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Stacey Abrams shreds the usual game plan for Southern Democrats. Will it work?

The day after her primary victory in Georgia, Republicans launched a searing attack, calling her a "far-left radical" who would promote "extremism."
by Alex Seitz-Wald /  / Updated 

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WASHINGTON — The primary was one thing. Turning Georgia blue will be another.

But Stacey Abrams, who became one of her party's biggest stars overnight by routing her primary opponent Tuesday, is sure to have plenty of help from national Democrats, including those who know the path to the presidential nomination runs through the South.

Abrams is now trying to become the first black female governor in American history — and she’s trying to do it in a Southern state that only removed the Confederate Flag from its state flag five years before she was elected to the Georgia Statehouse.

Moreover, Abrams is employing a novel strategy for Southern Democrats — running as an unapologetic progressive and betting that people will show up who otherwise wouldn't vote.

"We win with a message of progress," she told MSNBC Wednesday. "Georgia's a very different state than it was even 10 years ago."

"We don't have to pivot to conservative values to win in Georgia. We just have to speak about our own values and have bold and detailed plans about how we're going to make it work," she continued.

Four years ago, Jason Carter, the grandson of the former president, took a very different approach. He ran unsuccessfully for governor of Georgia as a self-described "NRA Democrat," touting his A rating from the pro-gun group and playing up his 10 generations of Georgia heritage.

It's been 20 years since the state elected a Democratic governor and Republicans are eager for the latest fight.

"With Stacey Abrams, Democrats have chosen a far-left radical committed to imposing an extreme agenda on Georgians," said Jon Thompson, a spokesperson for the Republican Governors Association. “Abrams would weaken Georgia’s economy, promote radical extremism, and fail to uphold the public's trust. Georgia voters will reject her out-of-touch agenda this November.”

But supporters say Abrams 76-24 percent landslide over Stacey Evans in the Democratic primary on Tuesday points to how she can succeed in November.

"Last night was a significant rebuke of the cautious-as-usual strategy," Maria Urbina, the political director of the grassroots group Indivisible, told NBC News. "If we're serious about doing this work and if we're serious about building our base, you have to take some risks."

Abrams placed a bet years ago on a different path when she started the New Georgia Project, an effort to change the state's long-term political trajectory by registering and engaging more would-be Democrats.

Even earlier, 25 years ago, she told Ben Jealous, who would go on to run the NAACP and is now running for governor of Maryland, that she would be the first black governor of Georgia. "I told her I believed her," Jealous recalled Wednesday.

In 2015, there were about 1.5 million voting-aged Georgians who were not registered to vote. As many as 900,000 were minorities, representing an enormous untapped pool of potential voters.

Actually getting them to vote, however, is easier said than done, and it remains unclear whether Abrams' strategy can work in a state where 50,000 more Republicans voted than Democrats in Tuesday's primaries.

At the same time, that partisan gap has shrunk considerably. Four years ago, 300,000 more Republicans than Democrats voted in the Senate primary (the gubernatorial is not comparable, since Republicans did not have a competitive primary that year).

And Abrams has already attracted some new players to her coalition.

For instance, the political arm of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy group that represents 2.5 million workers in an industry that disproportionately employs women of color, made their first-ever foray in politics to back Abrams.

"Her record as a leader really embodies the kind of values that will make life better for women of color," said Ai-jen Poo, senior adviser to the group, Care in Action.

Domestic workers knocked doors last weekend before the primary election and ran a six-figure ad campaign on digital and radio targeting women of color. And Poo said more is in store for the general: "We're just getting started."

Abrams will have a headstart on her Republican opponent, who will not be chosen until July 24, when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagel and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp will compete in a runoff election.

Abrams will have no lack of support from the Democratic cavalry.

Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., old foes from their 2016 presidential primary battle, found themselves on the same side in the Georgia primary by backing Abrams. And so did potential future-foes, like Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who both may run for president in 2020.

Black voters in the South proved in 2008 with Barack Obama in 2016 with Clinton than they can steer the presidential nominating contest when they vote together.

"The old playbook of just focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire — they need to toss that out," said Jaime Harrison, the associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "The gateway is through the South."

Harrison, who was the first black chairman of the Democratic Party in South Carolina, said that it's heartening to see the South have a chance to make history, since African-Americans trace their roots to region but often have had easier access to political power in the North.

"All of us in the South are starting to find our own voices and get our groove back," he said.

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