Political Insider

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Georgia's Democratic race for governor and the Sticky Fingers Theorem

In physics, inertia is the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest. Or if in motion, to keep moving.

In politics, there is the similar but more powerful law of possession, which posits that the force required to remove a benefit or privilege from a political body will be double or triple the amount of energy spent to grant it in the first place.

More elegantly: “That which is ours, tends to stay ours.” Call it the Sticky Fingers Theorem.

Senate Republicans in Washington were reminded of its power this week, with the collapse of their effort to repeal Obamacare and deprive 22 million Americans of health insurance over the course of a decade.

But this law of politics applies to far more than health care. Georgia Democrats, for instance, will have to pay heed to it as they sort out what could be a volatile primary in the 2018 race for governor.

They received a brief schooling in the Sticky Fingers Theorem last month, when Democrat Jon Ossoff attempted to conquer a Sixth District that had been in Republican hands for three decades. “These lines were not drawn to get Hank Johnson’s protégé to be my representative,” a possessive state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, famously said.

In the end, the energy of Ossoff’s supporters was swamped by the pride of ownership wielded by Republican supporters of Karen Handel.

Six days later, just last Monday, former Gov. Roy Barnes waved the green flag in the Democratic primary for governor by endorsing state Rep. Stacey Evans of Smyrna.

Another Democrat is in the race as well: state Rep. Stacey Abrams of Atlanta. Both are attorneys. Both have admirable biographies.

Abrams is the Yale-educated, Mississippi-born daughter of two Methodist ministers. Evans has documented a by-the-bootstraps life in a YouTube video describing her mobile home upbringing in North Georgia.

Abrams is black. Evans is white. And that will be one of the keys to this contest.

Within Barnes’ endorsement of Evans was an argument for trying – again — to woo working-class white voters back to the Democratic side of the aisle.

“Georgians aren’t laying up worrying about what Washington D.C. wants or some national party divide,” Barnes wrote. “They’re worried about how they’re going to pay for their kids’ and grandkids’ college. They’re worried about their health care premiums, and if their wages are enough to cover it all.”

I called Abrams later that morning. She was unmoved, and outlined the coming fight as a fork in the road that presents Democrats with two choices.

“One is that we attempt to recreate a coalition that has not really existed since the late ‘90s,” she said. “And the other is we build a coalition based on the Georgia we have today — a Georgia that is racially diverse, that is economically, uniformly interested in how we move forward.”

Abram’s is an argument for overwhelming Georgia Republicans with a demographic wave.

“The previous coalition for Democrats was premised on a demographic that had a majority white population,” she said. “Between 2000 and 2010, 1.5 million new people moved into Georgia, 80 percent of whom were people of color. As of today, our actual population is roughly 52 percent white, 48 percent people of color.”

Her stats are a bit off. Georgia census estimates put the state’s white population in the neighborhood of 59 percent in 2016. But Abrams’ point is that her party should be running ahead of the wave, not behind it. (A spokeswoman for Abrams later the double-counting of Hispanics as both white and a separate ethnic group accounts for the disparity.)

The underlying question posed by a contest between the two Staceys — Is the party better off with a black woman or a white woman at the top of the ticket? — is already discomfiting Democrats.

Abrams has been conspicuously building a national network of contributors. She’s likely to have significant union backing — which is also important financially. Barnes’ endorsement of Evans surely was intended as a signal to his network of contributors.

“We’ve got to deal with this head on, because you’ve got two qualified candidates who want to run for higher office,” said Democratic consultant Tharon Johnson. “I’m going to support one of the two Staceys in this race. It’s not going to be based on race. It’s going to be based on the premise of, who is best qualified to lead us to victory?”

Evans has been endorsed by DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston. Watch where other prominent black Democrats head in the next few months, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, former mayor Shirley Franklin, and DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond — not to mention U.S. Reps. John Lewis, David Scott and Hank Johnson.

They’ll need to consider the Sticky Fingers Theorem and the lesson of the Sixth District.

Abrams is right, you see. It’s not 1998. But it might be 1996. Or 1994. By that I mean that Democrats have concentrated on what Georgia’s changing demographics mean for them. Their calculations haven’t focused on Republican behavior.

The Sixth District contest showed that, as Democrats get closer to parity in Georgia, the Republican counter-reaction is likely to intensify. The law of possession kicks in, the argument becomes more tribal, and the road gets steeper for Democrats, not easier.

Once Democrats figure out who’s the better choice to charge that last hill — that’s when they’ll have picked their nominee for governor.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.