By Hastings Wyman –
In an era when political norms are no longer sacrosanct, it is probably not too much of a shock that Florida, with its multicultural electorate, including lots of Yankees who have moved there, could be on the brink of electing an African American governor.
But Georgia? In the Deep South? A state not known for racial tolerance?
Well, yes, the Peach State has a toss-up contest for governor between Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, who is white, and former state House Minority Leader Stacy Abrams, a Democrat and an African American.
The most recent poll, taken late last month by Landmark, showed Kemp with 48% to Abrams’ 46%. Abrams’ internal poll gave her a 48-42% lead, still a close race.
Several factors have made Abrams a strong contender, despite earlier assumptions she faced near-certain defeat. For starters, Democrats have been running stronger than in 2016 in virtually every election since Trump’s victory. In addition, Georgia has a sizable black electorate which is expected to respond positively to Abram’s candidacy. Moreover, the state’s population continues to grow more diverse, with Latinos, Asians and out-of-staters moving in in significant numbers.
Abrams has moderated in her emphasis somewhat. For example, earlier she advocated a $15 minimum wage, but the issue does not appear on her campaign website. She also emphasizes her work in the legislature with Republicans. But her strategy is not based on appealing to moderate Republicans.
“Abrams is not interested in bringing over Republican voters,” says former state GOP chairman “Chuck” Clay, “but in bringing in new voters… If she could turn out all the people she’s signed up, she’ll win. It’s a path to victory, but a new one.”
She could also benefit with some support from suburban women, who were turned off by Kemp’s strong stance against gun control in the GOP primary, as well as his over-the-top embrace of President Trump. One of his ads showed him helping his toddler son use toy blocks to build a border wall to keep out illegal immigrants. Another showed him – playfully – point a shotgun at a daughter’s boyfriend.
Nevertheless, Abrams “has to get a large black turnout,” says University of Georgia political science professor Charles “Chuck” Bullock. In the Landmark Poll of likely voters, 31% were black. “That compares with 30% for Obama and 28.9% in 2014 [the state’s last governor’s race]. If she can hit 31%, she might be able to get elected with 27% or 28% of the white vote. But the
Democrats have not had that in 20 years. Hillary Clinton had 21% of the white vote; Michelle Nunn [in the 2014] US Senate race had 23%.”
“White men are Republican,” says Bullock. “The election is in the hands of white women. If [Abrams] gets above 38% or so [of white women], she could make it.”
She also has to do well in Metro Atlanta. Veteran Georgia political journalist Tom Baxter say, “If she wins, the only way is if she carries Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett. She has a chance of doing that.”
“She got a 31% black share in a recent poll. That compares with 30% for Obama and 28.9% in 2014. If she can hit 31% she might be able to get elected with 27% or 28% of the white vote. But the Democrats have not had that in 20 years. Hillary Clinton had 21% of the white vote; Michelle Nunn had 23%.”
“White men are Republican,” says Bullock. “The election is in the hands of white women. If [Abrams] gets above 38% or so (of white women), she could make it.”
She also has to do well in Metro Atlanta. Says veteran Georgia political journalist Tom Baxter, ”If she wins, the only way is if she carries Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett. She has a chance of doing that.”
In another wrinkle, in Georgia it takes a majority of the votes to elect a governor. A plurality only gets you a runoff. Libertarian Ted Metz drew 2.3% in the Landmark Poll, a small share to be sure, but enough to force a runoff in what is likely to be a very close race. The big fight is over “the last 2% in every race,” says Clay, “except in landslides, which won’t happen here.”
“It’s a 2 or 3% race… I still think it’s a 2 to 3% advantage to Kemp,” says GOPer Clay. Another political observer (R) says, “Kemp probably has an edge, given the state’s history.” “Kemp should win,” says academician Bullock, “but it’s not too hard to come up with a scenario for either one.”
What about the impact of President Trump, currently enjoying a boost among Republican voters pleased with the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court? “There’s a universal view that [Trump] has an impact,” says Baxter. “Will he be helpful to the Republicans?” He notes that Trump is credited with helping Kemp win the primary, but his major opponent, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R) “was already in trouble.” In any case, the President will be coming to Georgia “and could have a huge impact,” says Baxter.
There are, of course, anti-Trump Republicans, put off by his personal style as well as some of his policies. But, says one GOPer, “The upper middle class voters who are anti-Trump are still Republicans,” which may help Kemp in the governor’s race.
In any case, says one anonymous Republican source, electing a black woman governor could be “a good evolution” for the state.
Although there is not as much attention focused on the congressional races in Georgia, two are of more than routine interest.
In the 6th District, US Rep. Karen Handel (R) is seeking her first full term. Her opponent is Lucy McBath, an African-American Democrat, who got into politics after her son was killed by gun violence. The only poll published so far is a late August survey, taken for McBath’s campaign, showed her leading Handel by 49% to 47%. The 6th District is the most moderate of Georgia’s GOP-held congressional districts. Trump carried it, but by a mere two percentage points.
There’s an assumption among Peach State politicos, however, that if Handel could survive the millions of dollars spent against her in the 2017 special election against Jonathan Ossoff (D), she will win this year as well. Nevertheless, McBath does have some significant backing, including Emily’s List, US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Hillary Clinton and US Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). All things considered, Likely Republican.
The neighboring 7th District is much more competitive, in part because of its increasingly diverse electorate: 46% white, 21% black; 19% Latinos; and 14% Asians. The district is composed of two counties, Forsyth (pop. 212,000) and Gwinnett (pop. 920,000). Gwinnett is the most diverse county in the state. Hillary Clinton carried the county by 16,000 votes, but the district overall went 51% to 44% for Trump. Forsyth County has a population of 212,000.
US Rep. Rob Woodall (R) has represented the district since 2010. His Democratic challenger is Carolyn Bourdeaux, an activist and consultant for better health care. She is already on television. “There’s a feeling that Democrats could win this one,” says one source (R).
On election night, Georgia will be in the spotlight, mainly for the potential major shift in power in the state if African-American Abrams is elected governor. But there are also two Republican congressional districts with competitive races, at least one of which might flip to the Democrats. Stay tuned!