South is rising: Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams are a new breed of Southern Democrat

Where Southern Democrats once meant middle-road white moderates, Gillum and Abrams are blazing a new path

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published October 24, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

Stacey Abrams; Andrew Gillum (Salon)
Stacey Abrams; Andrew Gillum (Salon)

After years of losing close elections with moderate candidates, Democratic voters in the South have dramatically changed course. This year they have gambled on a pair of unapologetically black candidates running as authentic progressives. As a result, two of the most closely watched gubernatorial elections in the country have proven much more competitive than expected — and could result in the rise of a new brand of Southern Democrats.

The U.S. currently lacks a single black governor. Three Democratic candidates are running this cycle to change that. Two of them, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum in Florida, have a real shot at making history in two weeks. Abrams hopes to become the first elected black female governor in U.S. history, while Gillum hopes to be the first black governor of the nation’s largest swing state.

Both candidates have adopted remarkably similar platforms and deployed some of the same strategies in their campaigns in neighboring states. The two young Democrats have apparently learned from their party’s hard-fought losses and have eschewed the platitudes of pragmatism that often fail to mobilize voters. Instead, they're running progressive platforms that connect to the working class writ large on issues of economic fairness and opportunity which enjoy widespread support. Conventional wisdom has long held that progressive Democrats are not politically viable in a general election, especially in a purple state. But the Republican Party’s platform can hardly be described as widely popular, and that hasn’t stopped the GOP from winning elections or enacting its agenda.  

“Guess what? You give voters a reason to go out and vote for something, not just against something,” Gillum told attendees at this year’s annual Congressional Black Caucus conference. “What we’re trying to prove in our races is you can talk about poverty, criminal justice reform and paying teachers what they’re worth, [the] corporate tax rate and all those other issues that frankly matter,” he explained.

That comprehensive approach, one that requires a winning Democratic candidate to take Black Lives Matter seriously and offer an economic agenda focused on the working class, is a must for any Democrat hoping to cobble together the coalition of voters that it takes to win elections in the South. The old approach of appearing as a “Republican-lite,” Gillum argues, won’t win a state like Florida, which last elected a Democratic governor in 1994.

Instead, Gillum and Abrams have finally put into effect a strategy to expand the electorate, one that Democratic activists, particular activists of color, have advocated for a long time. It’s a strategy that relies on high population growth driven by the “reverse migration” of black Americans who left the South in the 1970s but are now returning, along with booming Hispanic and Asian-American populations. Both candidates won the support of college-educated whites in their primaries with progressive campaigns after years of building a base coalition with more pragmatic black voters.

Since 2000, the portion of Democrats who identify as liberal has increased by 70 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. But that shift has been nearly entirely due to college-educated white voters. Just one in four black Americans identifies as liberal, while 71 percent say they’re moderate or conservative. Democrats in the South have seemed confused by the party's leftward shift, and their usual strategy has been to run as far right as possible in an effort to pick off fleeing white, conservative voters. It hasn’t worked.

Democratic candidates have routinely gotten less than 25 percent of the white vote in Georgia in recent elections. The incumbent Republican governor, Nathan Deal, beat Jason Carter, Jimmy Carter’s grandson, in 2014 by about eight percentage points, or 200,000 votes. Georgia hasn’t had a Democratic governor in 15 years.

It may have been a recent election in neighboring Alabama that finally convinced Georgia Democrats to seek a different path this time. After black women were largely credited with handing Democrat Doug Jones his surprise victory over Roy Moore in last year’s U.S. Senate special election, Abrams began to attract big Democratic donors and major endorsements.

A former Yale Law School graduate and novelist, Abrams won a landslide victory in her May primary, but like Gillum, she was not initially favored by the Democratic establishment in her state. Despite being outspent five-to-one by Gwen Graham, a favorite of the Florida Democratic establishment and daughter of a former governor and U.S. senator, Gillum beat her in the primary thanks in part to a barrage of anti-Graham attack ads funded by a third candidate, billionaire Jeff Greene. Gillum and Abrams now both face Republican candidates who won their primaries against establishment-backed rivals, largely thanks to President Trump’s endorsement.

