If you’re a Fox News Republican, you’re either freaked out by Stacey Abrams, or about to be. A Pandora’s Box of musty racial terrors, myths and prejudices – along with freshly updated Trumpian resentments – will be uncorked Tuesday if (as expected) the Yale Law School graduate, romance-novel writer, single black woman and self-made darling of the national left wins the Democratic primary and is given the chance to replace Georgia’s term-limited Republican governor, Nathan Deal.
Abrams, who grew up poor in Mississippi and served six years as both the first black Democratic leader in the state House and the first woman, hopes to scale up those “firsts” in November by upsetting the Republican nominee – most likely long-serving Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who’s noteworthy mainly for his reputation as a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association. (Abrams has a white progressive opponent, Stacey Evans, to dispatch first, and polls say she probably will.) The governorship is unlikely this year, but not impossible. Despite its national reputation for being just another race-obsessed Deep South state, Georgia has been trending purple since 2008, with the Democratic upsurge coming from its dramatic non-white population increase. Donald Trump only won Georgia by 5 points in 2016, and now has a dismal 37 percent approval rating there. Georgia will soon join Texas and Florida as white-minority states. (Insert your Apartheid-with-a-drawl jokes here.)
But what’s truly “scary” about Abrams – the exact same thing that makes her so thrilling to coastal white liberals and Southerners of color alike – is not just what she represents, but the way she represents it. If polite and professorial Barack Obama being president was enough to spook white people all the way into voting for Trump in a “whitelash,” what hellish visions might a President Stacey Abrams conjure up? Obama, after all, was wildly rumored to be an implacable enemy of The White Man; Abrams has spent years engaged in a high-profile public campaign to register and turn out more black voters – the New Georgia Project – with the explicit aim of outnumbering whites at the polls. And on the campaign trail, Abrams doesn’t have to be dragged into talking about race; she leads with it. “My being a black woman is not a deficit,” she told Cosmopolitan earlier this year. “It is a strength. Because I could not be where I am had I not overcome so many other barriers. Which means you know I’m relentless, you know I’m persistent, and you know I’m smart.”
Abrams isn’t just idly proclaiming herself a “candidate of the future,” the way young politicians are contractually compelled to do. She is a living, breathing vision of the South’s likely political future, as well as the national Democratic Party’s. She makes a clean break, too, from the black middle-class candidates, especially in the South, who practiced a version of “respectability politics” to get ahead. (Picture Condoleeza Rice of Birmingham.) Far from “knowing her place,” as “good” blacks in Georgia were always supposed to do in the eyes of “powerful white men,” Abrams is sharp-witted as well as sharp-elbowed, and so unabashed about her vaulting ambition – she intends to be elected president in 2028 – that she considers it one of her greatest virtues and jokes about it easily. “Look, politicians are like 15-year-old girls,” she told The Washington Post a few years back. “We respond to money, peer pressure and attention.”
Abrams is well aware that she’s practically a composite of every quality that Sean Hannity and Donald Trump get on the phone and fret about at night. Last September, at a New York event for EMILY’s List, the national group that helps elect pro-choice women, Abrams delighted the attendees by asking cheekily: “You’ve gotta figure out: Do they hate me because I’m black? Because I’m a woman? Because I’m tall?” (It’s not a surprise that Abrams has raised a ton of money from outside Georgia, including donors like Alyssa Milano and Meryl Streep; she knows how to play to a well-heeled liberal crowd.)
The attempted knocks against her in the primary campaign – aside from the whispers about her sexuality – have mostly been about Abrams not living up to her self-created image as the great liberal hope of the South. Her New Georgia Project added tens of thousands of non-white voters to the rolls, but not nearly as many as Abrams promised – and there have been persistent questions about what happened to its initial huge influx of millions. The Intercept reported that she was complicit in helping Republican lawmakers gerrymander two more districts. Abrams left a bad taste in many of her former colleagues’ mouths, too; more than a dozen black House members, former and current, have endorsed her opponent, Stacey Evans. (None will get especially specific about their beefs with Abrams.)
These are venial sins, especially for one of the state’s most powerful lawmakers. Abrams’ worst offense, in the eyes of Evans in particular, is the role she played in smoothing the way to passage of Republican legislation that gutted part of the state’s most progressive program of the last half-century: HOPE scholarships that let worthy students attend Georgia universities for free. Evans went to college thanks to the program, and she led the fight to preserve its original vision; Abrams, in her terms, “preserved” it from greater devastation by negotiating with conservatives in the majority to cut out a chunk that wiped out a lot of low-income kids’ path to college.
