White women voters are sticking -- not just with Kemp, but Trump, too

Slightly more than a year ago, Stacey Abrams made clear that African-American women, the most dedicated demographic group within the Democratic party, would form the core of her campaign for governor. At this, she has succeeded.

With a little more than three weeks to go, she still runs neck-and-neck with Republican Brian Kemp in her bid to become the first black woman to become chief executive of a U.S. state.

A surge of black and younger voters could, in fact, put her over the top on Nov. 6.

But a new Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 poll points to what's likely to be a major Democratic concern through the rest of October.

Despite a viral #MeToo movement that’s now a year old, despite last month’s gender-splitting U.S. Senate hearing on sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, white female voters in Georgia are sticking with the Republican party.

They’re lining up not just behind Brian Kemp, the GOP candidate for governor, but President Donald Trump, too. Yes, the same Trump who, days ago, mocked Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford at a rally of supporters: “How did you get there? I don’t remember. How did you get home? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know.”

That aside, nearly 64 percent of white women voters polled approved of the way Trump is handling his job.

“It’s no secret that white women overwhelmingly supported Trump, which is why he’s in the White House. It is news that they are still supporting him. That I cannot explain — because I’ve not seen anything he’s done to support women of any color. So you’ve got me there,” said Kristin Oblander, an Atlanta-based fundraiser working this fall for Sarah Riggs Amico, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor.

The AJC/WSB-TV poll, which went into the field three days after the Sept. 27 Kavanaugh hearing, did not question voters about their attitudes toward the new Supreme Court justice. Even so, Loretta Lepore, a veteran Republican consultant, detected a Kavanaugh bump in the results.

“[Republican women] do deem sexual abuse, sexual harassment, to be an issue that deserves intense scrutiny, and that women need to feel safe about bringing to the fore,” Lepore said. “What I think women didn’t like about the situation was the exploitation of women by partisans.

“I think that’s showing up some in Donald Trump’s numbers,” she said.

The lack of female antipathy toward Trump is sure to affect the way the remainder of the gubernatorial campaign plays out. A Georgia GOP fearful of losing white women to Abrams wouldn’t have brought Donald Trump Jr. to Athens this week for a photo op with Kemp. Nor is it likely to shoo away his dad in coming weeks.

Republican ability to hang onto the votes of white women could also have significant implications for down-ballot races from lieutenant governor to the state Public Service Commission, which Democrats have loaded with female candidates.

Then there are the two congressional seats in north metro Atlanta, where Democrats Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux face Republican incumbents Karen Handel and Rob Woodall, respectively. Democratic plans to flip both seats rest upon a proliferation of XX chromosomes.

Let me walk you through a few of the poll numbers:

In the race for governor, Kemp leads Abrams 48 to 46 percent, a statistically insignificant difference given the poll’s margin of error of 2.8 percentage points. Raising the first eyebrow is the fact that Abrams has the support of only a bare majority of female voters – 50.4 percent.

Separating out white women voters, the margin of error jumps quite a bit – given that the subgroup is smaller, but the general trend is clear. Kemp gets 69 percent of the white female vote, compared to 27 for Abrams.

The pattern continues down the ballot. In the race for lieutenant governor, white women picked Republican Geoff Duncan over Amico, the Democrat, 65 to 21 percent. In the race for secretary of state, white women favored Republican Brad Raffensperger over Democrat John Barrow, a well-known former congressman, 59 to 21 percent.

(The AJC/WSB-TV poll didn’t address the two PSC races which feature Democrats Lindy Miller and Dawn Randolph against Republican incumbents Chuck Eaton and Tricia Pridemore, respectively.)

In her campaign for governor, Abrams has emphasized policy issues that might be considered more appealing to women voters. Asked who they would trust more to deal with the challenges of public education, a significant gender gap develops. Women voters preferred Abrams (52 percent) over Kemp (40 percent).

Likewise, with Abrams’ signature issue of Medicaid expansion, which would extend health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of lower-income men, women and children. Female voters preferred Abrams’ approach (again, 52 percent) to that of Kemp (42 percent).

But such gaps aren’t big enough to give Abrams an edge. A few canyons are required.

And on the issue of jobs, women voters are evenly split over which candidate for governor would be better. Economic satisfaction, Lepore said, offers up a clue when it comes to GOP steadfastness among women.

“This demographic includes that critical group of women – the white, suburban, college-educated women – that we’ve all been waiting to see how they were going to break,” the Republican consultant said. “And they are breaking Republican in large numbers, which indicates they are satisfied with the way the state has been moving.”

Ditto on the national level, Lepore said — for those women who can get past Trump’s rhetoric.

But polls are mere snapshots of a political climate. They are not destiny.

“There is room for Abrams to grow here,” said Oblander, the Democrat, who pointed out that the 24.5 percent overall support from white voters polled is already higher than the 21 percent won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

“We’ve got to do a better job of getting the message out,” Oblander said. “It’s been 20 years after we’ve won a statewide governor’s race, which means Republicans have been in charge for 16 years.

“We now have 79 counties without an OB-GYN. We’re 47th in the nation with access to health care, 50th on infant mortality under Republican leadership,” she said. “I think if we can continue to pound that message in the next four weeks, we’ll have enough white women voters for Abrams.”

But it also may be time to acknowledge that women are no more immune to the tribalism that afflicts our politics than the rest of the species.