Georgia's Next Race Will Be a Test for Democrats' 2020 Strategy

(Bloomberg View) -- Georgia can't escape being the center of the political universe. After completing the most expensive House election in U.S. history, this state is turning to its upcoming 2018 gubernatorial election, particularly the Democratic primary. The Deep South, particularly Georgia, is critical for any aspiring Democratic presidential candidate, and the race may turn into a preseason of sorts for national Democrats looking to plant their flags in the region in anticipation of a 2020 presidential run.

So far the contest -- between the state's House minority leader, Stacey Abrams, and a state representative, Stacey Evans -- is the first competitive Democratic primary for governor or U.S. Senate in Georgia since 2006, a demographic lifetime ago in a state changing as quickly as Georgia is. Over the past few election cycles, Georgia Democrats have relied on a consistent (some would say "stale") formula of nominating a moderate white candidate in the hopes of attracting a few older rural and white South Georgia swing voters who remember Democrat Jimmy Carter as governor or president back in the 1970s. The party has mostly ignored its urban, majority-black base. This strategy hasn't worked.

This week Georgia's last Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, endorsed Evans, who is white, in the gubernatorial contest. Abrams, who is black, quickly responded, pointing out that the makeup of the state has changed significantly since Barnes's term as governor. Of the 1.5 million people who have moved to Georgia between 2000 and 2010, 80 percent are people of color. Of the people who voted in Georgia's 2016 Democratic presidential primary, 59 percent were black. Should the election come down to race, it's likely that Abrams would win.

But that's not to say that it will. Evans represents a district in Smyrna, an urbanizing suburban city in Cobb County near the new Atlanta Braves stadium, which is 40 percent black. Abrams represents a district in Atlanta's urban core that is majority black, but gentrifying and growing increasingly white. And she's already picked up the endorsement of Jason Kander, the moderate white Democrat who lost a close race for U.S. Senate in Missouri and is seen as a national player in the party.

There's no reason to assume this primary will boil down to race. In an all-female contest, will either candidate gain an advantage with either women or men? Both candidates play up their educational backgrounds, and both have a message for working-class voters, so there's no clear early edge on the class divide either. Evans's introductory video emphasizes her rural roots, but to win she'll need to compete strongly in the places Democrat Jon Ossoff was recently trying to win in Georgia's sixth congressional district special election, perhaps making Atlanta's northern well-educated suburbs a battleground once again. (Of course that's the last thing campaign-weary voters want to hear.)

It could also be that national Democrats will get involved, drawing lines that wouldn't otherwise exist. One could envision Senator Bernie Sanders endorsing Evans in response to her rural, working class background, while perhaps Senator Kamala Harris might endorse Abrams as a fellow woman of color and to earn some early 2020 points.

An X factor in the race is that Georgia has open primaries, allowing anyone to cast a ballot in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. Given the polarized racial politics in general elections in Georgia, one possible path for Evans would be to appeal to white Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary for her rather than in the Republican primary. If she were to do this, she'd also have to decide if her target is the white, well-educated Republicans in Atlanta's northern suburbs who might be unhappy with President Donald Trump, or the rural conservative voters she grew up around, or even if there were a way to appeal to both while still retaining significant Democratic support -- which she would need in the general election if she wins the primary.

The Georgia result will give Democrats something they sorely need right now -- not just a candidate for governor, but a test for how to survive a primary and win a general. Then all eyes will be on the 2020 presidential election.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

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