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How the South’s New Progressives Are Taking On the GOP

Stacy Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke are campaigning circles around Republicans’ tired tactics

Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams

John Bazemore/AP/REX/Shutterstock

If you’re a progressive who hasn’t been paying keen attention to the three marquee races in the South this fall, you’re depriving yourself of a daily dose of GOP schadenfreude. In Georgia, Florida and Texas, straight-talking liberals are topping the Democratic tickets for the first time in history — and Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke are campaigning circles around the race-baiting greed-heads who have dominated Southern politics with no meaningful resistance from feckless Democrats for four long and destructive decades.

Long accustomed to running against white “centrist” patsies still clinging superstitiously to the old Bill Clinton script for winning in Dixie — lay off gun control, talk endlessly about the middle class, tut-tut about abortion, champion the death penalty and pander relentlessly to both corporate interests and aging whites who long ago made the switch to the GOP — the fat-and-happy Republicans have been caught completely off guard by this strange new breed of Democrat.

Even as the South became increasingly diverse, thanks to massive black “remigration” from the North and swelling numbers of Latino and Asian transplants, the national Democrats insisted that their Southern cousins (if they wanted any support from the party) keep running campaigns based on the increasingly outmoded stereotype of an eternally racist, intractably ignorant Jim Crow South — even as the party kept losing more local, state and federal races every two years.

Abrams, Gillum and O’Rourke are blasting that conventional stupidity to smithereens. The Democrats were supposed to have no prayer of unseating widely loathed Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, where they haven’t won a Senate race in 24 years. In Georgia, despite a fast-emerging majority of black, Latino, Asian and white millennial voters, the state hasn’t had a Democratic governor since 1998; it was considered a pipe dream for the blue team. And in Florida, where Barack Obama won twice and whites are already a minority, the state Democratic Party stubbornly continued to nominate bland, stand-for-nothing white candidates, blowing five straight governor’s races. But this fall, Abrams and O’Rourke are locked in dead-heat contests while Gillum has taken the lead in Florida.

The Republicans have no clue — I mean, none — how to counter the rise of Southern Democrats. Over time, as they rolled up bigger and bigger majorities, the Southern GOP became ever more unfettered and extreme, and the party now faces charismatic challengers with messages that are making a heck of a lot more sense to new voters.

The Republican strategy for fending off the South’s new progressives, such as it is, can be neatly divided into three major categories of delightfully lame, exclamation-pointed asshattery. To wit:

You Know These People Are Hiding Something!

O’Rourke’s barnstorming campaign, eschewing corporate donations and drawing record crowds practically everywhere he goes, might still be coming up short if the mighty Texas Republicans weren’t aiding and abetting him at every turn. When the state GOP, scared by O’Rourke’s rising poll numbers, started trying to take him down this summer, they only succeeded in boosting his popularity and his campaign coffers. So has the famously unappealing (and terminally un-Texas-y) incumbent Cruz, who warned this week that O’Rourke might seek to “ban barbecue” if elected. Cruz may have been attempting a joke, but his weird remark exemplified what Texans have been seeing all election season: The Republicans have nothing with which to counter O’Rourke beyond risible attempts to paint the Democrat from El Paso as a stealthy outside agitator. (Of course, that strategy has been known to work in Texas a time or two.)

Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke, right, listens to a question during a town hall meeting in Alice, Texas.

In August, when the Republican Party of Texas tweeted out a grainy image of the congressman as an adorable twentysomething punk-rock guitarist, following it up with a mugshot from O’Rourke’s DWI arrest in 1998, they clearly imagined they were exposing hush-hush intel that would lead Texans to wonder and worry: What else is this dude not telling us?

This sort of attack used to have some salience, but the key to O’Rourke’s rise has been his disarming honesty about who he is and what he believes. For years, as he climbed from the El Paso City Council to Congress, he talked about his punk-rock past and his drunk-driving arrest, “a serious mistake for which there is no excuse.” Displaying the easygoing cunning he’s now famous for, O’Rourke uses the episode to pivot, describing how his unmerited good luck — as one more white kid who was ultimately let off the hook for a criminal offense — awoke him to the racist inequities in the criminal-justice system: “The chance that I had, and which I have made the most of, is denied to too many of our fellow Texans, particularly those who don’t look like me or have access to the same opportunities that I did,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle.

