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What Went Down In Tuesday’s Southern Primaries

If all the chips fall Democrats’ way in November and beyond, Tuesday could be remembered as the day that launched some prominent political careers.

In Georgia, former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams won the Democratic primary for governor, 76.5 percent to 23.5 percent, over former state Rep. Stacey Evans. While Abrams was expected to win, her margin far exceeded the average lead of 22 percentage points she held in the polls, and it’s likely to bolster her reputation as a rising Democratic star. Abrams admits that it’s her intention to run for president someday (just not until 2028 at the earliest).

If elected in November, Abrams would make history as the first female African-American governor of any state. In addition to being a milestone in American history, that would be an important achievement for the Democratic Party. Few voting blocs are more loyal Democrats than black women (according to exit polls, 94 percent of them voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016), but Democrats have faced criticism for taking their support for granted and not having enough black female party leaders. Had Abrams lost, that criticism would have likely intensified.

Abrams’s candidacy will also be a test of Georgia’s politics. While her primary opponent, Evans, promised to reach out to Republicans and independents, Abrams has staked her campaign on maximizing minority turnout in the general election. Georgia has favorable demographics for such a strategy (it’s 47 percent non-white), but it’s a gamble. Georgia is still a red state. No Democrat has won a gubernatorial, U.S. Senate or presidential contest there since 2000. But Georgia has a lot of Republican voters who have at least partially soured on President Trump and could perhaps be persuaded to back a Democrat for governor.

Theoretically, Abrams’s strategy can work: Democrat Jason Carter lost the 2014 gubernatorial race by 200,443 votes in a year when more than 1 million African-American voters stayed home. And, in another departure from typical campaign strategy, Abrams has devoted the lion’s share of her campaign resources to a massive field operation to identify and turn out those voters. Abrams enters the general election as the underdog. But any Democrat would be the underdog, and if nothing else, it promises to be one of the most ambitious political-science experiments ever. (Abrams will face either Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle or state Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who finished first and second, respectively, in the GOP primary and will meet in a runoff in July to decide the nomination.)

In another closely watched contest a couple of states to the north, former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath defeated Lexington Mayor Jim Gray 49 percent to 41 percent in the Democratic primary in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District. Although national Democrats recruited Gray into the race, it would be a mistake to view McGrath’s win as a blow to the party establishment. Democratic pooh-bahs sent signals that they would be equally happy with McGrath as their candidate. In fact, some are even suggesting that she could be Democrats’ U.S. Senate candidate against Mitch McConnell in 2020.

This will probably be the race about which you’ll read the most hot takes today. Sure, it’s possible that McGrath’s win is another sign that Democratic primary voters are rejecting “establishment” candidates — McGrath’s campaign rhetoric sought to frame Gray as the choice of Washington insiders — but that’s not consistent with Tuesday’s other major races (see below). McGrath furthers the trend of women dominating in Democratic primaries so far this year, but Tuesday was actually a bit of a down night for women overall, as they won six of their 14 head-to-head matchups with male candidates.1 Personally, I would take the race at face value: McGrath’s powerful announcement video yielded a flood of campaign donations, giving her more resources to spread her message. (She outspent Gray $1.7 million to $892,000.)

National Democrats initially preferred Gray because of his proven ability to win the 6th District (he carried it 52 percent to 48 percent as Democrats’ U.S. Senate candidate in 2016). But Tuesday’s results suggest that McGrath may be an even stronger general-election candidate. While Gray won Fayette County, where he serves as mayor, McGrath won all the other counties in the district — mostly rural areas that vote Republican in general elections. Turnout in the Democratic primary also spiked in those McGrath-won counties, whereas it was almost flat in Fayette.

Of course, primary electorates aren’t the same as general-election electorates, but Kentucky is unusual in that it has lots of registered Democrats who consistently vote Republican, a vestige of a time when it was a blue state. At last count, registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans 55 percent to 36 percent in the 6th District, and Kentucky has closed primaries, meaning the only race those registered Democrats could vote in was the Democratic primary. The fact that registered Democrats in red counties appeared enthusiastic for McGrath’s candidacy bodes well for her ability to compete for their support in the fall.

McGrath still faces an uphill climb against incumbent Republican Rep. Andy Barr. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric,2 the 6th District is 17 percentage points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole. Yet immediately after McGrath was declared the winner, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released an internal poll showing her defeating Barr by 15 points. We’ve warned you about the inaccuracy of internal polls before, and this one seems way too good to be true for Democrats. But it’s still notable that the party is acting so confident in such a red district.

Finally, deep in the heart of Texas, perhaps Tuesday’s most anticipated race ended up fizzling out: Establishment pick Lizzie Pannill Fletcher trounced #Resistance activist Laura Moser 67 percent to 33 percent for the Democratic nomination in the 7th Congressional District. Although everyone in the other 49 states saw this race as a referendum on the DCCC after it released an opposition-research dump on Moser in February, both campaigns had seemed to put the kerfuffle behind them. (The runoff was even described as “boring,” and a debate moderator expressed annoyance at the lack of differences between the two.) That may have allowed anger over the DCCC’s attack to subside — or maybe, despite conventional wisdom that the attack backfired and propelled Moser into the runoff, it never actually mattered to voters in the first place. Local Texas reporters suggested that most of the outrage over the incident came from outside the district.

Regardless of how it happened, Democrats got the stronger candidate they needed to maximize their general-election chances in this R+7 district, and the local party, at least, appears unified and unaggrieved; Moser endorsed Fletcher almost immediately after conceding.

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, Democratic primaries for U.S. Senate, U.S. House or governor that did not feature incumbents and that featured at least one male candidate and at least one female candidate.

  2. The average difference between how a jurisdiction voted in the past two presidential elections and how the country voted overall, with 2016 results weighted 75 percent and 2012 results weighted 25 percent.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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