WASHINGTON – Twenty-seven years ago, Stacey Abrams recalled, she was the only high school valedictorian invited to the Georgia Governor’s Mansion who arrived on a bus and had a guard try to block her from getting in the gate.
“He told us it was a private event, that we didn’t belong there and to go on our way,” the Democratic gubernatorial candidate told USA TODAY. The guard relented after a “very robust debate” with her parents, but she said, “It’s an extraordinary moment, and it’s often the anecdote I tell, because it’s what galvanizes me.”
After winning Georgia’s Democratic primary election Tuesday, she has a historic shot at making that mansion her home.
If she wins in November, Abrams, 44, will be the nation’s first African-American female governor. She takes an unconventional approach to politics in her state that some said could serve as a model for elections in the South.
Rather than using most of her resources to chase Republican-leaning swing voters, Abrams wants to expand the electorate by building a broad coalition and mobilizing non-voters, including more people of color. After running a full campaign in every county, Abrams trounced her primary opponent, former state representative Stacey Evans, winning 76.5% of the vote.
“My mission is to use my campaign as a proof of concept that we can go and find (the voters we need), and we can lift their voices up, and we can create a new narrative,” she said Friday.
Abrams’ primary victory “sends a strong a signal, particularly in the South” of the path Democrats can use to seize seats, said Steve Phillips, a longtime Democratic activist and donor who helped collect $1.5 million in outside funding to boost Abrams' candidacy in the primary. Phillips and his wife, California banking heir and philanthropist Susan Sandler, lead an effort to collect $10 million to help Abrams win in November.
“It shows that even looking ahead to 2020, that Georgia is more winnable than Ohio and Iowa,” Phillips said, citing the state’s changing demographics and the diverse coalition that turned out to drive Abrams to victory. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton came closer to winning Georgia — where she captured 45.3% of the vote — than she did Ohio or Iowa. “It’s also an important signal for the midterm elections: Investing in the unapologetically progressive and Democratic constituencies is actually a winning strategy, as opposed to the tiptoeing and timidity that many Democrats proceed with," Phillips said.
Abrams has an uphill battle in a red state that has never elected a woman governor and that has elected Republican governors since 2003. In November, she will face either Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle or Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republicans who advanced to a runoff primary July 24. The Republican Governors Association targets her as “too far left” and “too extreme.”
Though a Republican candidate may be favored, the margin of victory in statewide races has grown tighter in recent years — results Democrats attribute to the state’s changing demographics, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University. If there’s a Democratic wave election nationally, that could help Abrams, who is adept at get-out-the-vote efforts. In 2013, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, which she said has submitted registrations for more than 200,000 voters of color from 2014 to 2016.
“If there is anybody who can maximize Democratic turnout, it’s her,” Gillespie said. “The question is whether there are enough Democratic voters in Georgia to offset the Republican Party identification advantage.”
During the primary, Abrams veered far from the centrist path adopted by other Democrats who have sought statewide office in the state in recent years. She embraced LGBT causes and called for the removal of the Confederate images carved onto Stone Mountain, an imposing mountain of granite that sits in suburban Atlanta. She focused on an expansion of Medicaid, child care affordability, criminal justice changes and economic development that invests in small business, not just corporations.
Several liberal groups endorsed Abrams in the primary, and so did Clinton and her 2016 presidential primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. As the party grapples with how to build Democratic coalitions, liberals point to Abrams’ win as further evidence that engaging more voters with a left-leaning message is a winning strategy, even in the South.
Rahna Epting of MoveOn Political Action called Abrams’ victory a “signpost for the future of the progressive movement.”
“By laying out a bold, progressive agenda that unifies and lifts up white, black and brown working families across Georgia, Abrams’ campaign mobilized an energetic, multiracial coalition that should serve as a model for the rest of the nation,” she said.
As the state House minority leader, Abrams has already made history. She was the first woman to lead a political party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first African American to lead in the state's House of Representatives. She is the first black woman to win a major party nomination for governor in the country.
A Yale Law School graduate, Abrams has worked as a tax attorney, small-business owner and even a romance suspense author, writing under the name “Selena Montgomery.” When she began writing, she didn’t want people to Google her real name and find the decidedly unromantic tax paper she wrote in college.
“No one wants to read romance by Alan Greenspan, so I decided to use a pen name,” she said, laughing.
Abrams never married or had children. The daughter of United Methodist ministers, she is one of six children who grew up in a family that she said “struggled to stay above the poverty line” and sometimes went without lights or running water. Her father taught her, “Never tell yourself no. Let somebody else do it.”
Her personal story is at the center of her campaign. While calling for Medicaid expansion and criminal justice changes, she often speaks of her brother Walter, who has a drug addiction and was recently released from prison. He suffers from mental health issues that went undiagnosed because her family lacked health insurance, she said.
Abrams’ debt became an issue during the primary and has resurfaced as a Republican general election strategy. She owes the IRS more than $50,000 in deferred payments and holds more than $170,000 in credit card and student loan debt.
A Republican Governors Association video and digital campaign, released Wednesday, says Abrams “wants higher taxes on working families but can’t pay her own taxes.”
Abrams said Georgia families can relate to her circumstance. Along with her college debt, she racked up bills supporting her parents, who are both battling illnesses, caring for her grandmother and raising her brother Walter’s daughter.
“Having a governor who understands those real-life choices, I think, is extraordinarily important,” she told USA TODAY. “You can defer tax payments. You can’t defer cancer treatment payments for your father, you can’t defer paying rent to keep the roof over the head of your niece.”
During her post-election speech Tuesday, Abrams called on her supporters to “register every last person,” talk to Georgians “from all walks of life” and “hit the phones, the doors and the streets.” She wants to reach out to those “who do not believe their voices matter.”
Focusing on driving historic turnout among African Americans, her campaign draws lessons from President Obama’s campaign in the South, as well as get-out-the-vote efforts that helped score victories last year for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama. In statewide elections in Georgia going back to 2008, the victor has won by an average of about 230,000 votes, an analysis by Sandler and Phillips, the Democratic donors, shows. Although African Americans make up about 32% of the state’s population, 1.2 million eligible black voters did not cast ballots in Georgia’s previous gubernatorial race in 2014.
Abrams told USA TODAY her approach to politics is about living a value her mother taught her: “Meet people where they are, not where you want them to be.” She hopes her work will lead the way as Democrats think about how to build the coalitions for 2020 and beyond, showing that “we have to invest in meeting every voter on the ground, that we have to do the hard work of traveling and knocking on doors.”
“It is more expensive. It is a more time-intensive effort,” she said. “But I think our campaign is going to demonstrate that it is well worth it, because that’s a clear path to victory.”