OPINION — Of all of the races to watch Tuesday night, the Georgia governor’s race may be the most important, both for the history it could make (Democrat Stacey Abrams could become the first black female governor in American history) and for what the results in the quickly changing state could tell us about trends in the rest of the country. It’s not exactly Peoria, but Georgia is increasingly representative of the racial, gender, political and business dynamics driving the country itself.
First and foremost, the results in Georgia will be a fast and clear grade of the Trump presidency — period. The Republican nominee, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, has fashioned himself as Donald Trump in a plaid shirt from the beginning of the cycle. Kemp’s first ad introducing himself to Georgia voters featured a gun, a chainsaw, an explosion and Kemp’s pickup — “just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself. Yep. I just said that!”
President Trump took the unusual step of endorsing Kemp before the GOP primary and has, along with Vice President Mike Pence, traveled to Georgia to campaign for him multiple times. On Sunday, Trump flew Air Force One to a middle Georgia airfield and called him “a great leader.”
By contrast, Stacey Abrams is essentially the face of the resistance. She has promised to work with any president to advance the state, but her candidacy hinges on young voters, African-American voters, women and new immigrants — basically every group that Trump has attacked and demonized throughout his presidency. While issues like health care, the economy, education and immigration are animating the candidates, nothing casts as long a shadow over the race as the president himself.
Speaking of issues, a win by Kemp will tell Georgia’s traditionally Chamber of Commerce Republican Party to leave their suits and ties at home for the next election. If a rifle-wielding, monster-truck-driving candidate wins any governor’s mansion Tuesday, expect more gun show Republicans, and fewer horse show Republicans, trying to run for the rest of Trump’s term.
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A win by Abrams, on the other hand, would change the winning playbook for Democrats across the South and across the country. Unlike nearly every Democrat before her in Georgia, Abrams has run an unapologetically progressive campaign after many, many, many half-in, half-out Democrats have tried mightily to appeal to Georgia’s large Republican population, only to lose anyway.
Instead of tacking to the middle, Abrams has pushed Medicaid expansion, public education, voting rights and criminal justice reform. She’s opened the door to confiscating guns as a part of an assault weapons ban and welcomed Oprah and Barack Obama to campaign for her just four years after chronically timid Democrats like Jason Carter failed to appear with then-President Obama during a pre-election trip to Atlanta.
And if Abrams loses, Democrats will have officially tried everything to win and failed. It’s hard to see what else they can do at that point other than wait for the demographics of the state and the country to change and pray that new voters will turn toward them eventually.
Election night in Georgia will also tell us about the power, or lack thereof, of several voting groups in statewide elections — none more so than suburban women. Long a lock among Republicans, now it’s the GOP that’s making those women feel less safe, not more safe, when they send their kids off to school every day.
Lucy McBath, the Democrat running in Georgia’s 6th District against GOP Rep. Karen Handel, has run aggressively on gun safety after Democrats have soft-pedaled that issue for years. McBath calls herself a “mother on a mission” and can only win the district, which went for Rep. Tom Price by more than 20 points in 2016, with the help of white suburban women. This is an ideal test-case to see if that’s possible for a Democrat in the Trump era.
Seeing the future
Finally, no matter what happens, expect a hard look in the state and around the country next year at whether a sitting secretary of state should oversee his or her own election to higher office in the future. Kemp’s insistence that he can do his day job while also running for governor has had an undeniably toxic effect on the integrity of the vote in Georgia. A WSB-TV poll released over the weekend showed a huge — and very partisan — divide over the integrity of the vote in Georgia.
After months of national headlines about possible voter suppression from a number of Kemp-approved measures, 44 percent of voters in the state (mostly Democrats) say they it’s “likely” or “very likely” that many votes will not be counted on Election Day. At the same time, about half (mostly Republicans) said it’s “likely” or “very likely” that votes will be illegally cast by people who are not eligible to vote.
That kind of doubt about the safety and security of the vote is dangerous and unacceptable. It’s also seen throughout the state as preventable, had the person in charge of voter integrity not also been seen as inherently biased about the outcome of the vote itself. That could change after this election.
Georgians on both sides have told me that they see this race as a choice between the past and the future. Democrats say they want to move past the time in Georgia that they remember for segregation, voter suppression and racial oppression. But Republicans here see Georgia’s past as imperfect, of course, but also as simpler, easier and just plain better than the future they’re worried about with the arrival of new faces, new ideas and new politics.
The results of the governor’s race will tell us everything about what that future is going to look like — in the state of Georgia and around the country. Stay tuned.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.