Evans has cannily built her whole campaign around expanding HOPE – a program that Georgians take pride in, across racial, party and ideological lines. Where Abrams has historical tides sweeping her forward, Evans has something more tangible but also emotionally charged – at least for Georgians – to run on. (While being outspent three-to-one, Evans has also run some powerful commercials, including the heart-rending 16 Homes, in which she talks about the many patchy places she lived during her tumultuous childhood.) If Evans had run four years ago instead of Jason Carter, Jimmy’s out-of-time grandson, she’d have been welcome news for progressive Georgia Democrats: Finally, a white candidate who wasn’t spending all her time pretending to love NASCAR and huntin’ and Jesus just as much as the Republicans! But in 2018, Evans’ candidacy looks less like a sign of progress than a potential roadblock to everything Abrams embodies.
The possibility of Abrams as governor of Georgia is just too delicious to resist – especially for liberals in other parts of the country. While Evans has impressive credentials for, say, women’s groups like EMILY’s List or Planned Parenthood, Abrams has swept the major endorsements. She’s gotten fawning national coverage. As early voting kicked off in April, Abrams went on a five-city bus tour with actresses Uzo Aduba, Aisha Hinds, Rashida Jones and Tracee Ellis Ross. She’s got John Lewis behind her, not to mention Bernie Sanders, who gave Abrams his blessing on Facebook Thursday, citing her proposals to expand pre-K, raise the minimum wage, introduce automatic voter registration and eliminate cash bail. But Vincent Fort, the civil-rights champion and Our Revolution candidate for Atlanta mayor who Bernie stumped for last year (with Killer Mike), quite pointedly did not endorse his ex-colleague, opting instead for Evans.
This is local politics, though – and you don’t have to step back too far from this “two Staceys” primary to see what a big, flashing symbol of progress either person would be (will be) as the Democratic candidate for governor. “No matter who emerges in the May 22 race,” marvels Greg Bluestein at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Democrats will nominate someone who pledges to adopt broad new firearm restrictions, oppose socially conservative legislation, pump tens of millions of dollars into a Medicaid expansion and take steps to decriminalize marijuana.” Former state labor commissioner Michael Thurmond, put it a little differently: “One thing I do know – not only will the winner of the primary be the first Democratic woman or African-American nominated for governor; she’ll be the first liberal in a long time.”
If Abrams becomes governor in November, she will be the most powerful Democrat in the South. A win would also make Abrams, in a flash, one of the transcendent national players in the Democratic Party – a liberal hero, bringer of the weird news that the region that has always been America’s reactionary, regressive, race-haunted liberal bugaboo could soon become its center of progressive politics. Abrams is hailing the day: “Democrats in the South have to reject the notion that our geography requires that politicians soften our commitment to equality and opportunity and that you have to look a certain way,” Abrams recently told an interviewer. “We have to be architects of progressive solutions.”
The strategy that Democrats have been using in the South (and nationally) to try and win for 40 years – business-friendly centrism, with heavy doses of gunfire and Jesus – is rapidly being inverted. You can see it in Georgia in high relief: Four years ago, the party had high hopes for two young centrist whites from families of Democrats synonymous with Lite Republican politics – Michelle Nunn (daughter of Sam) for Senate, and Jason Carter (grandson of Jimmy) for governor. Both lost miserably, but even so, Nunn went down by just 200,000 votes, cutting the losing margin for Democrats from eight years prior in half. In a large, booming, heavily urbanized state where only 30 percent of eligible black residents (who make up 1/3 of the population) are even registered to vote, who knows what a candidate like Abrams might galvanize?
Here’s the thing: Abrams probably won’t be taking the oath as governor in January. The most likely scenario, if she wins on Tuesday, is that she loses impressively to Cagle – and thus becomes a sign of where Southern Democrats are headed, not where they’ve already arrived. But Abrams is an avatar of the Southern politics to come – and that’ll be true no matter what she might accomplish as governor or, years from now, president. You could say that’s the curse of all “firsts,” and of course a Governor Abrams would be a whole lot of firsts wrapped in one. Abrams has turned her “first-ness” into a blessing – making no secret that she is happy to be a symbol of Southern blacks and Southern women and Southern liberalism, take your pick. It’s one of the chief weapons in her political arsenal. It’s also a great counter to any voters’ natural wariness of someone who refuses to disguise her ambitions: Thanks to the propitious historical moment she’s in, Abrams gets to paint her own ambition as ambition for others.