Democrats Stacey Abrams, left, and Stacey Evans are shaping much of their campaigns for governor to appeal to black voters, who make up the biggest share of the party’s voters. An internal memo from the Abrams campaign predicts that 65 percent of the voters in Tuesday’s Democratic primary will be black. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

In Georgia, Democratic primary hinges on appeal to black voters

Stacey Abrams hopes the tug of history mixed with a staunchly progressive agenda will secure the black voters she needs to win Tuesday’s primary. Stacey Evans is relying on prominent African-American supporters — and a message based on boosting the HOPE scholarship — to sway the outcome of the race.

The Democratic race for governor has pulled Abrams and Evans further to the left than any other contest for the state’s top job in recent history — and highlighted a tense scramble to win over black voters, who make up the biggest bloc of the party’s electorate.

Abrams, running to become the nation’s first black female governor, has brought in high-profile African-American figures from Hollywood and Washington to bolster her case. And at rallies, she’s accused her rival of “taking a page out of the Republican playbook, betting you will stay home.”

Early voting began Monday, April 30 for Georgia's primary elections.

Evans has countered by rolling out the endorsements of influential local black elected officials, who have echoed her criticism of Abrams’ 2011 compromise with Republicans to cut awards to the lottery-based scholarship. They say that disproportionately hurt black teenagers.

It’s tricky electoral calculus for Evans, who is white. To win Tuesday’s primary, she’ll likely need an overwhelming majority of white voters along with a significant chunk of black support. Analysts say that might require getting between one-quarter and one-third of the African-American vote.

The politics is far different from the crowded Republican contest, which features five candidates who are appealing to an overwhelmingly white and conservative electorate by trying to outdo each other over gun rights expansions, border security proposals and illegal immigration crackdowns.

Both Abrams and Evans have steadily built their campaigns around mobilizing African-American voters since entering the race last year. And both boast a large retinue of local endorsements, though Abrams has captured far more support from national groups.

At events across the state, Abrams and her allies are often quick to emphasize the historic nature of her quest for the state’s top office. Rashida Jones, an actress and activist who went on a five-city bus tour with Abrams, drew raucous applause when she ticked off Abrams’ qualities.

“You’re the right person for this job,” she told Abrams, who was once the Georgia House’s top Democrat. “And besides that, you’ll be the first black woman ever as governor.”

Evans has responded with a slate of lower-key rallies — and a heavier blitz of TV airtime. She has vastly outspent Abrams on TV ads, although Abrams has had ample backup from outside groups. On the campaign trail, Evans is relying on supporters such as DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston to make her case.

“I hear all the time, ‘Why Stacey Evans?’ I tell them we need to make the decision on progressive values — not race. We want to make sure people see that she’s not just talking the talk,” said Boston, who is black.

“I want someone who is focused on Georgia. And Evans has shown a commitment to the state,” Boston said. “History is great, but Georgians don’t need history.”

Historic gains

The Abrams-Evans contest puts Georgia Democrats in an unusual position.

The party has largely avoided fierce primary battles between black and white candidates for governor since the 1990 vote, when then-Lt. Gov. Zell Miller trounced former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. State politics were then dominated by Democrats, and more conservative, rural candidates often prevailed.

As Republicans gained power in the early 2000s, Democrats continued to nominate a string of white men for governor and avoided many racially tinged feuds at the top of the ticket.

Roy Barnes defeated then-Attorney General Thurbert Baker and a gaggle of other primary opponents during his 2010 comeback bid, but Baker had alienated other African-Americans with a hard-line approach on crime. Jason Carter warded off threats of a black primary challenger in 2014.

Not so in this race, which has featured some racial tension since its opening months.

There was the moment last year when Abrams supporters shouted down Evans at a national conference of progressive activists with chants of “trust black women” and “support black women.” Evans drew scorn with a video at Ebenezer Baptist Church that faded her face into the image of Martin Luther King Jr.

The two are competing for an increasingly diverse electorate. Over the past four midterm votes, African-Americans and other minorities have made historic gains in Georgia, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis.

Black voters made up more than 30 percent of the more than 5.1 million active voters in the last midterm election in 2014, growing from about 26 percent in 2006. White voters dipped to less than 58 percent in 2014 — down by about 3 percentage points from 2010.

Although Georgia is becoming a more competitive state, race remains a reliable predictor of political affiliation. African-Americans have traditionally voted Democratic, while whites have solidly supported the state’s Republicans over the past decade.

(Gov. Nathan Deal won re-election in 2014 with roughly three-quarters of the white vote and about 10 percent of the black vote. U.S. Sen. David Perdue, another Republican, won an even smaller share of the black vote the same year.)

In the Democratic primary, those trends are even sharper. The Abrams campaign said in an internal memo that it expects black voters to make up at least 65 percent of the vote next week — and black women to make up roughly 45 percent of the total.

And though white Democrats are casting ballots at a more accelerated pace during the early-voting period, both campaigns are working most intensely to energize black voters in the final stretch of the race.

That was clear this week when several African-American ex-mayors held an event to defend Abrams’ HOPE scholarship vote — they said she helped prevent deeper cuts to the program — and assail Evans for supporting a GOP initiative that would have granted the state more powers over struggling schools.

“Stacey Evans pretends to be a champion for people of color, but her votes to undermine public education say otherwise,” said ex-Decatur Mayor Elizabeth Wilson, who accused Evans of voting the “wrong way and then pandering to communities of color for their votes.”

Making history?

That message is gaining traction with some Abrams supporters. Brenda Gardner, an attorney, said Evans is “screwing the facts” around her record when she’s trying to appeal to minorities.

“It’s time for someone in office who has the general population in mind when they’re enforcing the laws — someone who can create a better environment for everyone,” said Gardner, who is black and plans to vote for Abrams. “She stands for what I’m interested in.”

Evans’ backers have tried to neutralize that argument in black communities by claiming she’s the more devoted Democrat. Floyd Griffin, a former state legislator, said he opens his pitch to African-American voters with a line about why he’s not backing Abrams.

“I talk to them about Stacey Abrams not being a true Democrat, working with the Republican administration,” said Griffin, a black Democratic leader in Middle Georgia. “I tell them I can’t support someone who is not carrying the Democratic message to the community.”

Abrams’ supporters are sanguine that their grass-roots effort to energize left-leaning voters will pay dividends next week. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson said the painstaking work of “connecting with people heart to heart” and the lure of a barrier-breaking candidate will put Abrams over the top.

“The opportunity to make history is very special,” said Johnson, who has endorsed Abrams. “They see it’s possible, and that’s got to be a motivating factor for many voters.”

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