Democrats have every right to be confident when looking forward to 2018. While Trump’s nationalist surge allowed all branches of government to fall into the Republican’s hands, the pendulum is beginning to sway back – and fast. Is the natural sway of the political pendulum true for the Trump Era? The answer is being found in an unlikely place for progressives – the South.
There is an effort underway to reclaim and modernize the meaning of “Southern Democrat” in American politics. A term once used to describe slavery supporting and slave-owning whites from the era preceding the Civil War up to the generation that defected to Barry Goldwater after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is a term now being revamped to fit the progressive, inclusive, and diverse values coastal-city and northern Democrats have long held.
2017 was the year of the new Southern Democrats began producing emerging stars with national appeal while holding roots with their respective constituencies. Democrats learned it is possible to run a slate of candidates in the south with progressive values and still be successful. The seeds were planted last year, and as the midterms approach, Democrats are ready to bloom. However, there is a need for a leader with a voice capable of representing the southern United States, hold nationwide consequence, and still champion progressive values. Many think former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is just the voice. Her bid for Georgia’s governorship is the marquee race of the South on the mind of the left as we usher in the first midterm elections of the Trump Era. The volume of her voice is growing, but how did we get so confident in a Democrat running for Governor of Georgia? To know how we got to this political tipping point in the most unlikely of regions, it is important to examine how the past year has brought Democrats here.
Ignoring the flood of gaffes plaguing our cable television by the first year of the Trump White House, 2017 was seemingly the year of the donkey. The South was the cause of that assertion, for, in addition to already scheduled elections in Virginia, many vacant seats in the region were a result of appointments made by the Trump Administration. Notably, the GA-06, the SC-05, the Virginia Governorship, and an Alabama Senate seat were running rising Democratic stars Jon Ossoff, Archie Parnell, Ralph Northam, and Doug Jones, respectively. Democrats overwhelmingly exceeded expectations in these races. Did they win them all? No. But a reminder: They were competing in Republican areas, and the significance lies there. In each special election, there was either a surprising Democratic victory or a Democratic loss with a surprisingly close result.
Democrats elected a slate of candidates in Virginia: a governor, a Lieutenant Governor (the second African-American elected statewide there), an Attorney General, and roughly twenty members to the House of Delegates. The Virginia sweep also included the first transgender woman elected to state office in the United States. This blue ripple (hinting at a blue wave to come) brought the partisan split in the House of Delegates to 51-49 after Democrats were previously being outnumbered nearly 2 to 1.Doug Jones shocked the country after pulling off a historic upset by turning an Alabama Senate seat blue for the first time since 1992. Jon Ossoff, while not winning, brought the Georgia Sixth to one of its closest results after running in the most expensive House race in American history. He lost by only three points. In 2016, former Representative Tom Price held the seat by twenty-three points. Georgia did have one significant progressive victory last year: the Republican State Senate supermajority was ended.
Over the state border in South Carolina, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney’s seat was up for grabs. Democrat Archie Parnell fell short, but only by four points. In 2016, Mulvaney held the seat by twenty points. Races Republicans won were not conventional landslides the Republican Solid South is known for. The blue wave is rolling onto shore, and Stacey Abrams is ready to capitalize on the energy.
From 2007-2017, Stacey Abrams served in the Georgia House of Representatives. Six of those years were spent as House Minority Leader—the first woman and African-American to do so. Aside from a state legislator, Abrams is also a Yale Law graduate, a romance novelist, and tax attorney. She is no stranger to “firsts” and breaking barriers: first woman to lead the House Minority, first African-American valedictorian of her high school, her novels have sold over 100,000 copies, and she was named Public Official of the Year in 2014 by Governing Magazine. Her stardom began to shine across the country following her electrifying speech at the 2016 DNC where she professed, “The Democratic Party is the party of civil rights and human rights.” Her speech on the national stage has expanded her statewide stage, which must contribute to her confidence in why she believes now is the time to turn Georgia blue.
