The Stacey Abrams Test

Can a black candidate run an unabashedly liberal campaign in 2018?

Stacey Abrams smiles from behind a podium.
Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams takes the stage to declare victory in the primary during an election night event on Tuesday in Atlanta. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

In 2014, as the Democratic leader in the state House of Representatives, Stacey Abrams spearheaded the New Georgia Project, a plan to register hundreds of thousands of black, Latino and Asian Americans who live in the state but don’t vote in its elections. Abrams ultimately registered just 46,000 people, but she held fast to her theory of the case—that outreach and mobilization could turn Georgia blue, or at least make it a blue-tinged purple. There were reasons to be encouraged in 2016, when Hillary Clinton roughly matched Barack Obama’s historic showing in 2008 and improved on his 2012 performance, falling just 4 points short of a majority in the state.

Now, Abrams has a chance to prove it can work in 2018—with herself as the Democratic standard-bearer. On Tuesday, Abrams prevailed in the Democratic primary, defeating Stacey Evans—an attorney and former lawmaker—to become the party’s nominee for governor. Abrams’ candidacy, however, isn’t just a test of broad electoral strategy. It’s also—fairly or not—a test of black candidates, who are still rare at this level of American politics. Abrams is the first black woman to win a major-party gubernatorial nomination, and, if she wins in November, she’ll be the first black woman elected governor in American history.

What made the battle between “the two Staceys” so captivating was its clear connection to larger debates within the Democratic Party. Abrams embodies the Democratic base, especially in the South, where black Americans—especially black women—are a core constituency and critical to statewide victories. Her general election strategy relies on base turnout, reaching rank-and-file Democrats with a strong liberal message and registering nonvoters in an effort to change the complexion and composition of the Georgia electorate. There’s a reason Abrams won support from Sen. Bernie Sanders and his organization, Our Revolution: Her approach is in line with those who believe the path to power depends on mobilizing left-leaning voters who sat out the 2016 election.

Like Abrams, Stacey Evans ran on a progressive platform that imagined a more liberal Georgia. But she took a more traditional approach, hoping to cut into Donald Trump’s coalition and win over moderate and blue-collar whites who may have misgivings about the president. While national Democrats backed Abrams as part of a larger effort to elevate diverse candidates (and potentially reconstitute the Obama coalition), state Democratic leadership supported Evans out of skepticism that Abrams could attract the white voters needed to win statewide.

The truth is that either Stacey would have been at a significant disadvantage. Even with anti-Trump energy coursing through the Democratic electorate, Georgia is a heavy lift. It’s been 20 years since Democrats last won the governorship, when the party was still a political home for many Southern whites. By 2004, white voters in Georgia had largely transitioned to the GOP, with Republicans holding most major statewide offices and a majority of the state’s congressional delegation.

But boosted by shifting demographics—the Atlanta metropolitan area gained more than a quarter-million black residents between 2010 and 2016—Democratic performance has improved. Hillary Clinton nearly matched Obama’s 2008 total and outperformed his 2012 results, winning roughly 46 percent of the vote to Trump’s 51 percent. Likewise, Jon Ossoff almost captured a heavily Republican suburban Atlanta district in a special election last year. Statewide mobilization and anti-Trump energy (especially among suburban whites) could well make the difference.

Abrams’ candidacy—more than any other this cycle—will test the traditional view that black candidates are suboptimal with white electorates, who perceive them as too liberal and too racially sectarian. That perception did not appear to hurt her in the primary, which, despite the overwhelming media attention, wasn’t especially competitive in the end. Abrams won 76.5 percent of the vote to Evans’ 23.5 percent, a complete sweep of nearly every county in the state, including counties that are almost entirely white. She also vastly improved the overall primary turnout among Georgia Democrats—more than 550,000 people voted in the primary, compared with the roughly 330,000 who cast ballots in 2014 and 2010.

In the past, successful black candidates have pushed against the idea that they’re too liberal or too focused on race. “I wasn’t going out there as a black candidate,” said then–Lt. Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, three years before making history as the state’s first black elected governor. “And I wasn’t perceived that way; the people of Virginia were above that. That’s where the credit goes.” He was echoed by Barack Obama in an interview given on the eve of his re-election in 2012. “I’m not the president of black America,” said Obama. “I’m the president of the United States of America.”

The question posed by Abrams’ candidacy is whether the experience of a black president has changed things enough to make this kind of racial triangulation unnecessary? Or will Abrams have to signal some distance from black Americans’ struggle, writ large, if she plans to appeal to white voters? Can she split the difference, neither drawing attention to nor away from her identity while making race-neutral appeals on liberal policy and using the promise of a black woman in the governor’s mansion to generate excitement with Democratic voters?

If she can do the latter, then Abrams’ campaign will be of serious national significance. Indeed, the potential for such a campaign may be one reason she has the attention of two high-profile Democrats in particular: Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey. For both, Abrams’ effort isn’t just a test of Georgia’s progress, it’s a potential example for the kind of campaign they might run in the near future.