The last Democrat elected governor of Georgia served a single term that ended 15 years ago. Roy Barnes lost to Sonny Perdue in 2002 in large part due to his decision to alter the state flag to minimize the presence of the Confederate battle cross. Before him, Zell Miller served two terms as a Democrat in the governor's mansion before becoming a U.S. senator. In 2004, Miller delivered a keynote address at the Republican National Convention, where he endorsed President George W. Bush and argued that his party had lost its way. Since then all signs have suggested that the state, which had previously not had a Republican governor since Reconstruction, would remain in the hands of the GOP for the foreseeable future.
In 2018, Stacey Abrams may be on the verge of reversing this trend. Abrams is a fascinating woman. While her campaign has generated some enthusiasm from progressives, she is very much a center-right, pro-business candidate whose most radical position is support for the expansion of Medicaid, which she has described as her top priority. On her campaign website she boasts of her A rating from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. In 2011, as the Democratic minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, she defeated what has been described as the "single largest tax increase in Georgia history." She has benefited from the skepticism of business leaders towards her opponent, Brian Kemp, the Georgia secretary of state, who has been coy about his position on religious freedom legislation. She has also written a number of popular romantic thrillers under the pen name Serena Montgomery. One of them begins with a quotation from Wordsworth. If she is elected, she will almost certainly be the most powerful novelist in the United States, if not the world.
On the eve of the election, polls suggest that Abrams is narrowly trailing Kemp, who has continued to serve as secretary of state throughout the campaign. This means that on Tuesday the election will be overseen by an official who is running for the highest office on the ballot. Nice work if you can get it. Various Democratic luminaries have urged Kemp to step down, but when is the last time somebody did something because Jimmy Carter asked him to?
Meanwhile under Kemp's watch more than a million voters have been purged from the rolls. He has also used his authority as secretary of state to authorize a highly publicized last-minute investigation of the Georgia Democratic party for alleged "cyber crimes," including attempts to hack the state's voter rolls. If you can believe that, I have some secret information about a wrongly imprisoned member of the Spanish royal family I'd like to share with you.
This seemingly desperate ploy is one of many bizarre aspects of the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia. Will Ferrell is down there campaigning for Abrams. So is Oprah. Voters are receiving robocalls featuring a racist impersonation of Oprah Winfrey funded by a white supremacist organization that has also targeted Andrew Gillum in Florida. Kemp's own campaign has released a statement about "militant Black Panthers ... armed and patrolling the streets of Georgia for Stacey Abrams." So far the armies have not materialized.
At this point, if both public polls and the data from candidates' internals holds up, one possible outcome on Tuesday is a runoff election that will be scheduled for early December. In Georgia a candidate for governor must earn a majority of at least 50 percent. The presence of a Libertarian candidate makes this even more likely, given the 2 percent share earned by the third party in 2014's governor's race. It would be the first such gubernatorial runoff in the history of the state. Last year's Georgia special election between now-Rep. Karen Handel (R) and Democrat Jon Ossoff was the most expensive House race in history at the time. One would expect an overtime contest between Abrams and Kemp to attract similarly grotesque levels of outside spending.
There is something hopeful about the idea that a black woman could be elected to statewide office in Georgia less than two decades after a member of her party was denied re-election for taking a modest stand on behalf of decency and sensitivity, indeed only 26 years since segregationist Lester Maddox's name last appeared on a Democratic ballot. This would be a victory, not for the rather bland centrist combination of economic and social liberalism Abrams is running on, but for something more important than elections. This is the only heartening thing about an otherwise grotesque spectacle that has shown the GOP at its post-Dixiecrat race-baiting worst.