It has been remarked upon often that Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams is bidding to become the nation’s first African-American woman to serve as a governor. But it is equally significant that she is the first African-American of either gender to be nominated by a major party for governor of her state, and a rarity nationally. If she wins in November (still an odds-defying accomplishment) she will be just the third elected African-American governor, and just the second from a former Confederate state.
The absence of African-American officeholders in the south was no accident during the period between Reconstruction and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when most black citizens in the region were disenfranchised or at best politically marginalized. Since then African-Americans have become a pivotal, often dominant factor in the southern Democratic Party as the two major parties have polarized both ideologically and racially. But to a remarkable extent southern black Democrats have been expected to loyally support white candidates who spent most of their time appealing to white swing voters, including those who at the presidential level routinely voted Republican. More often than not African-Americans were the silent partners in statewide southern politics, expected to confine their ambitions to majority-minority jurisdictions where their presence would not arouse a racial backlash.
The few exceptions to this rule helped confirm it in the minds of many southern white Democratic political professionals. In North Carolina, Harvey Gantt, a politically centrist African-American who had served as mayor of Charlotte, twice won Democratic nominations to take on the intensely reactionary U.S. Senator Jesse Helms. Gantt lost twice to racially saturated Helms campaigns in the 1990s. Another prominent black centrist, Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, ran for the U.S. Senate in Texas in 2002, losing to John Cornyn by a landslide.
The first African-American anywhere to win election as governor (he was later joined in that incredibly exclusive club by Massachusetts’s Deval Patrick) was Virginia’s Doug Wilder, who as sitting lieutenant governor ran behind his white ticket-mates in 1989 but still eked out a remarkable victory. Wilder was not (and still is not) easy to typecast ideologically; he ran for governor on an anti-crime and fiscal-responsibility platform. He was banned by the state’s system from running for a second consecutive term, and became a largely marginal and sometimes eccentric figure in statewide politics, though he did make a comeback as mayor of Richmond. Virginia now has an African-American lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, but it’s anybody’s guess whether he will ascend to the top job like Wilder did.
It has all but been forgotten that in Stacey Abrams’s own state of Georgia, two ideologically centrist African-American Democrats were elected to statewide office in three consecutive elections (1998, 2002, and 2006) before flaming out in unfortunately timed bids for higher office. Attorney General Thurbert Baker actually ran to the right of former governor Roy Barnes (who himself ran behind African-American Andrew Young in a 1990 gubernatorial race won by Zell Miller) in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary, and lost. Labor Commissioner (an elected position in Georgia) Michael Thurmond actually won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate that same year, which was a terrible year for any Democrat to take on popular U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, who defeated another rare African-American statewide nominee (and another perceived centrist), U.S. Representative Denise Majette (best known for upsetting Cynthia McKinney in a U.S. House primary in 2002), by a similar margin in 2004.
You see the pattern. African-Americans in the South have struggled to construct two-way biracial coalitions within the Democratic Party, and when they could it often required conspicuously nonprogressive messages. As the parties have continued to polarize, that path has become less viable than ever. There just aren’t that many white swing voters to whom to “reach out,” as the saying goes. Some may still try the old formula: in Mississippi, former congressman and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, a darling of Clintonian New Democrats, is given some chance to win a special U.S. Senate election with the GOP split between appointed senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel, though there will be a post-November low-turnout runoff that will likely pit Espy against just one Republican.
But the very different strategy pursued by Stacey Abrams looks like the future of biracial Democratic politics in the South: a strongly progressive (though not abrasively so) African-American who can expand turnout among a rising minority population while still appealing to increasingly liberal white Democratic and independent voters as well. Interestingly, in the gubernatorial primary Abrams faced the relative novelty of a white progressive opponent in Stacey Evans, who differed little from Abrams on issues but whose entire campaign was based on the old strategy of a one-way biracial coalition (black voters supporting white candidates) and outreach to white swing voters. In a Democratic electorate that is now over 60 percent African-American, it’s not surprising that Abrams won. But her better than three-to-one margin over Evans showed she had built her own biracial coalition without a white skin — or conspicuous centrism.
One of the moving parts in this development was explained by Sean McElwee in a New York Times op-ed this week: white Democrats are becoming not only more progressive, but more responsive to the kinds of racial-justice concerns their fellow Democrats from minority backgrounds care about. Within the Democratic Party, racial divisions are simply less compelling than they once were, even as minority politicians are taking a more active and visible role.
How all this plays out in general elections in this and future election years is still uncertain. And while the current dynamics of the Republican Party in the South and elsewhere don’t make it likely the GOP will seriously compete for African-American votes (the GOP primary to choose an opponent for Abrams, which has gone to a July 24 runoff, was an all-white-male affair that constantly struck racist and xenophobic chords), it’s a possibility down the road, as shown by the election (in a 2014 special election after he was appointed by Governor Nikki Haley) and reelection (to a full term in 2016) in South Carolina of U.S. Senator Tim Scott. As it happens, Scott faced poorly financed African-American Democrats both times; the state is so heavily Republican that competitive Democratic statewide campaigns are rare. But Republicans would be smart to find candidates like Scott elsewhere, if their own race-conscious voters can tolerate it.