Democratic candidates for governor Stacey Abrams (left) and Stacey Evans (right) at a first meeting in October 2017. Curtis Compton/ Compton
Photo: Compton
Photo: Compton

The shifting etiquette of a scorched-earth, Democratic campaign for governor

We are nine days away from a first glimpse of a revived Democratic party in Georgia.

Which means two candidates for governor, one black and one white, still have nine days of guesswork ahead of them, searching out the new rules of etiquette governing a party that is presumably more African-American and certainly more impatient for success than ever before.

For instance: How much emphasis is a candidate required to place on her own complexion to make sure that black voters know she is white?

Last month, a poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News showed Stacey Abrams, the former House minority leader, with a 2-to-1 lead over Stacey Evans, another former member of the state House. But more than half of likely Democratic voters were still undecided.

Abrams, who is African-American, must still be considered the favorite, even if some numbers indicate the race isn’t taking the shape she predicted at the outset of her campaign – and we will get to those. But one doesn’t need another poll to see that the contest has tightened.

Behavior tells us that.

Ten days ago, Evans, who is white, launched the first TV-based attack of the campaign. The 30-second spot featured a young African-American woman who condemned a 2011 bargain that Abrams, as leader of the House Democratic caucus, cut with Gov. Nathan Deal to salvage the HOPE scholarship. The ad claimed that 97 percent of African-American high school students were shut out of a chance for a full HOPE ride.

The pushback from Abrams came hard and quick. A video in defense of her HOPE record was uploaded to social media. Allies were dispatched to make one-on-one arguments.

The compromise struck by Abrams did trim the college scholarship program, acknowledged state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway. But it was done to save money that went to the state’s pre-k program. “The pre-k program was vital to poor and African-American children,” he said. “Because without early education, you’re dead anyhow. And we couldn’t have both. It became obvious.”

By Wednesday, the Abrams campaign apparently wanted to change the subject. It pushed out a piece critical of Evans, published by The Root, with this volatile headline: “When White Politicians Profit Off Black Pain and Then Go Begging for Black Votes.”

The piece noted that in 2011, about the same time Abrams was negotiating with the governor over the HOPE scholarship, Evans was listed as one of three defense attorneys for Countryside Financial, a firm caught up in the housing market collapse that was eventually accused of and heavily fined for fraud.

An Evans spokesman argued his candidate was a junior partner in the firm who wasn’t engaged in the arguments, and resigned from the case after only a few months. “Enabling financial predators,” snarled an Abrams spokeswoman.

Black PAC, one of many national groups Abrams has cultivated, has also weighed in with a TV spot condemning Evans for cooperating with Governor Deal on his “opportunity school district” push.

The scorched-earth climate has kept many A-list Democrats in Georgia on the sidelines.

Abrams has built her campaign around the assumption that white voters who have drifted into the Republican camp over the last two decades are unreachable – and that a Democratic rebirth requires reaching out to latent voters within its African-American base, and latching onto younger voters of all ethnicities.

The changing dynamics have led to some awkward moments. Abrams supporters shouted Evans down at an August gathering of progressives with cries of “Trust black women!” Evans fumbled her own pursuit of black voters with an ill-judged video of her attendance at Ebenezer Baptist Church for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony.

But for all that, Democratic voters may not be lining up as expected.

A number-crunching friend, a Democrat, has passed on an analysis of early voting through last Wednesday. More than 22,000 had cast ballots, a 45 percent increase over the same number of days in 2014, when Governor Deal faced re-election. While the Democratic races for governor and Senate were not terrifically competitive four years ago, the numbers could be evidence of a surge.

But the overall percentage of African-American voters has dropped. And it’s possible that President Donald Trump is the reason. Among Georgia’s congressional districts, the strongest gains in early voting have occurred in Karen Handel’s Sixth (a 319 percent increase) and Rob Woodall’s Seventh (340 percent). Barry Loudermilk’s 11th District (136 percent). All three congressional districts are held by GOP incumbents. All three are on metro Atlanta’s north side, where white voters outnumber African-Americans.

Tested Democrats, those who have voted in the last three primaries, formed the largest group of this season’s batch of early voters. Seventy-two percent are African-American. But the next largest group of early voters are those who haven’t cast ballots in the last three Democratic primaries. They are newcomers. Among them, the percentage of black voters drops to 48 percent.

The statistical picture is incomplete, obviously, but by the time we get to May 23, Democrats in Georgia may be a more racially nuanced force than many anticipated.

That won’t end the sniping. Remember that article that the Abrams campaign pushed out last week? At the end, the author pointed to a Stacey Evans mailer that pictured 15 African-American supporters, but didn’t include a photograph of the candidate. The implication was that Evans was hiding her race.

A spokesman for the Evans campaign laughed off the suggestion, pointing to the millions of dollars that Evans has spent on TV to put her face before voters.

I smiled, too, but for a different reason. In 1984, I covered Robert Benham’s campaign for the state Court of Appeals.

Benham was only the second African-American to graduate from the University of Georgia law school. Gov. Joe Frank Harris had appointed him to a vacant spot on the appeals court, but now Benham faced his first election. And no black man had won a statewide election in Georgia since the previous century.

One key to Benham’s victory: His campaign literature never included his photograph.

To think that the shoe may now be on the other foot – well, I guess that’s progress of a sort.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.

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