At Columbia Drive United Methodist church in Decatur, Ga., the congregation bowed their heads under a brightly lit cross and prayed for their fellow worshiper — Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader in the Georgia legislature now running for governor.
“We want to pray for Stacey Abrams,” the pastor said, as people in the pews shouted “Yeah, that’s right” in agreement. “We want to pray, with her the season may change – that with her being elected as the governor of the great state of Georgia that all of those ideas from the current administration be answered to the way of righteousness.”
It was not lost on anyone at church the significance of what Abrams is trying to do. Not a single sitting governor in any of the 50 states is black. In fact, in the history of the United States only two African-American men have ever been elected governor. If elected she would not only become one of the few black governors in American history, she would also be the nation’s first black female governor.
Abrams, who faces a competitive primary against Democrat Stacey Evans on May 22, stepped up to the pulpit with a lesson from the scripture on voting, power, and the allocation of resources.
“I was sitting back there thinking about Esther chapter 4, verse 14,” she said. “And it’s a verse that says, ‘If you remain silent at this time, there will be salvation that comes for others, but you and your family may not see it.'”
This year, at least eight black candidates are running for governor across the country. They include candidates in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.
“In terms of there being viable black candidates running for governor, this is definitely the biggest opportunity and biggest time we’ve seen this much at once,” said Quentin James, the founder of the Collective PAC, a national group focused on recruiting, training and funding progressive black candidates.
But despite the numbers running this year, individually, they all face an uphill battle.
Voters seek visible black leadership
“I believe the only way to win Georgia is to… essentially get Democrats who have too often been overlooked and unheard to believe that this time if they engage, we can win,” Abrams said.
Her stump speech makes a nod to what her candidacy represents.
She tells the story of being a high school valedictorian who was stopped when she was trying to attend a party for valedictorians with the governor. She says a guard told her, “This is a private event, you don’t belong here.”
“I’m running for governor because I intend to… open those gates wide so no one ever doubts they belong in our Georgia,” she told voters on a recent campaign stop in Marietta.
Standing in the crowd was Ben Williams, 76, from nearby Mableton. He said he sees Abrams’ run as a seismic change in politics – on the level of Barack Obama’s election.
“We’re in the deep south,” he said. “Stacey Abrams being elected as the first woman and the first black person of a southern state (would be) tremendous. Tremendous.”
In multiple interviews with black voters at Abrams events — and even in some interviews with voters at Evans events – issues of representation and race were common.
“Definitely having somebody that looks like you to represent you, always helps. But that doesn’t mean it starts and stops there,” said Gee Smalls, 41. He was at a lounge in Atlanta with his husband to hear from Abrams primary opponent Stacey Evans, who is white.
Smalls said he’s still undecided about his vote, but the race of the candidate carries some weight. “[Abrams] does experience some of the same discriminations that we experience, that her opponent Evans will never be able to experience,” he said.
Over 30 percent of Georgia’s eligible voting population is black, and the state is expected to become majority-minority by 2025, according to estimates from the States of Change project.
But that demography coupled with the lack of visible black leadership has led to some frustration.
“Black people have been very loyal in the Democratic party,” said Aimee Allison, president of Democracy in Color, a national organization focused on race and politics. “They’re brand loyal. And white Democrats have counted on the black vote for electoral success.”
Allison lives in California, but she’s one of many black women who flew to Georgia to help Abrams get out the vote.
National groups like BlackPAC and Higher Heights for America are also investing in the race — helping with phone banking, door knocking and ads — specifically targeting African-American voters.
Racial roadblocks and opportunity
Historically, activists and analysts say black candidates have faced two major roadblocks to the governorship: Money and race, which can appear intertwined.
Last month, Setti Warren dropped out of the governor’s race in Massachusetts specifically citing his trouble fundraising. “The money just isn’t there to run the kind of campaign I want to run,” he said in a statement.
In Maryland, Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker is one of three African-Americans running for governor in the Democratic primary. Although he’s considered one of the front-runners in a crowded field, he too said it was difficult for him to get people to support his campaign early on.
“The first issue issue for any person of color running statewide, the first thing they’ll ask you about is money — ‘we don’t think you can raise money,'” said Baker. “It’s not even that you don’t have the money, or we’re gonna help you and see how you do. It’s an issue about whether you have the ability to raise money.”
Then, if the Democratic leadership gets over that hurdle, Baker says there will be questions about whether you can realistically win.
Four years ago, Democrats in Maryland elected an African-American as their nominee for governor — Anthony Brown. Brown went on to lose the governor’s race to Republican Larry Hogan, even though there were twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans in the state.
“The question I get asked… is, ‘How are you going to be different from Anthony Brown?” said Baker. He thinks that question is biased and not as frequently asked of any of the white candidates running.
Instead, Baker points to the 2006 election when Maryland was in a similar situation – two white Democrats trying to take on a sitting Republican governor, and he said the establishment didn’t question the credentials of the Democrats at that time.
“People don’t believe black candidates can win,” said James. “If you look at Georgia right now, that’s been a big thing we’ve been hearing about Stacey Abrams, ‘We like Stacey, but can she win statewide?'”
Political strategists say part of the issue is that we still live in segregated communities, and black politicians often get their start with majority-black constituencies as mayors or congressmen. It can be difficult to then translate that political reputation to a statewide office.
But practical reasons aside, James is frustrated because he says the Democratic party will often clear the field for their favored candidate, but not for black candidates.
“No one lines up to have our backs early on,” said James. “Now, they’ll get behind us if we win the primary, but it’s such a cost to do so.”
But in a situation like Maryland — where there are three black candidates running for governor — that idea of clearing the field is more complicated.
In addition to Baker, there are two other black candidates: Valerie Ervin, who’s campaigning in place of her deceased running mate, and Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president who is trying to position himself as the progressive option, calling for Medicare for all and tuition-free college.
Baker said people sometime ask the African-American candidates how they’re going to differentiate themselves. Jealous said the fact that there are multiple black candidates is a sign of progress.
“In a pluralistic society, you can have a pluralistic diverse set of candidates, where multiple racial groups have more than one candidate from their racial group and the voters have a choice,” said Jealous.
Research has shown that when there are candidates of color on the ballot it can motivate people of color to vote.
So Jealous, like Abrams in Georgia, sees untapped voter potential.
“What most Americans fail to realize is you also have swing voters in the black community who swing between voting — typically for a Democrat — and not voting at all,” he said.
For Jealous, and other black candidates, the idea of leadership that more accurately resembles the base of the Democratic Party isn’t just about representation. Representation is tied to to their strategy for winning.