Democrat Stacey Abrams won her party’s nomination in Georgia’s gubernatorial primary on Tuesday, becoming the first black woman in the country to win a major party’s nomination for governor.
She’s now hoping to win the general election and become the first African-American woman elected governor in the United States. It will be a more difficult task than winning the primary.
Georgia is still a red-leaning state. No Democrat has won a major statewide race in Georgia since 2006. No Democrat has won a governor’s race there since 1998. Republican President Donald Trump won the state by a five percentage point margin in 2016, even when he was losing nationally by a two-point margin.
The good news for Democrats is that the state seems to be becoming a little bit more purple over the last few election cycles. Trump’s five-point win was less than Republican Mitt Romney’s eight-point win in 2012, even though Trump lost the popular vote by two percentage points less. Trump’s win in Georgia is also considerably less impressive than when Republican George W. Bush won it by 12 in 2000 under a similar national environment.
Trump also continues to be less popular than the average Republican in Georgia. In two live interview polls conducted earlier this year by Mason-Dixon and the University of Georgia among registered voters, Trump’s net approval (approval - disapproval) rating averaged just -11 percentage points in Georgia. That was only slightly better than his overall popularity nationally at the time. (Nationally, of course, his popularity has seemed to improve over the course of this year.)
Here’s the bad for Democrats: It’s not entirely clear that Trump’s unpopularity in the state is going to weigh down his fellow Republicans down-ticket.
Back in June 2017, Republican Karen Handel defeated Jon Ossoff in a special election for Georgia’s 6th congressional district by just under 4 points. Trump won the district by about 1.5 percentage points in 2016, meaning Handel outperformed Trump by more than 2 points in a race where Democratic outside groups spent millions on behalf of Ossoff’s campaign.
In the special elections held in the state so far, Democrats have had a difficult time doing better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. In 11 special state legislative or congressional elections in the state since Trump became president with at least one Democrat and one Republican running, the average Republican margin has run about 8.2 points ahead of Trump’s margin in those districts.
Even if we look at only those races with only one Democratic candidate and one Republican running, Republicans are only running 2.5 points behind Trump’s margin in Georgia. Nationally, Republicans have been running behind Trump’s margin by double-digits.
Georgia Democrats’ inability to do considerably better than Clinton might be attributable to Trump representing a sort of worst case for Republicans in the state.
We’ve seen in special elections nationally this cycle that the 2012 presidential vote patterns have done a better job at predicting the swing in the special elections than the 2016 presidential vote patterns. Given that Georgia is one of the rare states where Trump did worse than Romney, it makes sense that Democrats are having a hard time outperforming someone (Clinton) who is already outperforming the 2012 baseline.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Abrams trails in general election polling against the Republicans’ most likely nominee, Casey Cagle. An average of two polls (neither of which are gold standard) taken since the beginning of the year has Cagle ahead of Abrams by a 5.5 percentage point margin.
Now, Cagle’s early lead is far from insurmountable. The average difference between the polls from January to June before a governor’s election and the end result since 2006 has been 7.5 percentage points, which is less than Cagle’s current advantage. Taking into account the uncertainty of early polling, Abrams would win a little more than one-fourth of the time. In other words, the polling at this point suggests that she would win a little more often than a coin would land on heads twice in a row if it were flipped.
Perhaps, Abrams best chance is for Republicans to have a bloody primary runoff. If Cagle and his Republican opponent Brian Kemp attack each other while Abrams rallies the Democratic base were she to win the primary, it could give her an opportunity to exploit Republican discord.