ATLANTA—Democrat Stacey Abrams came closer Tuesday to becoming the first woman and first African-American to serve as Georgia’s governor, and the first black woman to hold that office in the U.S.
But the road ahead is steep: Republicans have dominated state politics, currently holding every major statewide office and controlling both houses of the General Assembly. Democrats haven’t held the governor’s seat in this state since 2003.
Ms. Abrams won the primary with about 76% of the vote to Stacey Evans’s 24%, after a rough campaign that pitted the former state House minority leader from Atlanta, who has hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, against a white multimillionaire from the suburbs. Both ran on a progressive platform, saying they wanted to improve education, health care and transit.
In her victory speech, Ms. Abrams called for “a Georgia that sees diversity as our strength, and acceptance as our birthright.”
Ms. Abrams’s nomination comes as the South is growing with an influx of minorities and others from northern states, as well as immigrants. Strategists in both parties have pointed to the demographic shift, as well as the growth of urban areas like Atlanta and Nashville, as signs of coming political change for the region. Republicans have worked to reach out to minorities and young people in Georgia and elsewhere—so far with few results. But the GOP’s base of older white voters have brought them repeated victories in statewide races across the region.
In the Republican primary, front-runner Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle failed to secure 50% of his party’s votes and will face a July runoff against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp.
Mr. Cagle won 39% of the vote, beating Mr. Kemp, who received 26%, and several other rivals, according to the unofficial results from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office.
Ms. Abrams, 44 years old, and Mr. Cagle, 52, have been involved in state politics for years. Ms. Abrams, a lawyer, led the Democratic Party as it fought to stay relevant in a chamber dominated by the GOP.
With her primary victory, Ms. Abrams becomes the first black woman to win a major party nomination for governor in the U.S., according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics. Ms. Abrams, who was endorsed by former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, as well as liberal firebrands Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) and former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), now will draw even more national attention—and likely visits from 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants coming to Georgia to stump on her behalf.
Ben Clark, a political science lecturer at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, Ga., said both parties face challenges in the general election. Democrats are seeking to increase voter participation from minorities and younger people, but he said, “it’s always difficult to get nonvoters to vote.”
Similar efforts fell short in past gubernatorial elections, including a big push in 2014 for Jason Carter, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. In Georgia, voters don’t register with a party, but can request a primary ballot from either one when they get to their polling station. In this year’s primaries for governor, about 600,000 people voted in the Republican primary, and about 550,000 in the Democratic primary.
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The Democrats have a "blue wave" of momentum building for the 2018 midterms, thanks to a motivated base, success in special elections and a low approval rating for President Trump. Will that be enough to take back the House and the Senate?
Republicans are counting on their conservative base, people who voted for President Donald Trump and right-leaning independents. But that coalition has been an uneasy one, with tensions arising between Trump voters and pro-business establishment Republicans over a range of issues in recent years, from gun-rights legislation to religious-liberty bills. Conservatives consider such bills as protecting religious expression, while some businesses view them as discriminatory toward gay people and others.
Republicans hope voters choose to keep a Republican in the governor’s office after eight years of relative growth and economic recovery under current Gov. Nathan Deal, who is term-limited.
Mr. Cagle faces a costly and combative campaign within his party until the July 24 runoff, time that he could spend campaigning against the Democratic nominee and wooing more centrist voters. There is a “sizable Republican electorate that can’t stand Cagle” because they see him as mainstream, Mr. Clark said.
Mr. Cagle made national news in February when he helped kill a GOP-sponsored bill that would have provided substantial tax breaks on jet fuel and aided Delta Air Lines Inc., after the airline’s decision to cut benefits for members of the National Rifle Association in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting.
Despite that move, as well as some hard talk about illegal immigration, he hasn’t persuaded the far right of the party that he truly embraces their positions on immigration and other issues, and in November, they might not show up to the polls, Mr. Clark said.
Those voters likely will coalesce behind the conservative Mr. Kemp, making him the standard-bearer of the far right against what they perceive to be the establishment GOP, Mr. Clark said. During the primary race, Mr. Kemp gained attention with commercials showing him with a shotgun, a chain saw and a truck, which he said he would use to round up illegal immigrants.
“If you want a politically incorrect conservative, that’s me,” he says in one ad.
Ms. Abrams has argued that her financial status makes her more sensitive to the needs of working people. In her most recent disclosure filed with the state, she listed her net worth at about $110,000. She also reported about $174,000 in credit-card and student-loan debt, and about $54,000 in back taxes and fines to the Internal Revenue Service.
Republicans already have begun attacking Ms. Abrams about her debts. Gov. Deal had about $2.4 million worth of personal debt when he ran for governor in 2010.
Lowell Cagle, who goes by his nickname Casey, never graduated from college. He ran a tuxedo rental business for years. A state senator since 1995, Mr. Cagle was elected lieutenant governor in 2006 and has held the office for three terms. Mr. Cagle sought to run for governor in the 2010 race but abruptly dropped out in 2009, citing back problems.
Mr. Kemp, 55, was a state senator from 2003 to 2007. In 2006, he ran for state agriculture commissioner and lost. He was first elected secretary of state in 2010.
—Reid J. Epstein contributed to this article
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