Suddenly, the 2018 Democratic primary for governor in Georgia could be a contest between two determined women, both named Stacey.
What’s in a shared name? Merely everything. Including race, strategy, biography, and a submerged feud that stretches back years.
On one hand, in a mid-term election that could become a national test for President Donald Trump, putting a woman at the top of the Democratic ticket in Georgia makes a world of sense. Exit polling says that, while she may have lost the state, Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump 54 to 43 percent among women last November.
Yet the prospect of a clash between these two particular women already has some Georgia Democrats as jittery as a Thermos full of hot expresso.
Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, leader of House Democrats in the state Capitol for the last seven years, has long signaled her interest in the race for governor. A tax attorney by trade, Abrams has spent the last two years cultivating national contacts. She was allowed a cameo appearance last year at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. She has waited her turn.
But Abrams’ path was complicated last Wednesday night, when state Rep. Stacey Evans of Smyrna began making phone calls, letting friends know that she, too, was contemplating a run for governor. Evans, who is also an attorney, was first elected to the Legislature in 2010. Only five years later, Democrats in Washington tried to lure her into a contest against U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. She refused.
Jason Carter, the former state senator and grandson of a president, has yet to decide whether he’ll make a second run for governor. If he does, look for Evans to bow out.
If not, then two of the brightest minds in the state Capitol — regardless of gender — would be vying to become the first woman to top a major party ticket in Georgia. (Former secretary of state Karen Handel, who made it into a GOP primary runoff against Nathan Deal in the 2010 race for governor, has come the closest.)
And yet insiders fear such a contest could shred an already fragile party like nothing has since the bitter 2006 Democratic contest for governor between Secretary of State Cathy Cox and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor. Taylor won. Cox abandoned politics. And Gov. Sonny Perdue won re-election.
Race is part of the worry, as is always the case in a party built on a white-black alliance. Abrams, 43, is black. Evans, 38, is white. Voters of color dominate the Democratic primary, and demographics continue to list in their favor. But aside from non-partisan judicial contests, an African-American hasn’t won statewide office in Georgia since 2006, when Michael Thurmond was labor commissioner and Thurbert Baker was attorney general.
That is only part of the tension.
The city of Atlanta’s demographics are changing, too, but in the opposite direction. The African-American share of the municipal vote has been shrinking. By the end of this year, we will know whether the next mayor of Atlanta is black or white.
For four decades and more, being mayor of Atlanta has been an all-important symbol of prestige within the African-American political class – a national microphone that in decibels rivals the one owned by whoever is governor of Georgia.
A victory by a white candidate – Councilwoman Mary Norwood, former council president Cathy Woolard, or businessman Peter Aman — could certainly reverberate in a race for governor that would begin in earnest the next month.
Remember, too, that the 2018 primary for governor will be plowing through the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Then there’s the feud. Not between Abrams and Evans – although one Capitol observer with rural roots noted that “they’re no longer gee-haw.”
In 2010, former Gov. Roy Barnes attempted a comeback. Among six other Democratic candidates was state House Minority Leader DuBose Porter. Words were exchanged. Abrams endorsed Porter, whom she would succeed as House caucus leader. Porter is now chairman of the state Democratic party.
Last week, Barnes said he would endorse Jason Carter if he ran again. If Carter doesn’t, Evans – a fellow resident of Cobb County – would be looking for the former governor’s imprimatur.
But the real fight between Abrams and Evans would be strategic, a laboratory test of a tactical argument that has split every campaign since Sonny Perdue sent Democrats into exile – including Carter’s 2014 run for governor.
On one side are those who would return Democrats to dominance by luring back the working class whites swept away by Ronald Reagan, a statewide fight over the Confederate battle emblem, and – most recently – President Trump.
On the other side is the argument that says Georgia Democrats need to double down on the demographic shift already underway, by seeking out African-Americans, Hispanics and other voters of color who haven’t registered to vote – and driving them to the polls.
Abrams sits squarely in the latter camp. She’s the daughter of working class parents in Mississippi who both later became Methodist ministers after moving the family to Atlanta. They were big on education. Abrams graduated from Yale Law School.
Since arriving in the House 11 years ago, Abrams has been a driving force for increased voter registration. Her New Georgia Project has spent the last several years, and several million dollars, registering voters in Georgia.
The effectiveness of her effort has been criticized by some Democrats, who point out that registering voters is relatively easy. Getting them to the polls on or before Election Day is the heavy lift — and where their party has fallen short.
Evans has a wholly different biography. Born in Ringgold, Ga., she was the child of workers in a north Georgia carpet factory. She was the first in her family to go to college, then law school. Success as a litigator has given her financial independence.
Her emphasis in the Legislature has been on the extension of the HOPE scholarship to technical colleges across Georgia that churn out blue-collar workers. Evans’ approach to a statewide campaign for governor likely would retain that direction, seeking to bolster Democratic standing among those lower-wage earners outside metro Atlanta who stampeded to Trump last year.
Should she run, Evans and — on the Republican side — Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, might be the only candidates in a 2018 race for governor who could stand in front of a mobile home and say, “I used to live here.”
As painful as it might be, this might be the fight that Democrats need to set a proper course for the future. Simply to see what works.
And on the bright side, think of the financial savings. A single bumper sticker that reads “I support Stacey” could get a Democrat through the entire campaign season.