Long before even half of Tuesday’s votes had been counted, Georgia governor hopeful Stacey Abrams knew she had stomped her competition. Her official Twitter account sent out a victory message at 9:02 p.m., when it became obvious that Abrams would be the Democratic Party’s nominee in the race to replace term-limited Governor Nathan Deal, having bested her sole opponent, Stacey Evans, in the primary election by a vote margin—about 293,000 votes—that preliminary polls couldn’t have predicted.
Around 9:30 p.m. at the Gathering Spot, a coworking space near Georgia Tech, Evans took the stage and told roughly 100 supporters that she had spoken with Abrams on the phone, conceded the race, and pledged to help her reclaim the seat that has been out of reach for Democrats since Roy Barnes lost the office to Sonny Perdue in 2003. What comes next, however, will be a whole new saga for Abrams, who is vying to be the nation’s first-ever black female governor.
Abrams is also the first woman to make it this far in a race for Georgia governor. She walked into Election Day touting endorsements from ex-presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as well as a laundry list of prominent progressive figures and activists at the national, state, and local levels and plenty of national media attention. By the time all the votes were tallied late Tuesday night, Abrams had claimed more than 75 percent of the 550,000-plus votes cast for the Democratic candidates.
Still, hurdles aplenty remain for Georgia’s House minority leader-turned-candidate for governor. The Republican primary saw more than 600,000 votes counted, and Tuesday’s results will send frontrunners Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp to a July runoff election. In recent years, the GOP voter base in Georgia has outnumbered the Democrats’ by around 200,000 people. Now, Abrams will need to either ramp up her efforts to enlist minority voters, an effort that proved wildly successful during the primary, or engage white moderates, independents, and on-the-fence conservatives who are turned off either by Trump or by Republicans in general.
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said before the results poured in that Abrams might find it beneficial during the general election to reach out to white, blue-collar voters who had abandoned the Democratic Party, although he agreed that’s a far-fetched ask. “Democrats have done very poor among white voters,” he said. “Hillary Clinton got only about 20 percent of white voters in Georgia, and if you’re losing the largest voting block in the state by 3-to-1 or 4-to-1, it’s hard to win.”
Georgia Republicans maintain a statistical edge—albeit one that appears to be fading. During the 2010 primary elections—the last time the governor’s seat was an open race—GOP candidates claimed about 290,000 more votes than their liberal counterparts. This year’s drastic drop to a margin of just 54,263 voters could signal a serious fighting chance for left-leaning Georgia politicos, and Democrats, to some extent, can thank Donald Trump’s polarizing governance style for bringing otherwise nonvoters to the polls. Election observers note that Democrats last night performed well in metro Atlanta suburbs and Middle Georgia. And Evans’s campaign was impressed by Abrams’s performance in some areas of North Georgia, traditionally Republican strongholds.
On Wednesday morning, once Bullock had a better scope of how fast Democrats were gaining on Republicans in voter turnout stats, he told us Tuesday’s vote count might be the largest Democratic primary turnout since 2004. “Compared to 2014, it’s about 200,000 votes more than Democrats mustered in the primary,” he said. “So if she needs to find 200,000 more votes in the general election, she certainly found 200,000 more votes in the primary. Abrams’s idea of victory is to mobilize minority voters, and I think we see that indeed she has done this in the primary.”
Curiously enough, despite the fact that Abrams lead Evans 3-to-1, a preliminary poll released by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB-TV about a month ago pinned the vast majority of Democratic voters as undecided about the choice between Abrams and Evans. What exactly tipped the scales so heavily in Abrams’s favor—perhaps her performance at one of the recent debates—is still unclear. “That poll was done before a lot of voters began to think about the election,” Bullock said. “But I think what we’ll see once the Secretary of State office releases the gender and racial makeup, African Americans who four years ago cast 65 percent of the [Democratic] vote; I would guess it’s going to be higher than that.”
About an hour after Evans called Abrams to offer her support, the former House Minority Leader addressed hundreds of her backers at the Sheraton hotel downtown, thanking her competitor for a hard-fought race and pledging to keep momentum strong until November.
“We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history, where no one is unseen, no one is unheard, and no one is uninspired,” Abrams said. She vowed that, should she win the governorship, she’ll expand Medicaid, repeal the controversial “campus carry” gun law, protect DACA recipients, and expand the lottery-funded HOPE Scholarship program, among other policy ambitions.
Back at the Gathering Spot, after Evans thanked her crowd for their time, money, and energy, she said she felt confident that her campaign renewed efforts to restore the HOPE Scholarship, the lottery-funded program that helped her go from living in 16 different homes throughout her impoverished childhood to becoming a corporate lawyer and state representative.
Addressing Abrams from the stage she shared with her husband, Andrew, Evans congratulated Abrams on the campaign, saying the two “moved the Georgia Democratic Party and the state past the era of the good ol’ boy network.”
“And I say to all my supporters and all Democrats across the state, now is the time we rally behind our nominee and fight together for our shared ideals. This was a campaign about hope. That hope is very much still alive. Let’s take it all the way to November, turn Georgia blue, and make Stacey Abrams the next governor of Georgia,” Evans declared.
Don’t expect Evans supporters to reject her advice and spark a repeat of the intraparty strife that dogged Hillary Clinton after she defeated Bernie Sanders for the 2016 Democratic nomination. And while Cagle and Kemp duke it out for nine weeks to determine the GOP nominee, Abrams can get to work.