The Republicans’ “exposes” of young O’Rourke’s proclivities backfired. The grainy image of a punk-rock O’Rourke in a floral-print frock, along with his mugshot, lit up liberal Twitter. “Are we all dating Beto now?” tweeted Laura Duca of Teen Vogue. Of course, it remains to be seen whether O’Rourke’s growing fan club on social media will help him at the ballot box in Texas, but it hasn’t hurt. A Reuters poll out this week puts O’Rourke two points ahead of Cruz.

In her bid to become America’s first black female governor, Abrams has similarly outfoxed the GOP from the get-go — most notably when it comes to her personal debt of $220,000. Abrams, raised in a working-class family before propelling herself to Yale Law School and the Georgia House of Representatives, knew the GOP would use her debts to try and define her as a 21st-century version of Ronald Reagan’s fictional “welfare queen.” But before they could crank up the smears, Abrams had effectively defused the issue by talking about it freely and writing about it in an April op-ed for Fortune magazine.

Like O’Rourke, she cannily turned a potential liability into an asset, detailing what she owes to credit-card companies, the IRS and college-loan companies — then used it to make herself more relatable to average voters. “I am in debt,” she wrote, “but I am not alone. Debt is a millstone that weighs down more than three-quarters of Americans. It can determine whether we are able to run for office, to launch a business, to quit a job we hate. But it should not — and cannot — be a disqualification for ambition.”

In another parallel to O’Rourke’s campaign (and Gillum’s), Abrams was graciously gifted with a far-right ideologue to run against. The Republican candidate, Georgia’s voter-suppressing secretary of state Brian Kemp, won his party’s nomination with a campaign of jaw-droppingly raw racism. The state GOP could only try to paint Abrams as shiftless and untrustworthy  — though her years as the state’s House minority leader and ardent champion of voting rights had long ago cemented her reputation as one of the smartest politicians in Georgia and a happy liberal warrior to boot. Early in August, the Republican Governors Association belched forth this clunker of an ad, featuring darkened versions of Abrams:

This latter-day welfare-queen spot, along with a goofy holiday-themed ad showing a photoshopped Abrams giddily hugging a Christmas tree because she sees “every day as Christmas,” did nothing to dent the Democrat’s momentum. Meanwhile, it’s Kemp who’s currently being sued for failing to repay a $500,000 business loan.

When these tactics fail to hit the mark, of course, there’s always the Alex Jones method to fall back on. And thus:

They’re Willing Dupes of the Vast Anti-American Socialist Conspiracy!

Running against four wealthy white centrists for the Democratic nomination in Florida, Andrew Gillum — the 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee who’s held local office since age 23, and who’s still paying off his family’s mortgage — was hopelessly outgunned until progressive billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros stepped up with sizable investments in efforts to get out the vote. So when Gillum confounded the experts to become the first black Democratic nominee for governor in Florida’s race-haunted history — blessed with a spectacularly inept opponent, Trump disciple Rep. Ron DeSantis — Republicans saw his benefactors as the perfect opportunity to tar him as a tool of the socialist menace.

Andrew Gillum

Gillum refused to play along by distancing himself from his allies. Asked about his billionaire donors on Meet the Press, Gillum responded: “I’ll tell you, I’m obviously deeply appreciative of Mr. Soros, as well as Mr. Steyer, both men I’ve known for some time.” The right-wing media swung into drearily familiar fake-outrage mode. Gillum (you know what’s coming next) had been “caught on tape admitting” that he was a “Soros-backed tool.”

For the most part, Floridians greeted this with a yawn — just like the insinuations that Gillum wants to turn Florida into a “sanctuary state,” bankrupt the country with Medicare-for-all, take every gun that President Obama failed to seize and — as DeSantis disastrously said on Fox  — “monkey up” the world-historical “successes” the state had supposedly enjoyed under the two terms of Medicare fraudster Rick Scott. Gillum has vowed to keep campaigning on “our higher aspirations as a state,” while “DeSantis can do the bidding of big business and big lobbyists and Donald Trump.” Gillum is polling at a six-point lead.

