The looming blue wave has Democrats bullish about their electoral prospects in 2018 races once thought unwinnable—and about the ability of less-than-conventional candidates to get the job done. That confidence was on full display at a recent People for the American Way forum in Washington, D.C., where the progressive advocacy group formally endorsed three gubernatorial candidates in their states’ Democratic primaries.
“People for the American Way doesn’t often endorse candidates in primaries, and we’ve never endorsed three at once,” said PFAW President Michael Keegan in his opening remarks. “But these are extraordinary times, and these are extraordinary leaders.”
Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Arizona’s David Garcia, and Florida’s Andrew Gillum are all candidates of color, proud progressives, and relatively young. They are also running in three states where Republicans currently hold trifecta control of state government.
The candidates were frank in acknowledging their states’ recent electoral histories. In solid red Arizona, a Democrat hasn’t won a gubernatorial election since 2002. Georgia may see the first female African American governor in U.S. history in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to that post since 1998. Florida is more of an uphill battle: Gillum stands to face a more competitive Democratic primary than his two counterparts, and Republicans haven’t lost a governor’s race since 1994.
But all three candidates expressed confidence about their abilities to succeed where previous Democrats have failed, touting common strategies of driving voter turnout in states with substantial minority populations and of maintaining consistent, unabashedly progressive messaging.
“What folks don’t realize is that we are very close to changing Arizona,” said Garcia, an Arizona State University education-leadership professor and an Army veteran who nearly won a 2014 bid for state superintendent of public instruction. “We have a groundswell of activity. We’re also seeing voter registration, particularly among the Latino community, at record levels.”
Gillum, the 38-year-old mayor of Tallahassee, echoed that sentiment, highlighting Margaret Good’s special election victory last week in Florida House District 72, a district carried by Donald Trump in 2016. He also emphasized the untapped potential of Democratic voters in the state: Despite losing the past two governor’s races by a single percentage point, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 250,000.
“There are more of us than there are of them. … We need defenders of democracy who are willing to get onto the field and make that [progressive] case and to make it unapologetically,” Gillum said, criticizing what he views as his state party’s bad habit of running more centrist candidates.
“When I talk to donors, it’s very clear that they have muscle memory around what our nominee has to look like, sound like, be like in order to win,” he said, adding that “we’ve got 20 years of evidence” to show that strategy won’t work in Florida.
While the main path to victory for each candidate will most likely lie in driving sufficient numbers of those left-leaning voters to the polls, the candidates equally emphasized the importance of a robust ground game to ensure that enthusiasm translates to votes. “We are actually spending money, early, in these communities, through field, through outreach,”said Abrams, the former minority leader of Georgia’s House of Representatives, noting that past candidates have traditionally made such investments only during the waning days of their campaigns.
The three candidates also dismissed the notion that investing heavily in minority turnout in any way precludes them from appealing to enough Trump voters to win in their states.
“It is a false narrative to say that you can either talk to communities of color, or you talk to white voters. That is not true. It is a both-and solution,” Abrams argued. “It’s about authenticity; there is no reason to abandon progressive values to win any voter.”
Garcia agreed: “What is missing, and what we believe we bring to this election in Arizona, is something to vote for. … This is not about multiple messages.”
Gillum also stressed the importance of making consistent arguments to voters, regardless of their ethnic or racial backgrounds or where they live. He recalled a campaign stop he made last year at a retirement community in one of the most conservative voting precincts in Florida, where his vision for the state inspired so many retirees that a simple meet-and-greet turned into an impromptu fundraiser, netting nearly $6,000 in small donations.
“We know that if you have something to vote for, an authentic candidate who stands in her principles,” Abrams said, “we will not just ride the wave, we’re gonna build it—and it’s gonna sweep across the South.”