A group of young black leaders in the Democratic Party is striding into some of the biggest elections of 2018, staking early claims on governorships and channeling the outcry of rank-and-file Democrats who favor all-out battle with President Donald Trump.
MACON, Ga. — In Georgia, a Democratic lawmaker planning a run for governor promises to confront President Donald Trump and what she calls the “fascists” surrounding him. In Maryland, a former president of the NAACP warns national Democrats not to take African Americans for granted. The mayor of Tallahassee, Florida, goes even further, declaring that Democrats have failed by fixating on centrist voters.
In states from Massachusetts to Florida, a phalanx of young black leaders in the Democratic Party is striding into some of the biggest elections of 2018, staking early claims on governorships and channeling the outcry of rank-and-file Democrats who favor all-out battle with Trump and question his legitimacy as president.
By moving swiftly into the most contentious midterm races, these candidates aim to cement their party in forceful opposition to Trump and to align it unswervingly with minority communities and young people. Rather than muting their differences with the Republican Party in order to compete in states Trump won, like Georgia and Florida, they aim to make those distinctions starker.
And, these Democrats say, they are willing to defy the conventional strategic thinking of the national party establishment, which has tended to recruit moderate, white candidates for difficult races and largely failed to help blacks advance to high office under President Barack Obama.
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Stacey Abrams, the Democratic leader in the Georgia House of Representatives and a likely candidate for governor, said Democrats would win by confronting a president who was viewed with fear and hostility by the party’s base.
Rather than pivoting to the center, Abrams, 43, said Democrats should redouble their focus on registering and energizing blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans, as well as young and low-income voters, who often decline to participate in politics.
“There is a hunger for representation,” Abrams said in an interview. “There is a desire to make certain the state starts to serve everyone.”
At a “Macon Resists” town hall in central Georgia last month, Abrams appealed to an auditorium of anxious Democrats with just that approach. The state, she said, is speeding toward a political crossroads, with Republicans “terrified of the evolving nature of our state.”
“We can either move forward or we can let the president, and those fascists that surround him, pull us backwards,” she said. “I plan to go forward.”
Abrams, who filed paperwork this month to explore a run for governor, spent much of the event explaining the wrangling of the Georgia Legislature in cool, pragmatic terms. But in the interview, she was adamant that Democrats could not “fake a conservative bent” in order to win the next election in her state, which voted for Trump by about 6 percentage points.
“A Democrat wins an election in Georgia by speaking truth to power,” she said.
In other states, black Democratic leaders have been just as pointed in their calls for the party to try something new. Benjamin T. Jealous, a former president of the NAACP, is exploring a campaign for governor of Maryland while warning the national party that minority voters could stay home if they are not inspired. Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee and a declared candidate for governor of Florida, said Democrats had repeatedly erred by failing to “lean into our base” and by chasing votes nearer to the center instead.
These candidates have brandished data indicating that black turnout slumped in 2016, the first presidential election in eight years without Obama on the ballot: The Census Bureau found that black turnout last year dropped sharply from 2012.
The field of states where youthful black Democrats are competing in 2018 is likely to expand: In Massachusetts, Setti Warren, the 46-year-old mayor of Newton, is gearing up for a race against Gov. Charlie Baker, a hugely popular Republican. African-American candidates are more tentatively considering statewide races in Illinois, Nevada and Ohio. And in Virginia’s off-year elections, Justin Fairfax, a 38-year-old former prosecutor, is the favorite to become the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.
A handful of somewhat older black leaders may also test their odds in 2018: Carl Brewer, 60, a former mayor of Wichita, is running for governor in deeply conservative Kansas, and in Maryland, Rushern Baker, the 58-year-old Prince George’s County executive, may also seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican with strong poll ratings.
In Florida, where Democrats have not won a governor’s race since 1994, Gillum, 37, said it was time to discard a losing formula: The party has typically nominated candidates for governor who are white, moderate and from the Tampa area.
Gillum, by contrast, has offered himself as a candidate of the left. A firebrand on the stump, he has called insistently for a rollback of Republican education policies and for aggressive action against climate change. Since House Republicans passed a bill that would gut the Affordable Care Act, Gillum has made protecting health-care regulations on the state level a centerpiece of his message.
“There’s muscle memory that’s been built up over a long time about what the candidate has to look like, sound like, where they have to come from,” he said. “In our case, in Florida, it hasn’t worked.”
That sense of frustration among black Democrats parallels, in some respects, the exasperation Democrats in general have voiced after the 2016 election.
If certain black candidates like Gillum and Abrams are urging an untested path, they may find primary voters more receptive to the idea after the failure of conventional Democratic strategies against Trump. Gillum and Abrams have already attracted significant interest from national liberal donors: Gillum’s first fundraising report showed contributions from members of the Soros family, and several donors supportive of Abrams are expected to create a multimillion-dollar committee to advocate her election, according to people briefed on their plans.
The determination to compete in 2018 may run deeper in the black community, where the sense of political exclusion is even more acute. With the end of the Obama administration, there are few black Democrats in senior positions of power: just two black Democrats in the Senate and no black governors of either party. A third black senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, is a Republican.
There is limited optimism among African-American Democrats that national party leaders will work aggressively to change that. Several of the most promising black candidates or would-be candidates — including Gillum, Abrams and Jealous — are likely to face contested primaries against well-known, well-funded white opponents. And the battle for control of the House and Senate is likely to be fought largely in rural states with few minority voters, and in suburban congressional districts where right-of-center whites often cast the decisive votes.
Symone D. Sanders, a spokeswoman for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential campaign, said she was concerned that national Democrats might reflexively favor white candidates in close races, rather than trusting black candidates to win over swing voters.
“They are not going to get there on their own, so they are going to need to be pushed,” Sanders said of Democratic leaders in Washington. “We need to have candid conversations about the lack of recruitment, the lack of support, for candidates of color on the Democratic side.”
Darrl Settles, a real-estate developer and restaurateur who lives in Newton, recalled that as recently as 2014 his children had attended a school with portraits of Warren; the state’s first black governor, Deval Patrick; and Obama on the walls. A different set of portraits hangs there now.
“If we don’t support black candidates, then my son, who’s 11 years old, and my daughter, who’s 12 years old, would never, ever think to be a public servant,” Settles said, urging black Democrats to pursue high office. “If they’ve got some swag, if they’ve got a skill set, it’s their duty.”