They Hate Your Values!

Texas Republicans just knew they’d finally found their magic anti-Beto bullet as general-election season commenced. Speaking to yet another packed house, O’Rourke recently responded to a question about NFL players’ National Anthem protests. Displaying his typical blend of frankness and reflectiveness, he concluded his long answer by saying, “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights, anytime, anywhere, anyplace.”

Anti-American blasphemy, once again “caught on tape!” And then came yet another blockbuster revelation: VFW commander Carl Dry, after keeping a watchful eye over an O’Rourke event at his post in the small town of Navasota, claimed that two of the Democrat’s campaign minions had demanded the removal of American flags from the hall before the candidate arrived. “I didn’t say ‘no,’ I said ‘hell no,’” Dry said. “I can’t believe any American would ask us to do that and I don’t know why he wanted them down or what he was going to put up instead.”

Not only was O’Rourke praising those ungrateful anti-American football players, now he was spitting in veterans’ faces and ripping down our flag. Every conservative news outlet in the country duly blew up this unverified story, while right-wing groups amplified the message. “We can now add stripping American flags from a VFW hall to Beto O’Rourke’s hard-left repertoire,” crowed the Cruz-backing Revive America PAC. The senator, seizing on his big opening, quickly delivered an ad that that ratcheted up the hysteria a further notch, painting his opponent — who’d recently said, “I don’t think anybody should burn an American flag” — as an ardent champion of flag-burning:

Politifact Texas quickly shot down Cruz’s whopper. Meanwhile, back at the VFW Hall, the 84-year-old Commander Dry was having second thoughts about the tale he’d told when he was “kind of upset.” The young woman and man who supposedly demanded the flags be removed, he told The Dallas Morning News, might not have been campaign workers or volunteers after all; nothing had identified them as such, and they’d never indicated they had any affiliation with the campaign. Dry said, “That young lady was as overwhelmed as I was” by the tiny space suddenly brimming with 450 O’Rourke fans. The candidate had been campaigning in front of American flags at practically every stop — none more prominent than the oversized model behind him as he spoke at the VFW Hall in Navasota:

Abrams and Gillum have had to show even more patience and savvy in rising above the “values” argument. Far from opposing Georgia, Florida or American values, they’re championing policies that have overwhelming support in their fast-evolving states. In a speech at the state Democratic Convention in August, Abrams — who rarely mentions her opponent by name — promised to stop “criminalizing the poor,” to “proudly demand responsible gun ownership,” to put so-called religious liberty laws “into the grave a final time,” and, above all, “fight the paralyzing fear that comes with the promise of hope” stoked by campaigns like hers. “Republicans have failed us in too many ways” she said, “and they’re pledging to continue their failure. And most egregiously, they have put their cheap politics ahead of our lives.”

The Republican Party’s great fear — that the newly liberated progressives will undo its stranglehold on the South, without which it can’t possibly carry national elections — has indeed proved paralyzing. Two weeks after DeSantis warned that his  black opponent was out to “monkey up” Florida politics, he was earning another round of derisive headlines when his campaign told The Tampa Bay Times that he couldn’t yet respond to inquiries about any of the issues facing the state he wants to govern, saying — two months before Election Day, after a competitive GOP primary campaign — that the veteran lawmaker “needed time to flesh out his platform before taking questions.”

You could ask for no better encapsulation of the Republicans’ midterm dilemma than the three Southern states they never expected to have to fight for — or send emergency supplies of dark money to defend. Their culture-war politics have left them relying entirely on endless rehashes of the same old bullshit that Southern Democrats allowed them to run and win on for decades. Confronted at last with real, live progressives, the GOP’s nihilism stands naked and exposed for Texans, Georgians and Floridians to gawk at.

Does that guarantee that Abrams, O’Rourke and Gillum will win? No. All three campaigns depend on firing up and turning out the voters the Democrats have spent 50 years tuning out and turning off. And they’re trying to accomplish that historic feat while overcoming the effects of gerrymandering and voter suppression. But even if they all come up short on Election Day, their campaigns will have upended Southern politics in places that will only continue to grow more diverse, younger and more receptive to progressives who look and talk like 21st-century Southerners.

In This Article: 2018 Midterms

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