Georgia's fraught history with 'outsiders' shapes a tight governor's race

Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: John Amis/AP, Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: John Amis/AP, Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

The race for governor of Georgia, which rarely attracts much national interest, is suddenly exciting this year, with a charismatic Democratic candidate in Stacey Abrams facing off against a standard-issue Southern Republican, Brian Kemp. But the national attention for the race — partly owing to Abrams’s mediagenic personality, partly because Kemp is in the anomalous position of running in an election that he also oversees as Georgia secretary of state — is directed toward a state with a long history of viewing outsiders with skepticism and suspicion.

“Georgia history matters, and Georgia has a unique political history that has historically inflated the politics of localism and the definition of what is Georgia and what is Georgian,” Jason Morgan Ward, a historian at Emory University, told Yahoo News.

Much of this psychology springs from, and is sometimes intertwined with, the state’s legacy of segregation and Jim Crow. As in many Deep South states, resentment still simmers toward “outside agitators” — a term Kemp actually used in an official statement — who marched and organized for civil rights in the 1960s.

But suspicion of out-of-staters is so deeply embedded in the state’s political psyche that many times the conversation around outsiders bears no relation to race.

“Typically a candidate in Georgia, particularly running for governor, wants to say, ‘Look at all this support I got from Hahira or Savannah or Cuthbert, rather than what I’m getting from New York or San Francisco,” said James Salzer, an investigative reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who has covered Georgia politics for 28 years, in a recent episode of the newspaper’s podcast “Politically Georgia.”

Greg Bluestein, host of “Politically Georgia,” agreed with Salzer, noting that Abrams was “not trying to hide” her association with national Democrats, calling it “a pretty big shift.”

Abrams had raised $16 million as of the end of September, with much of it from outside the state but also a good portion from small donations in Georgia. For his part, Kemp has received millions from the Republican Governors Association, which takes unlimited contributions from donors around the country.

Kemp is calling Abrams as a “radical” for her positions on health care, taxes, immigration and other issues.

Two years ago, when Abrams was leader of the House Democrats in the state legislature, conservative writer Charlie Harper noted that her support for a broad gun control bill in the state legislature marked a departure for a Democrat in the state. The bill, which did not pass, would have banned “assault weapons, large-capacity magazine and armor-piercing bullets and allow[ed] the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to ‘seize and take possession of’” those types of firearms and ammunition, according to the Journal-Constitution.

Harper contrasted Abrams’s support for the legislation with past practice, when Georgia Democrats did not want to be seen with a national Democrat like President Bill Clinton.

“I’m not saying I could never work with these people. … I know the respect that [Republicans] in the House [have] for minority leader Abrams. She knows how to work her politics, she knows how to get involved on key issues. She’s been part of key decisions such as Saving Hope,” Harper said, referring to Abrams’s work with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal on reforms to higher education assistance programs.

“I’m saying the future brand of the Democratic Party in Georgia, this is a signal that it’s going to align with the national party, not continue to try to put an asterisk and say, ‘On some things we’re like them but we’re really not,’” Harper said.

Harper also noted that “rural Georgia Democrats pretty much don’t exist anymore.” He didn’t mention that most rural Democrats in the state would have been white, but that was the historical reality. And when talk turns to the tension between rural and urban Georgia, the distinction between what is Georgian and what is not slips back into a clear racial divide in the state.

Until 1962, Georgia used what was known as the “county unit system” to allow rural counties to exercise more power over state politics than urban centers such as Atlanta. It was “a method of indirect election,” former President Jimmy Carter wrote in his 1992 book “Turning Point,” that elected statewide officials by votes allocated to each county based on their geographical size, not their population.

Carter’s election to the state Senate in 1964 was made possible by the dissolution of this system under court challenge.

But until then, “the county unit system penalized minorities and cities,” wrote historian E. Stanly Godbold Jr. in his 2010 book “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: The Georgia Years, 1924-1974.”

“It was a convenient vehicle to nullify the ballots of the few African-Americans who voted in the 1950s,” Godbold wrote. “By mid-20th century, Atlanta’s densely populated Fulton County had less representation than the state’s sparsely populated southwestern counties.”

So for Abrams, the calculation to embrace outside money and outside support may have been based on the conclusion that she would be treated as inauthentically Georgian by many Republicans and white rural conservatives even if she tried to moderate her liberalism in an effort to win them over.

“If you ask for a composite of an outside agitator … it would apply as much to Atlanta as it would to New York or Chicago,” said Ward, the Emory historian.

And all of this may explain partly why Kemp used the term “outside agitators” to dismiss his critics in a recent official statement from his post as secretary of state. It was a term commonly used in the not-too-distant past by white supremacists and segregationists to delegitimize civil rights activists.

But it’s also rooted in the state’s long-running hostility to anyone from outside the state, which has bled into the state’s political psychology in ways that often surface in nonracial terms.


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