While widely seen as a new generation of Democratic stars, both Abrams and Gillum are political veterans who have spent their entire adult lives in the public sphere. Abrams is the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. Gillum started his ambitious political career while at Florida A&M, a historically black college, and was elected mayor of Tallahassee, the state capital, by age 35. He cemented his progressive bona fides with other young elected officials across the country as a leader of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group. While Abrams had a reputation for pragmatism  in the Georgia legislature, she rose to prominence statewide for her efforts to expand the state’s electorate, with a focus on young and low-income voters.

Both have used personal stories to connect with disengaged voters. Abrams has talked about her own personal debt on the campaign trail as a way of addressing the student loan crisis, while Gillum often mentions his own brother when he talks about the thousands of formerly incarcerated people prevented from voting in Florida. He opened up most municipal jobs in Tallahassee to the formerly incarcerated. He often notes that as a child in a working-class Miami neighborhood he sometimes received free dental care from a mobile clinic, by way of defending  the Affordable Care Act. Abrams discusses caring for aging parents when she visits voters in rural Georgia concerned about recent hospital closures due to GOP budget cuts.

“Every Georgian, in all 159 counties, deserves access to quality, affordable health care,” Abrams says in her stump speech. “That means expanding Medicaid to keep rural hospitals open.” Her opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, opposes Medicaid expansion as too costly and ineffective.

Both are candidates who reflect their communities, irrespective of race. Yet they don’t run from their race.  

“I’m black. I’ve been black all my life. As far as I know, I’m gonna die black,” Gillum said during his only debate with Republican opponent Ron DeSantis on Sunday. DeSantis, a former military prosecutor and Harvard Law graduate who gave up a safe Republican seat in Congress to run for governor, appeared on Fox News the morning after Gillum's primary victory and warned voters not to “monkey this up” by electing his rival. Abrams’ opponent Brian Kemp, meanwhile, launched his campaign in Trumpian fashion, promising to personally "round up criminal illegals" in his pickup truck. As Abrams often notes on the campaign trail, Kemp has also used “tap dancing” imagery in advertising to characterize her.

So far, Abrams and Gillum haven’t run from their boldly progressive platforms either.

When Fox News’ Bret Baier tried to use Bernie Sanders’ endorsement as a none-too-subtle form of red-baiting during an interview with Andrew Gillum this week, the candidate did not seem cowed. 

“I’m a capitalist. I believe in business,” Gillum said, expressing pride in his endorsements from Sanders and Barack Obama. “But I also believe in people. I don’t believe they are contradictory.”

Gillum has embraced Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, marijuana legalization and the repeal of the NRA-backed “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law. He marched with Parkland students and connects with suburban soccer moms by railing against “guacamole green algae,” a major environmental issue in the Sunshine State. His campaign commercials called for the abolition of ICE and the impeachment of President Trump. He is running directly against the underfunding of basic services resulting from decades of Republican control of state government, and even calling for a corporate tax increase to pay for a billion-dollar boost in education spending. All of this in a state where Democrats have traditionally run as centrists.

In Georgia, Abrams has proposed expanding broadband access and implementing a program for financing small businesses in both rural and urban areas. She’s reaching out to the business community in her state by warning that Kemp has said repeatedly that he would sign an anti-trans "religious freedom" bill that Deal, the current Republican governor, vetoed for fear it would discourage business investment in the state. This is intersectional politics in action.

According to the polling prognosticators at FiveThirtyEight, Abrams needs close to 30 percent of the white vote to win. It takes 50 percent plus one to avoid a runoff in Georgia, and there is a Libertarian candidate who is likely to pull two percent of the vote. So it's not out of the question that there will be no clear winner in Georgia on Nov. 6. Either way, Stacey Abrams will fight on.

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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