After years of losing gubernatorial elections in Florida and Georgia with middle-of-road candidates, Democrats are trying a different tack, nominating two unabashedly progressive African-American candidates to build the winning message and coalition that eluded the party in 2016.
Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia are trying to prove that a progressive message, including expanding health care and ramping up spending on education, can win over voters in these more conservative states that went to President TrumpDonald TrumpMcAuliffe takes tougher stance on Democrats in Washington Democrats troll Trump over Virginia governor's race Tom Glavine, Ric Flair, Doug Flutie to join Trump for Herschel Walker event MORE two years ago.
The two candidates are also adopting a similar campaign playbook: seeking to energize liberal and minority voters, while also making inroads among more moderate and Republican-leaning voters, especially in rural areas, who have tended to turn out for the GOP in the past.
To the surprise of many political observers, both Gillum and Abrams have proven much more competitive than expected, giving Democrats a realistic chance at winning the two races — and a potential blueprint for how the party can regain a foothold in state capitals dominated by Republicans.
“We recognize the mistakes we made in the past, especially in 2016 and in 2014,” said Caroline Rowland, a spokesperson for the Florida Democratic Party.
“We weren’t really going into rural and swing areas and talking to voters, and we have voters there.”
Democrats have been shut out of the governor’s mansion in Florida since 1998, while Georgia hasn’t had a Democratic governor in 15 years. Gillum and Abrams, if elected, would be the first African-American governors in their states' histories. Abrams would be the first black female governor in the U.S.
Progressives in both states have long argued the string of Democratic gubernatorial losses happened because the party relied on middle-of-the-road candidates that failed to excite liberal voters and ignored the pocketbook issues valued by many moderate and independent voters.
In turning to Gillum and Abrams, progressives will now get to test their premise, as both are facing off against hardline conservative candidates endorsed by President Trump.
In Florida, Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, unexpectedly won the state’s primary in August, hinging much of his campaign on turning out African-American voters and progressive whites.
But now, Gillum is banking on a promise to increase public education funding and expand Medicaid in a bid to boost turnout among the state’s liberal base and broaden his electorate in more rural parts of the state that Democrats say have been left behind under Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s stewardship.
Gillum dispatched his running mate, Chris King, on Thursday to Haines City — part of the state’s politically coveted Interstate 4 Corridor that stretches across central Florida and features a lot of swing voters — to join Democratic National Committee Chair Tom PerezThomas PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE on a leg of the state Democratic Party’s “Rural Tour.”
Gillum is also expected to kick off a statewide bus tour in the coming weeks in an effort to expand his footprint in the state.
Several Democrats conceded that Gillum is unlikely to win a majority of the vote in Florida’s more rural counties. But they are confident that he can bring in enough votes at the margins in those areas to push him across the finish line in November.
Gillum will also have to limit the size of his loss among white voters, who make up roughly three-quarters of midterm voters in November if he hopes to be Florida’s next chief executive.
Dr. Barry Edwards, a lecturer in political science at the University of Central Florida, said that Gillum’s success will depend more on whether he can get less consistent voter blocs to turn out than on his ability to court white, working-class voters.
That means targeting Democratic-leaning Latino voters, particularly in Central Florida, who tend to vote at lower rates in non-presidential election years, and energizing existing Democrats to counter support for Gillum’s Republican challenger, former Florida Rep. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisThe CDC's Title 42 order fuels racism and undermines public health Chicago sues police union over refusal to comply with vaccine mandate Crist says as Florida governor he would legalize marijuana, expunge criminal records MORE, Edwards said.
“[Trump’s] base is enthusiastic and does turn out, and I wonder if there’s anything the Democrats have in their pocket that can match that in terms of energizing voters,” he said.
A similar dynamic is playing out in red-state Georgia.
Abrams, a former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, campaigned as an unabashed liberal during her primary against her more moderate rival Stacey Evans.
Abrams is betting that by taking a more progressive line on issues like health care, her message will resonate with voters in more rural parts of the state, especially those that have been rattled by a spate of hospital closures in recent years.
Standing next to former President Jimmy Carter at an event in his hometown of Plains, Ga., on Tuesday, Abrams outlined her rural health care plan and doubled down on her past pledge to expand Medicaid in her state — a proposal her Republican opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, has rebuffed as too costly and ineffective.
“Every Georgian, in all 159 counties, deserves access to quality, affordable health care,” Abrams said. “That means expanding Medicaid to keep rural hospitals open.”
She has also proposed expanding broadband access and implementing a program for financing small businesses that she says would benefit Georgians in both rural and urban parts of the state.
Abrams has also been crisscrossing Georgia in hopes of rallying support among voters in more rural parts of the state, including places long considered more friendly territory for conservatives.
Tharon Johnson, a Georgia-based Democratic strategist and campaign aide to former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaProgressives say go big and make life hard for GOP Biden giving stiff-arm to press interviews Jill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia MORE, said that Abrams needs to expand the electorate beyond her Democratic base if she wants to win in November.
He said that health care is one of the areas where Abrams can make her strongest appeal to rural, white voters that haven’t voted for Democrats in the past.
“I think she’s trying to get to 50-plus-1,” Johnson said. “And what we learned in Georgia is you have to have a base-plus strategy — an all of the above strategy. You can’t just campaign to a certain sector.”
To the surprise it is an approach that appears to be working. The Cook Political Report rates both races as "toss-ups" and most recent polls show a dead heat.
Gillum got a boost on Tuesday after a new poll put him 6 points ahead of DeSantis. Meanwhile, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll released earlier this month showed Abrams and Kemp virtually deadlocked at 45 percent each.
Abrams, like Gillum, has faced an onslaught of attacks from Republicans, who have dubbed her a “radical” and a “socialist.”
That label is complicated by the fact that both candidates were endorsed by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersPressure grows for breakthrough in Biden agenda talks Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE (I-Vt.), himself a democratic socialist.
Both Abrams and Gillum have worked diligently to distance themselves from the socialist label, which remains politically toxic for many of the moderate and independent voters they’re hoping to reach.
Yet neither candidate has sought to flee their progressive image. Instead, they have cast their proposals as common-sense solutions that span party lines.
“Talking about policy, cleaning up the environment, more money for education — you can take that message anywhere,” one former Gillum adviser said.
--Updated at 2:23 p.m.