Back in 2014, Democrats in Georgia were feeling cautiously optimistic. Demographics had been shifting in the state, with non-white voters growing from 29% of the electorate to 42% over the last dozen years. The party had strong candidates with legacy name recognition at the top of the ballot in Jason Carter (vying to become Governor) and Nunn (U.S. Senate). Yet however cautious, the optimism was misplaced. Both candidates were solidly rejected, earning about 45% of the vote. After Hilary Clinton made a similar showing in 2016 with 45.6% of the vote, you could forgive Georgia Democrats for not getting their hopes up too much this year—even as the party made history by nominating the first African American woman major-party gubernatorial candidate in U.S. history.
But as she showed in her primary win against state representative Stacey Evans, Abrams strategy is dominantly focused on energizing the Democratic base in Georgia and getting out the vote. And that’s the only hope Democrats have at regaining any kind of political relevance in Georgia.
Conventional political wisdom held that Evans had a better chance of convincing white, rural and suburban voters to abandon the party of Trump, particularly as the two remaining Republican candidates in the primary runoff spend their time competing to see who loves guns and hates illegal immigrants more (to be fair, Brian Kemp seems to hate them more than Casey Cagle, though Cagle is quick to remind everyone that he helped outlaw sanctuary cities in the state). This was the approach that Jon Ossoff took in his failed Sixth Congressional District run last year, and it’s one that Abrams rejects.
Both Abrams and Evans have progressive bona fides. In fact, it could be argued that Abrams is the more pragmatic of the two, often legislating through compromise as the State House’s minority leader. But while the Evans campaign outspent Abrams on TV and radio ads by $1.5 million to $475,000 (not counting pro-Abrams PACs), Abrams has invested in voter registration and grassroots outreach to non-frequent voters. “We keep trying to convince Republicans to be Democrats instead of getting Democrats to be Democrats,” she told the Marietta Daily Journal. “That’s why we lose.”
In the 2014 election, only 38.6% of the 6.7 million eligible Georgians showed up at the polls. Carter lost the election by just over 200,000 votes. That’s the gap that Abrams needs to overcome. The question primary voters had to ask themselves on Tuesday was which outcome seemed more likely: Evans swaying more than 100,000 Nathan Deal voters, or Abrams bringing more than 200,000 new voters to the polls.
Abrams netted 423,163 votes, more than the 304,243 votes cast in the uncontested 2014 Democratic primary and more than the 395,497 cast among six candidates in the 2010 primary. It was also more votes than were cast for Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp combined, though Republican primary voters still outnumbered Democrats by about 53,000 votes.
Abrams founded the New Georgia Project in 2013, and the organization has submitted more than 200,000 voter registrations since then, though it’s unclear how many of those registrants were added to the voter rolls. Many of those applications came from what the NGP calls the New American Majority (“people of color, those 18 to 29 years of age and unmarried women”), who Abrams will be counting on for victory in November.
And the numbers add up. There are currently 1,849,294 black voters already registered in Georgia. Along with a growing Latino population, the Millennial rejection of the Republican party and the fact that women outnumber men at the polls, Abrams has a legitimate shot this year. But we’ll understand if there are still a few Georgia Democrats who can’t bear to get their hopes up again.
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief.