The Slatest

Stacey Abrams Takes a Historic Step in Georgia

The former House minority leader becomes the first black woman to be a major-party nominee for governor.

Stacey Abrams.
Stacey Abrams. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry/File Photo

Stacey Abrams won the Democratic nomination for Georgia governor on Tuesday, in a nationally watched race that offered two competing visions for how the party should run this fall. Abrams easily bested former state Rep. Stacey Evans, a lawmaker who she previously served with in the statehouse, who emphasized her appeal to moderate and Republican voters. Abrams ran on a promise to mobilize disaffected Democrats behind her campaign to become the first black woman ever to serve as governor of a U.S. state.

History won’t come easy, though. Georgia hasn’t elected a Democratic governor in nearly two decades, and Abrams will enter the general election as a heavy underdog. She’ll likely have a two-month head start, though, after none of the five Republican candidates hoping to replace term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal were on pace to garner the necessary majority needed to clinch the nomination outright on Tuesday. The two who appear most likely to advance—GOP Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp—would settle things in a July 24 runoff.

The Associated Press called the race with Abrams, a former state House minority leader, far ahead of Evans in the early returns. Their matchup reflected the battle in several other Democratic primaries on Tuesday, in which the candidates mostly differed on political tactics, not policy prescriptions. In Georgia, the narrative was scrambled by the fact that most of the Democratic establishment lined up behind Abrams’ proudly left-leaning candidacy, including both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

The “two Staceys,” as they came to be known, were largely on the same page when it came to policy—both want to expand Medicaid and gun restrictions, for example, and both oppose new limits on abortion. The most significant policy distinction involved a state scholarship program that provided high-performing high schoolers with free in-state tuition. Republicans pushed to slash funding for that program during the recession and Abrams, then the House minority leader, cut a deal with the GOP governor to soften the blow. Evans, who benefited from the program after a rocky upbringing, argued she gave up too much, and made that criticism a key pillar in her campaign. But even there the difference was more about degrees than disagreements.

The same couldn’t be said for political strategy. The candidates plotted starkly different paths to victory in November. Evans, who is white, focused her efforts on winning over independents and moderates—particularly suburban women. Abrams, meanwhile, tailored her pitch to her party’s base, including the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who sat out the last elections. While the Democratic establishment tends to favor candidates with cross-over appeal in conservative areas, it was Abrams who received support from both establishment-friendly groups like EMILY’s List and more progressive ones like MoveOn. She also got endorsements from a number of prominent black politicians, including Sens. Corey Booker and Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, as well as outside groups like BlackPAC.

Given the historic appeal of Abrams’ candidacy, she is likely to continue to get help from across the Democratic spectrum and should also have a major edge with the state’s high share of African-American voters. And she would also benefit from a head start in the general if the GOP primary does indeed go to a runoff. But it won’t be easy. Georgia isn’t quite as red as it might seem, but it’s still pretty red. A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide election in about a decade, and the state hasn’t voted for the Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton won it in 1992.