The Democratic race for governor has long shaped up as a clash in competing strategies. A question near the end of a forum featuring the two candidates Thursday put that division on vivid display.
Asked why this election can reverse a string of Democratic defeats in Georgia, the two quickly showed why this race is being watched nationally as a test of the party’s message in an increasingly competitive state.
Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said Democrats can flip the seat for the first time in nearly two decades, if only they can reach out to progressives who feel disenfranchised.
“We’ve ignored so many Democrats that we’ve forgotten if we can just get them to vote, we can win,” she said.
And ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans was just as blunt about her tack: “We have to go to the suburbs and get moderate Republicans and independents to vote for us.”
Their contrasting visions for a Democratic winning coalition in Georgia are rooted in their backgrounds.
Abrams is running to be the nation’s first black female governor and she has staked her campaign on energizing 800,000 left-leaning voters, many of whom are minorities, who rarely cast ballots.
Evans, the first college graduate in her rural white family, wants to appeal to independents and moderates who once voted in droves for Democrats but have fled to the GOP over the last 20 years.
Both used the forum, sponsored by the Jewish Democratic Women’s Salon, to highlight their vision of the party’s future.
Abrams said Evans’ approach clings to the same strategy that led to a string of Democratic defeats in the last four statewide races.
“We spend millions of dollars trying to convince Republican women in the suburbs that they really are Democrats, that they’re just confused,” she said to laughter. “That has not worked. Not once.”
Invoking Democratic victories last year in Alabama and Virginia, Evans said her party can’t win over more moderates by “ignoring them and waiting it out.” She said it will take a mix of energizing core Democratic voters and appealing to whites in the suburbs and rural areas to win.
“I know we can take these progressive messages up to rural Georgia,” she said of Medicaid expansion and tuition-free tech education. “I’m not going to tell you I can win my home county, Catoosa County, but we can make gains there.”
(Donald Trump carried Catoosa with nearly 80 percent of the vote.)
Over the hour-long forum, the candidates highlighted divides over a sweep of other policies – and began to chart a path forward when the May primary is over.
Abrams talked about significant policy divisions between the two candidates, but said “there’s no question that any one sitting here is better than anything we got over there” – a reference to the five leading Republicans in the race.
Added Evans: “No matter what happens, I’ll be voting for and working for Stacey in November.”
Here’s a look at some of the policy debates:
Tax cut plan
Both candidates were critical of the Republican plan swiftly moving through the Legislature that wipes out a massive potential increase in state in income taxes by cutting the state income tax by $516 million over five years.
Abrams said she would spend “every single dollar” of the so-called windfall – a consequence of the $1.5 trillion federal tax cut - to expand Medicaid. She said that money could help draw down federal dollars to help fragile rural hospitals, boost mental health care and fight opioid and drug abuse.
Evans said she’d use the extra money to speed Medicaid expansion as well as pour more cash into K-12 education, which uses an outdated formula that hasn’t been fully funded for decades. She said any additional effort to provide tax relief should primarily help working-class and middle-class families.
Abrams was pressed on her vote against legislation that required firms bidding for state contracts to certify that they aren’t participating in an economic boycott of Israel, a decision that Evans called “troubling.”
“My primary opponent voted a different way, and tried to get our caucus members to vote with her,” said Evans.
Abrams said she is an unwavering supporter of Israel and a critic of the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” campaigns that she said were rooted in anti-Semitism. But she said she worried the measure could set a precedent for some unscrupulous government officials to prevent other economic protests.
“Economic boycotts helped break the back of Jim Crow,” she said, adding that she’s seen her GOP colleagues “misuse legislation to discriminate.”
Both candidates pledged to support tougher gun restrictions and repeal the “campus carry” legislation that legalized firearms on college grounds. But Abrams criticized Evans for getting a higher rating from the National Rifle Association during her time in the state Legislature.
“I’m the only person in this campaign who has never got a B rating from the NRA,” she said. “I’ve proudly failed their test every year.”
Evans said she “proudly” voted against the campus gun bill and other gun rights measures. And she said she largely agrees with her rival on gun crackdowns.
“I know one thing for sure, in this general election, whichever Stacey is on the ballot, the NRA is going to spend millions of dollars to defeat us,” she said. “We don’t want more guns on the street, our children not to feel safe, our teachers to carry guns.”
If Evans is elected governor, she might roam the Gold Dome with a notable accessory.
“I would love to walk around with a little veto pen on my ear, so they are reminded we have this veto power,” she said of the GOP-controlled Legislature.
“Right now, Republicans are pandering to a segment of their primary that wants this hateful legislation,” Evans added, saying that a Democratic governor could ensure district lines are redrawn in a more impartial way.
In her response, Abrams said Democrats must understand that many supporters of religious liberty proposals “authentically” believe in the legislation. To defeat it, she said, Democrats should more forcefully advocate for LGBT rights.
“We have to have someone who unabashedly says the LGBT community should have protection in Georgia,” she said, adding: “Our responsibility is always to lift a louder voice to demand that good people say what must be done.”
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