ATLANTA - Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams won the Democratic nomination for Georgia’s top office on Tuesday, defeating ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans and advancing her quest to become the nation’s first black female governor.
She will face one of five Republicans in November in the race to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal, a competition that will test whether the state is truly competitive after more than a decade of GOP rule.
Abrams attracted national attention, big-name endorsements and millions of dollars in outside spending with her “unapologetic progressive” platform to flip the Georgia governor’s office for the first time since 2002.
But she overcame a stiff challenge from Evans, who tried to frame herself as the more ardent progressive. Evans fueled her campaign with nearly $2 million of her own money, pummeling Abrams with criticism for supporting a 2011 Republican-backed measure that cut awards to the HOPE Scholarship.
Each of the Democratic and Republican candidates tried to carve out his or her niche in a race that attracted more than $22 million in campaign contributions – and flooded the airwaves with more than $13 million in TV ads.
Though her Republican opponent is not yet known - the top two GOP candidates appear headed to a likely July runoff - the Georgia GOP quickly attacked her over her financial background.
“I’ve tried to make sense of her personal and professional finances, and my head is spinning,” said Georgia GOP chair John Watson, who called on her to release her tax returns and other financial records.
Abrams owes more than $200,000 in debts, including about $54,000 to the IRS. She has said she’s on payment plan to pay back the debt, and has sought to frame her struggles as evidence she understands the problems that Georgians face.
The Democrats largely abandoned centrist talk to appeal instead to left-leaning voters with a promise of implementing gun control, increasing financial aid for lower-income families and taking steps toward the decriminalization of marijuana.
That’s a stark contrast from more moderate appeals from a generation of Democratic candidates for governor, who often sought the National Rifle Association’s endorsement and touted fiscally conservative policies.
They are echoing many in the party’s base who insisted on that shift. Claudia Colichon, who lives in north Atlanta, said she demands candidates who embrace mass transit funding and fight for gun control.
“There needs to be a progressive change,” said Colichon. “People are seeing that conservative policies aren’t working.”
Abrams drew support from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and a string of other high-profile Democrats and raised about two-thirds of her campaign funds from outside the state. National groups chipped in another $2 million worth of ads supporting her.
Evans mounted a lower-key campaign focused on local endorsements and smaller gatherings. The election-eve activities highlighted their differences. While Abrams held a large get-out-the-vote rally, Evans slung beers for supporters at an Atlanta bar.
Both Abrams and Evans united around a host of issues, including expanding Medicaid, growing the medical marijuana program and continuing Deal’s criminal justice overhaul. And both are outspoken opponents of “religious liberty” measures they say amount to state-sponsored discrimination.
The two attorneys also both were the products of hardscrabble childhoods that shaped their views of government, served together in the state House in their 30s and had up-close views of the tragic toll of substance abuse on their families with siblings who faced legal trouble.
But they’ve clashed on other issues, including how aggressively they oppose the NRA, how they would handle the state’s $26 billion budget and even how they would address Stone Mountain and other Civil War monuments.
The biggest policy divide, however, centered on the HOPE Scholarship, which provides tuition aid to Georgia college students who maintain a “B” average.
Evans said Abrams betrayed her party by working with Republicans seeking cost-cutting moves to reduce the program’s awards in 2011. Abrams countered that more “seasoned” Democrats sided with her in that vote because they knew negotiating with the GOP would prevent deeper cuts.
The other central disagreement in the race involved strategy.
Evans banked on a more conventional Democratic plan to win over independent voters and moderates, particularly suburban women, who have fled to the GOP. Abrams has staked her campaign on energizing left-leaning voters, including minorities who rarely cast ballots.
The two competed for support in an increasingly diverse electorate and at times racial tensions surfaced.
There was the moment last year when Abrams supporters shouted down Evans at an Atlanta conference of progressive activists with chants of “support black women.” Evans, who is white, drew scorn with a video at Ebenezer Baptist Church that faded her face into the image of Martin Luther King Jr.
For Democrats, the divisive primary for governor was somewhat novel. Jason Carter, the party’s 2014 nominee, faced no Democratic competition. And former Gov. Roy Barnes steamrolled over opposition in 2010 during his failed comeback bid.
The party has also 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.
Evans, who represented a Smyrna-based district, faced an uphill battle from the moment she entered the race. Black women form the largest bloc of voters in the Democratic primary, and Abrams’ campaign predicted African-American turnout overall could make up 65 percent of the vote.
To make inroads, Evans staged a slate of smaller rallies and meet-and-greets, and she relied heavily on prominent black officials to spread her message. She also spent far more heavily on TV than Abrams, inundating the airwaves with a HOPE-themed pitch.
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