Shortly before 2 a.m. ET Wednesday morning, when Stacey Abrams took to the podium in a still-packed Atlanta ballroom, she trailed voter-suppressing Republican Brian Kemp with 99 percent of the returns counted. But Abrams wasn’t about to concede. “Friends, we are still on the verge of victory,” she proclaimed. With thousands of absentee and provisional ballots still untallied, Abrams knew she still had a chance to whittle Kemp’s margin below 50 percent and trigger a runoff election in December. “We’re gonna have a chance to do a do-over,” she told her cheering supporters.
But Abrams didn’t stop there, delivering what was surely the best not-quite-victory speech in recent memory. While Andrew Gillum, whose steady lead in the polls all fall had mysteriously disappeared in Florida, was tearful in defeat, and Beto O’Rourke went a bit off script (“I fucking love you guys!) in Texas after his loss, Abrams had come to do what she’s always done — inspire the South’s long-downtrodden Democrats to believe, to hope and to win. “Tonight,” she said, “we have closed the gap between yesterday and tomorrow.”
That wasn’t just a classic bit of oratory; it was, as the strategically brilliant Abrams knew, the truth. Gillum and O’Rourke came close to winning races that no Democrat had won in Florida or Texas for two decades and counting. African-American candidate Mike Espy fought Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith to a draw in Mississippi, earning his own “re-do” election on November 27th. Overall, 10 Democrats across the South, eight of them women, seized Republican-held seats in the House. That accounts for more than one-third of the Democratic gains in the chamber.
Three progressive women beat GOP incumbents in Virginia, while two more won in South Florida. In Texas, 11-term GOP incumbent Pete Sessions fell to former NFL player Collin Allred in Dallas, while nine-term Congressman John Culberson succumbed to Democrat Lizzie Fletcher in Houston. Even more stunning, Democrats won seemingly unwinnable House seats in both the low country of South Carolina, where Joe Cunningham upended Trump favorite Katie Arrington, and in Oklahoma, where nobody saw Kendra Horn’s upset of incumbent Steve Russell coming. And in the Atlanta suburbs, gun-control advocate Lucy McBath, a woman of color, knocked off right-wing incumbent Karen Handel.
To say this was unexpected would be a gross understatement. Just four years ago, it looked like the 50-year decline of Dixie’s once-dominant Democrats was finally a done deal. After the last two white members of Congress from the Deep South lost their seats in a region-wide landslide, liberal wise men like Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky were advising the Democrats to write off the South for at least another generation. “Forget about it,” Tomasky emoted in the wake of Blue Dog Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s wipeout in Louisiana. “Forget about the whole fetid place. Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise. The Democrats don’t need it anyway.”
But Abrams, like her fellow Southern progressives, knew those voices of doom were sorely mistaken. White centrist candidates in the Bill Clinton mold were indeed destined to eternal defeat down South, because white conservatives had long since lost interest in voting for any Democrat. (This became clear again on Tuesday, when popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen, running a throwback Blue Dog campaign for Senate in Tennessee, got his clock cleaned by Republican Marsha Blackburn.) But an emerging majority of black, Latino, Asian and Millennial voters, the product of a demographic revolution in states like Georgia, was about to make liberalism a winning proposition in states that national observers still considered hopelessly reactionary.
Democrats in the South had a tomorrow, as Abrams said, that would bear no resemblance to all their ugly yesterdays. And while Abrams spent five years registering and inspiring black voters in Georgia, fighting Secretary of State Kemp’s myriad tactics of voter suppression along the way, she also made clear — long ago — that she intended to become governor not by following the old Clinton formula of promising white folks fiscal austerity, unfettered gun rights and strict “law and order,” but by preaching a message of economic uplift, sweeping education reform and criminal justice. The old Democratic politics in the South had given blacks, Latinos and young whites nothing to vote for. In its place, as Abrams said after she demolished her white primary opponent by 53 points in May, would be a promise to build a new South “where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired.”
Not every Southern Democrat who unseated Republicans in House races on Tuesday deployed the same uncompromising liberalism as the “big three” candidates at the top of the ticket, but every one of them championed Medicare-for-all and ran as unapologetic Democrats rather than Lite Republicans. The two least-likely winners, Cunningham in South Carolina and Horn in Oklahoma, both ran as ardent environmentalists and science-believers. And most of the winners were, in a region long dominated by white male politicians, women.
Even if it takes her another four years to become governor of Georgia, Abrams has become the model for a bold new Democratic politics in the South. The way to win is no longer Bill Clinton’s “third way”; it’s Abrams’ formula for galvanizing minorities and young voters and suburban women. This will have national implications for generations to come. While the Rust Belt states up north grow older, whiter and more conservative, the South will only continue to become browner and more progressive. The folks once left behind are now in the vanguard. And there will be no turning back.