Abram’s groundwork did not begin immediately following her DNC speech, for she began working to get voters registered at the end of 2013 with the New Georgia Project. Her effort helped 46,000 Georgians become registered for the 2014 midterms. While Georgia did not go blue in 2014, her registration and fundraising efforts continued through 2016 to keep the dream alive. Pushing on with this dream may finally pay off, for the silver lining from the election of Trump is a newly spurred interest of the Georgian electorate that was not ready, or not willing, to get in the arena until now. In a state that has not elected a Democrat for Governor since 1998, and only went to Trump by five points (200,000 votes), Stacey Abrams is witnessing the partisan gap in Georgia close. The closing of this partisan gap means we aren’t seeing a polished, centrist, watered-down Democrat pandering to the center-right and looking to cover up certain beliefs, but rather laying all her progressive positions on the table and running as the Georgian she is.
Minority Leader Abrams is proudly leaning into the historic nature of her campaign. If she won, she would break yet another barrier and become the first female African-American governor in the history of our country (seriously – we have not elected a black woman as governor yet). According to her website, her vision for Georgia includes increased access to childcare with the “Bold Action For A Brighter Future” plan, the Georgia Advanced Energy Job plan, and criminal justice reform expanding beyond just prisons and sentences. Her proposals are looking to stimulate her desired coalition of minority voters, progressive white voters, and young voters.
What she has on her side is a blue wave (or tsunami) that is following the Trump Earthquake. This energy, undoubtedly, was born from the unpopularity of Trump and his archaic positions. His scorched Earth ascent activated a part of the electorate that lied dormant in what appeared to be the all-but-certain coronation of Hillary Clinton. Voters seemed to have forgotten presidents do not get elected without being voted for. Our complacency brought catastrophe. With that said, the shift in the South is not Republicans defecting from President Trump, but rather Democrats and Independents who were already there now making their voices known and voting. This race is not a matter of winning the hearts and minds of solid Republicans, but rather getting out the people who lean to the left or already believe in a progressive Democratic agenda.
Writing about a good strategy can make victory sound simple and certain, but even the Abrams campaign can recognize its setbacks. 2017 exposed the darkest depths of sexism and racism in our country’s electorate. Not that our country has ever been free from the pervasiveness of hate, but in a post-Civil Rights Movement society and post-Obama presidency, it was appalling to witness the sight of our country so bravely expose their disdain for the thought of a female president and produce a white-lash against our first black president. Given what Democrats went through in 2016, the fact the biggest test of this blue wave is with an African-American woman in the south (Trump’s strongest territory) is perplexing, to say the least.
The discrimination embedded in certain Americans has penetrated certain institutions, like the Secretary of State’s office. The Secretary of State is one of the highest elected officials in any state. They hold the power to purge voters from being registered, certify results, and certify qualifications of candidates. That is merely a few powers the office holds. Voter suppression can typically be traced back to a state’s Republican Secretary of State. Stacey Abrams is trying to navigate an electorate that has been stripped of rights from past and current secretaries and the Supreme Court case gutting the Voting Rights Act. The Office of Secretary of State for Georgia is currently held by GOP candidate for governor Brian Kemp. There is no assertion being made that Secretary Kemp is a racist; however, his office is methodical in targeting low-income voters and communities of color in order to suppress Democratic-leaning areas. The challenge now for Team Abrams is not only combatting discrimination in hearts, but in our institutions too.
Courageously, Abrams will not let discrimination serve as a setback for her campaign. She hopes to change the perspective to an “If not her, then who? And if not now, then when?” mentality. Instead of running from the arena based on the precedent of someone of her demographics not holding major elected office in the south, the message is let’s embrace the possibility of progress. The mood of the Democratic primary in Georgia is let us not approach politics as what appears to be possible, but let us approach it as making what appears to be impossible, possible (this sentiment being borrowed from an American woman who would know a thing or two about fighting for progress). This campaign is about breaking barriers, running into the unknown, embracing the impossible, and showing minority children they too can grow up to be anything they want.
The setbacks in this race are not concepts to fear, they are strengths to be bolstered alongside her progressive platform. Stacey Abrams is ready to reclaim the south for Democratic values that will strengthen Georgians and southerners from all walks of life—not just a select few. Something worth remembering each day of this historic campaign is if Donald Trump can win in America, then Stacey Abrams can win in Georgia. Change is not revolutionary, for it is incremental. Change began when Ralph Northam created a spark in Virginia. Doug Jones lit the flame in Alabama. And Stacey Abrams will blaze the trail in Georgia.