Opinion | Stacey Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo: How to Turn Your Red State Blue

It may take 10 years. Do it anyway.

Credit…June Park

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By Stacey Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo

Ms. Abrams was the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia in 2018. Ms. Groh-Wargo was her campaign manager. They opened Fair Fight Action in late 2018.

We met and became political partners a decade ago, uniting in a bid to stave off Democratic obsolescence and rebuild a party that would increase the clout of regular, struggling Georgians. Our mission was clear: organize people, help realize gains in their lives, win local races to build statewide competitiveness and hold power accountable.

But the challenge was how to do that in a state where many allies had retreated into glum predictions of defeat, where our opponents reveled in shellacking Democrats at the polls and in the Statehouse.

That’s not all we had to contend with. There was also a 2010 census undercount of people of color, a looming Republican gerrymander of legislative maps and a new Democratic president midway into his first term confronting a holdover crisis from the previous Republican administration. Though little in modern American history compares with the malice and ineptitude of the botched pandemic response or the attempted insurrection at the Capitol, the dynamic of a potentially inaccurate census and imminent partisan redistricting is the same story facing Democrats in 2021 as it was in 2011. State leaders and activists we know across the country who face total or partial Republican control are wondering which path they should take in their own states now — and deep into the next decade.

Georgians deserved better, so we devised and began executing a 10-year plan to transform Georgia into a battleground state. As the world knows, President Biden won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in November, and the January runoff elections for two Senate seats secured full congressional control for the Democratic Party. Yet the result wasn’t a miracle or truly a surprise, at least not to us. Years of planning, testing, innovating, sustained investment and organizing yielded the record-breaking results we knew they could and should. The lessons we learned can help other states looking to chart a more competitive future for Democrats and progressives, particularly those in the Sun Belt, where demographic change will precede electoral opportunity.

We realize that many people are thinking about Stacey’s political future, but right now we intend to talk about the unglamorous, tedious, sometimes technical, often contentious work that creates a battleground state. When fully embraced, this work delivers wins — whether or not Donald Trump is on the ballot — as the growth Georgia Democrats have seen in cycle after cycle shows. Even in tough election years, we have witnessed the power of civic engagement on policy issues and increases in Democratic performance. This combination of improvements has also resulted in steady gains in local races and state legislative races, along with the continued narrowing of the statewide loss margin in election after election that finally flipped the state in 2020 and 2021.

The task is hard, the progress can feel slow, and winning sometimes means losing better. In 2012, for example, we prevented the Republicans from gaining a supermajority in the Georgia House of Representatives, which would have allowed them to pass virtually any bill they wanted. We won four seats they had drawn for themselves, and in 2014 we maintained those gains — just holding our ground was a victory.

The steps toward victory are straightforward: understand your weaknesses, organize with your allies, shore up your political infrastructure and focus on the long game. Georgia’s transformation is worth celebrating, and how it came to be is a long and complicated story, which required more than simply energizing a new coterie of voters. What Georgia Democrats and progressives accomplished here — and what is happening in Arizona and North Carolina — can be exported to the rest of the Sun Belt and the Midwest, but only if we understand how we got here.

Understand why you’re losing.

To know how to win, we first had to understand why a century of Democratic Party dominance in Georgia had been erased. For most of the 20th century, Georgia Democrats had existed in a strained alliance of rural conservatives, urban liberals and suburbanites, all unconvinced that voting Republican would serve their ends. After serving as the incubator of the Gingrich revolution in the early 1990s, Georgia turned sharply to the right. When Democrats lost U.S. Senate seats in 2002 and 2004, as well as the governorship in 2002, it showed that former conservative Democrats had fully turned Republican. The Democratic Party lost its grip on power. By 2010, Democrats were losing every statewide race, and in 2012 the State Senate fell to a Republican supermajority. Clearly, Democrats had to change tactics.

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