gonna be a linchpin in getting that done,” said Abrams.
In addition to her progressive bent, Abrams’ candidacy embodies a number of trends in the Democratic Party after Hillary Clinton’s loss to President Trump.
That includes the fact that she is among a crush of women raising their hands to run for local or statewide office – now up to 14,000 nationwide, according to Emily’s List. That includes states that are slowly turning purple.
A graduate of Yale Law School, Abrams has represented an Atlanta-based district in the Georgia House since her 2006 victory and in 2011 was elected her party’s leader in the House.
Georgia is likely to turn purple before Arizona and Texas, also states with changing demographics. It is there that Democrat Jon Ossoff is in a dead heat with Republican Karen Handel for a closely watched special election for a seat the GOP won by 24 points in November.
Unlike in the past, the Democratic Party is pouring real resources into the state. Georgia Democrats lost the governor’s race in 2006 by more than 400,000 votes. Four years later, the loss margin was 257,000. In 2014 Senate candidate Michelle Nunn lost by 197,000 votes, a similar margin by which Trump won in November. “In two cycles, we cut the margin of victory for Republicans in half. You’re not trying to close a gap of a million voters,” said Abrams.
Abrams wants to transpose a successful mobilization pilot she used in the legislature to make history.
In 2013, she formed a nonprofit called the New Georgia Project after learning that there were up to 800,000 unregistered voters in the state. By 2016, an estimated 200,000 minorities had joined the voting rolls.
Part of the approach Democrats need to take to build a party reeling at the state and national level is fusing small business advocacy with protecting workers, she said. She cited that she received an "A" rating from the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO’s top award in the same year.
“You can create an environment for business to thrive, but that does not mean you do so on the backs of the very people who make your business successful,” she said.
Abrams kept her message focused on uniting Democrats, and while she said she hopes disaffected Republicans will also consider her, she emphasized that what “I’m unwilling to do is cater to a message to attract a small community.”
Asked about the lessons of 2016 and the potentially historic nature of her own bid, she acknowledged the obvious challenges ahead. Among them: Running as a minority and a woman in a state that’s elevated neither to its highest office.
“My opportunity and the reason I’m doing this is because my goal is to not only have the ability to lift up the families in my state but to redefine our belief in who can lead,” said Abrams.
“This is the biggest barrier for us. No black woman has ever been governor of a single state in the U.S.,” said Abrams.