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Stacey Abrams' Georgia governor bid shifted the center of the political universe

Four major party candidates for Georgia’s top seats are Black, but they all embody the fraught nature of America’s racial politics.
Stacey Abrams at The Carter Center in Atlanta on April 23, 2019.
Stacey Abrams at The Carter Center in Atlanta in April 2019.Elijah Nouvelage / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Stacey Abrams shifted the center of the political universe Wednesday when she announced her second bid for Georgia’s governorship. She will almost definitely be the Democratic nominee in a campaign that could prove historic – a win would make Abrams the first Black woman in the country to be elected governor and reaffirm Georgia’s leftward slide after turning blue in 2020.

Of equal importance will be the race for the U.S. Senate, which Abrams’ efforts once helped secure. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., will seek re-election to the seat he won in January’s special election. The contest could decide the balance of the Senate in 2023.

Georgia will be a major focus in the year to come.

Both races assure that Georgia will be a major focus in the year to come. But Abrams’ recent bid for governor opens up room for another possibility that would’ve seemed inconceivable throughout most of the state’s history: Come Election Day, all four major party candidates for these races could be Black.

The picture is clear on the Democratic side. Warnock and Abrams will be their party’s nominees. The Republican Senate primary is equally clear, as former NFL star Herschel Walker holds a commanding lead in polls with conservative voters. And in the governor’s race, Vernon Jones is challenging the Republican incumbent, Brian Kemp, in the primary, though Jones’ chances of success are uncertain.

Taken together, these four candidacies embody the fraught nature of our current racial politics, and their campaigns imagine opposing visions for Blacks in American life.

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Walker, who announced his run in August, is well known in the state for his Heisman-winning seasons with the University of Georgia. Republican voters appear unbothered by what, in another era, would’ve been heavy baggage. Walker has bragged about playing games of Russian roulette, and he’s long struggled with dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder. Most notably, he has a history of abuse allegations, including from his ex-wife, Claire Grossman, who in 2008 claimed that Walker held a gun to her temple “and said he was going to blow my brains out.” During a 2008 interview with CNN, Walker said he couldn’t remember the incident, but didn’t deny it.

For Republican voters, a “complete and total endorsement” from former President Donald Trump seems to have papered over any concerns. The GOP establishment has come around as well; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., labeled Walker “the only one who can unite the party, defeat Senator Warnock, and help us take back the Senate.”

Jones, a far-right former state representative and Dekalb County executive, is vying for a Trump endorsement in the GOP primary for governor. After refusing to overturn the results of the lawful 2020 presidential election in his state, Kemp is in Trump’s crosshairs, which bodes well for Jones.

If the conservative calls heralding a post-racial society have not begun yet, they will soon.

Should former Sen. David Perdue, a supporter of Trump, enter the GOP race, he’d likely become the Trumpist candidate. But for now, Jones is a favored option for the hard-right, MAGA base seething for a Kemp exit.

Four prominent contested seats. Three (possibly four) Black candidates to fill them. If the conservative calls heralding a post-racial society have not begun yet, they will soon. They’ll declare an America rid of its sins: “Georgia primaries prove racism a lib fantasy!” Or they’ll argue that the candidates’ shared heritage negates race as a factor in the contest altogether. As Debbie Dooley, the president of the Atlanta Tea Party, was cited as saying: Four Black candidates would force voters to choose based on “competing ideologies,” not race.

Thank God for all this progress. And in Georgia no less, the unlikeliest of settings. A state affixed in the long shadow of Jim Crow and wrestled over in the modern-day fight for civil rights. In March, Kemp signed one of the most restrictive voting rights bills in the nation into law. Among its provisions was the near elimination of ballot drop boxes, strict I.D. requirements and limits on the window allotted to request absentee ballots, all of which will disproportionately affect Black voters.

Even symbolically, the Georgia races don’t offer hope of progress in our divisive climate. The array of viable Black candidates is a product of our hyper-racialized times, not a first step beyond them.

For the Republicans’ part, Walker and Jones are candidates born of the party’s present need. Both trade in the same race-baiting and anti-democratic musings as their white colleagues. Walker, in a tweet in September 2020, described supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement as “marxist who want to destroy America ... in the disguise they care about black people & social justice.” Jones called BLM protesters in Atlanta “a bunch of ANTIFA affiliated thugs … [who] don’t give a damn about black lives.” Bernard Kerik, a Jones campaign adviser, proudly called his candidate a “Black Donald Trump.” Kerik is a former New York City Police Department commissioner who was pardoned by Trump after being sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to felony charges including tax fraud and lying to White House officials. Both Walker and Jones are all in on Trump’s baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 election, particularly, in Georgia and the voter restrictions that have flown from them.

Race is the foundation of both men’s appeal. For moderate Republicans, uneasy with years of far-right racial animus, Black Republican candidacies could be a welcomed reassurance. Why else would Walker have been paraded out during the 2020 Republican National Convention to proclaim that he’s “seen racism up close ... It isn’t Donald Trump.”

Similarly, for Warnock and Abrams, race and its implications are the animating forces of their campaigns. They position themselves as the defenders of racial justice. Abrams has spent years combating voter suppression tactics in Georgia, including Kemp’s most recent bill, which, as she testified before Congress, had “components ... that are indeed racist.” Warnock, too, has met Republicans on the battlefield, labeling voter suppression tactics “Jim Crow in new clothes” and introducing the Preventing Election Subversion Act of 2021 to combat the worst of their effects.

Taken together, these four candidates embody the state of our racial politics: warring factions, distrust and denial. They represent strikingly different visions for the role of Black citizenry in our Republic. Their candidacies, even symbolically, can’t inspire much hope.

The hope will have to come from Georgia’s voters instead.