When you are black and fortunate enough to exist in an environment where your intelligence is valued and nurtured, you will inevitably be the First and Only. It could happen in a boardroom or a college seminar or a tournament – there are too many American venues where your blackness, treated like its own achievement, is used as a cloak for the past sins of others. Being the First and Only is rarely something to celebrate, and it can be a lonely way to make history.
Stacey Abrams doesn’t give much of a damn, though. Certainly, the 44-year-old former Georgia House minority leader is the only black woman to have led either party in the state’s General Assembly or its House of Representatives. And now she is the first black woman of a major party to be nominated for governor in any state. That last part is likely why you’ve heard of her, though she is also running the campaign many liberals wish all Democrats would: Namely, forget compromising on issues like civil rights and abortion access; run candidates who look like your base; and stop devoting so much time, energy and money to winning over people who will never vote for you. “My approach is this,” Abrams says. “I’m not going to spend a disproportionate share of our resources trying to convert Republican-leaning voters when we can invest in lifting up the voices of those who share our values. Because here’s the thing: I think our values are the right ones. And I think these values that are shared actually are going to be victorious on their own.”
Abrams’ white, center-left primary opponent, fellow former Georgia House Rep. Stacey Evans, would have been the presumptive favorite in elections past. Like many Democrats, Evans was accustomed to a tired bit of strategy: The only way the left has a chance in the South is to be white and go right. During the campaign, she called Abrams’ progressive-centered approach “unhealthy for democracy.” It didn’t matter: On May 22nd, Abrams defeated her fellow Stacey by more than 50 points, winning all but six of Georgia’s 159 counties – including 63 percent of lily-white Forsyth County, known to local residents for generations for its hostility to African-Americans.
When Abrams spoke with Rolling Stone, she felt unencumbered by the moment. “‘Burden,’ I think, is the wrong word,” she says. “I see this as a shared opportunity, but it’s also about what can happen if we do this, when we do this.” This isn’t just Abrams running her race – or running it in a red state, in the South, while a member of a particular race. Understanding her appeal and strategy are essential if Democrats hope to replicate her success. I don’t refer solely to her biography, which is itself extraordinary and perhaps inimitable. How many gubernatorial hopefuls are both Yale Law alums and bestselling romance novelists? Abrams paired her personal narrative – including a frank Fortune op-ed about being more than $200,000 in debt – with a pitch aimed at mobilizing all liberal voters in the state. The New Georgia Project, which Abrams started in 2014, is working to register a “New American Majority” of young folks, unmarried women and people of color – a coalition that the group says makes up 62 percent of the voting-age population in Georgia, but only 53 percent of registered voters. “For me, it’s less a function of ideological defeat than it is about inspirational success,” Abrams says. “We are going to inspire voters who, for the first time, see their values in the candidate, and see the investment follow those values.”
Abrams’ untapped voting bloc is partly due to the New Great Migration, the generations-long sequel to the one that saw black Southerners head north for jobs or merely to flee Jim Crow. A 2004 Brookings Institution study found that Atlanta netted more than 216,000 black migrants from 1975 to 2000. While states like New York suffered net losses of educated African-Americans in the late 1990s, Georgia was among the top states attracting them. Turning out these voters should be obvious. “Everyone is skeptical of the strategy until they win big,” says Jessica Byrd, a political consultant who works with black women candidates and black organizations across the country. “Even the brightest rising stars of progressive politics are considered underdogs for prioritizing people over media buys.”
This year, that conventional wisdom is being challenged less with rhetoric than with results. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Bronx native, upset Democratic stalwart Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th District by running unapologetically to the far left: Medicare-for-all, housing is a human right, assault-weapons ban and so on. Abrams’ ally Ben Jealous, a former NAACP president and now Maryland’s Democratic nominee for governor, espoused the same platform that made him a Bernie Sanders surrogate in 2016. Even if a candidate isn’t a Democratic Socialist, there is a palpable boldness in the campaigning that we’re seeing on the left, and it is producing wins.
Though Abrams is widely considered an underdog, the possibility of her victory is real. According to a Democratic pollster connected to the Abrams campaign, her name identification in the state is more than 76 percent, and she has outpolled both of her Republican opponents. But even if she loses in November, Abrams’ party would be wise to follow her lead, both by backing more black women and seeking more places to win in the South. It may take a while for Democrats to grasp that. But as Abrams says, “If the party isn’t there when you start, we’ll make certain they get there. And that once we get them there, then that’s where they stand.”