From the moment she entered the race for governor last year, Democrat Stacey Evans hitched her campaign to a relentless message about restoring the HOPE scholarship.
It was the focus of her campaign stump speeches, her meet-and-greets with voters, her wave of TV ads and each of her debate appearances. There were a range of other issues – a test of competing strategies, a battle over who is more progressive – but Evans kept reframing the debate back to HOPE.
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But on Tuesday, that message fell flat with Georgia Democrats. Her rival, former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, won an overwhelming victory in her quest to become the nation’s first black female governor.
Evans, who quickly endorsed Abrams, believed the HOPE focus was a cunning one. She was one of a handful of House Democrats to oppose the 2011 GOP-backed deal to cut HOPE awards. Abrams allied with Gov. Nathan Deal and other Republican leaders to support the overhaul.
But to Evans, it was also personal. She had a tumultuous childhood in rural north Georgia and credited the scholarship with setting her on a successful path. She met her husband at the University of Georgia, where she also earned her law degree and built a network that would propel her to public office.
Rather than shirking the policy divide, Abrams at times seemed to welcome it. At one debate, the two clashed over the policy for so long that moderators had to step in and steer the conversation to another topic.
Abrams claimed her negotiating skills helped stave off deeper cuts, and released a trove of emails showing the two worked together on HOPE strategy. She argued that Evans was using “scare tactics” by trying to alarm voters about the depths of the cuts.
But she also sharpened her argument that Evans was too focused on HOPE in a state that had a plethora of problems. She was no single-issue candidate – the two feuded over a range of policies and agreed on even more – but that argument started to seep into the minds of some voters in the final days.
And Abrams also benefited from potentially greater factors – whether it be her “unapologetic progressive” agenda, a string of big-name endorsements, the tug of her historic quest or her grassroots voter mobilization strategy.
Still, her efforts to try to neutralize the HOPE debate seemed to pay dividends. At polling places Tuesday, several Democratic voters echoed Abrams’ attack line over the scholarship, saying Evans was trying to muddy the waters and they wanted a candidate with a broader platform.
Evans, meanwhile, had no apologies about her HOPE-themed run. After a recent debate in which she relentlessly pivoted to the scholarship, Evans was asked whether she risked overplaying her hand. She didn’t hesitate.
“Hope is much more than a scholarship and a grant. It’s access to good jobs. Hope means that no matter where you live you’ll be able to send your kids to a school that lives up to their promise. Hope means that all of us will have access to good paying jobs,” said Evans.
“I don’t think we can talk about hope and opportunity enough.”