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Democrats Turn To More Women And First-Timers In Southern Primaries

Democratic candidate for Georgia Governor Stacey Abrams waves to supporters on Tuesday after speaking at an election night watch party in Atlanta.
John Bazemore
Democratic candidate for Georgia Governor Stacey Abrams waves to supporters on Tuesday after speaking at an election night watch party in Atlanta.

Updated at 11:47 p.m. ET

Tuesday was another big night for Democratic women and political newcomers in the party, with a historic nomination in Georgia, an intra-party squabble settled in Texas and an upset victory in a Kentucky House race.

The day's contests featured Democratic ideological and stylistic battles, but in the end the national party largely got the candidates they wanted — especially in critical Texas — that they believe will be the most competitive general election nominees.

Stacey Abrams easily won the Democratic nod for governor in Georgia, beating fellow former state legislator Stacey Evans with her argument that firing up the base is the best way to win in a conservative state, instead of primarily focusing on flipping moderates. Abrams still faces a tough general election, but if she wins in November she'd be the first African-American female governor in U.S. history. With her primary win, she's already the first black woman ever to be nominated for governor by a major political party.

The progressive vs. pragmatic divide framed a big race in Texas, where activists had placed their hopes in Laura Moser. She was targeted by national Democrats who thought she was too liberal to flip a swing district in the Houston suburbs. The populist left had tried to to score more wins after finally bringing the fight to party leaders by defeating their favored candidate in a Nebraska primary last week, but ultimately they came up short this week with Moser losing handily to Lizzie Fletcher, herself a first-time candidate.

Democrats are hoping to target a suburban House seat in Kentucky, and it's another woman — Marine combat veteran Amy McGrath — who nabbed her party's nomination in yet another example of Democratic women prevailing in their primaries. She's a political newcomer who beat a long-time elected official backed by some establishment Democrats.

Georgia: Abrams wins Democratic nomination big by appealing to party base

Democrats have struggled for years to win statewide in Georgia, despite the state's changing demographics. Abrams' argument about playing to the base and working to turn out minority voters gave the former state House minority leader a commanding win on Tuesday.

Abrams is running to become the first African-American woman elected governor in U.S. history. Her candidacy drew plenty of national support from women's groups like EMILY's List, plus endorsements from both Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

As NPR's Asma Khalid reported, Abrams believed that "the only way a Democrat can win is by engaging with untapped minority voters, particularly those in rural communities, who've often been overlooked" instead of trying to woo disaffected GOP voters. Her opponent Stacey Evans, who is white, said she would largely hew to the traditional Southern Democratic strategy of trying to win over centrists and independents, while also campaigning in black communities. But Democratic voters in the state overwhelmingly chose the approach by Abrams instead.

Abrams still starts as the underdog against the Republican nominee, who wasn't chosen yet on Tuesday. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp will advance to a July runoff in the race to succeed term-limited GOP Gov. Nathan Deal.

Texas: Lone Star liberals vs. centrists

The most high-profile Democratic fight was in the runoff in the Texas 7th Congressional District. The suburban Houston seat fits the mold of Democratic top-tier targets: High-income and highly-educated voters who narrowly backed Hillary Clinton over President Trump in 2016, while also reelecting Republican Rep. John Culberson.

Because the seat is so high on their list of targets, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee made the unusual decision to plop itself right in the middle of the crowded primary ahead of the March ballot. The DCCC unloaded an opposition research memo on candidate Laura Moser, a progressive activist who party leaders worry would lose a fall campaign against Culberson.

The move backfired at first and Moser advanced to the runoff against attorney Lizzie Fletcher, who most party leaders prefer. Both candidates said the DCCC drama had minimal impact on Houston voters, but Moser was able to raise money off the party's hardball tactics. She became a cause célèbre and Exhibit A for progressive candidates across the country who have felt squeezed by party leaders looking for general election candidates who can appeal to Republicans and independents. But in the end, it was Fletcher who prevailed.

Culberson's district is probably Democrats' best chance to flip a district in Texas, but there are other contests on their radar too. The DCCC got their favored candidate in former NFL player Colin Allred. He'll challenge GOP Rep. Pete Sessions in a suburban Dallas district that also voted narrowly for Clinton. Allred beat out fellow former Obama administration official Lillian Salerno in the 32nd District in one of the rare losses for a female candidate.

In the 23rd District, the DCCC also got their favored candidate with Iraq War veteran Gina Ortiz Jones beating former Sanders activist Rick Trevino. Ortiz Jones, an openly gay first-generation Filipina-American, will face Will Hurd in the expansive border district that also voted for Clinton.

Texas Democrats will have a woman as their nominee for governor too — though she faces an uphill climb in the conservative state. Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, another openly gay woman, won her runoff over Andrew White, the son of a former governor.

Kentucky: Fighter pilot beats the mayor

Three-term GOP Rep. Andy Barr is rising atop Democratic target lists, and he will face retired Marine Lt. Colonel Amy McGrath, who won her primary over Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. McGrath drew national attention last year when she released an ad that quickly went viral showing the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran talking about when she was younger and politicians told her that she shouldn't be a fighter pilot — but went on to become one anyway.

Despite McGrath's national surge and fundraising pull following her entrance, Gray also joined the race soon after, encouraged by some national Democrats who have long eyed him as an ideal challenger to Barr. He's an openly gay Southern Democrat who carried the 6th District in the 2016 Senate race, when he challenged Republican Sen. Rand Paul.

Democratic strategists were split on who would be the stronger challenger, and there were no clear progressive vs. centrist divides in this contest, though McGrath has probably drawn more liberal support. She painted Gray as part of the political establishment, but the DCCC didn't weigh in for either candidate. Some Republicans, however, were more worried about Gray's proven ability to win crossover voters if he had become the nominee.

The race turned negative in its final days as Gray aired an ad criticizing McGrath for just recently moving to the district from the east coast to run for Congress — a clear sign he was worried about her strength in the contest. McGrath responded on Facebook, calling it "an attack against any American citizen who chooses to serve their country in times of war and then come home to continue their service in another way."

Ultimately, that ad could have backfired against Gray and pushed voters to McGrath. She was also possibly buoyed by the surge in female candidates across the country.

DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján called McGrath "battle-tested in more ways than one" in a statement and argued that the primary had only made her stronger. "

"Amy has built a formidable campaign, and voters across the district have responded to her message of leadership and standing up for affordable health care," Luján said. "With her inspiring record of service and all of the momentum at her back, there is no question that Amy McGrath is ready to flip this key district."

But Congressional Leadership Fund executive director Corry Bliss, who directs the House GOP's main outside superPAC, argued that the divisive primary had ended with the more progressive candidate winning.

"Once again, the DCCC meddled in a primary and failed," Bliss said. "Now, Democrats are stuck with an ultra-liberal candidate who can't even name the counties she wants to represent in Congress. As this race continues, CLF looks forward to informing Kentucky voters of McGrath's ultra-liberal political views, including her support for single-payer health care and her opposition to a $2,052 tax cut for hardworking families."

Arkansas: Wave watching

National Democrats' recruit state Rep. Clarke Tucker won his primary outright to challenge GOP Rep. French Hill in the only closely-watched race in the state. All three of his opponents ran to Tucker's left by touting a more progressive platform, but Tucker handily outpaced them all and topped the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff.

Democrats probably only had a chance here if Tucker won, and it's still not an easy climb — the state's once-Democratic heavy congressional delegation has been wiped extinct since 2010.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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