ATLANTA – The Democratic primary battle for Georgia secretary of state – the top elections official in a critical swing state – may come down to questions about how party faithful view diversity and the representation of Black women.
State Rep. Bee Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, is considered the front-runner for the June 21 runoff and has raised far more money than former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, who is Black. Nguyen is endorsed by Stacey Abrams, the Georgia nominee for governor whose organizing efforts were widely credited for driving President Joe Biden’s narrow win here in 2020.
Dawkins-Haigler says Georgia Democrats support Nguyen because she’s not Black and they want to build a more diverse statewide ticket. She says there’s a “a race problem within the Democratic Party.”
Secretaries of state will have to operate and certify elections in 2024 amid a barrage of false claims about voter fraud and a growing national push by Republicans to try to overturn elections they lose. Either Nguyen or Dawkins-Haigler will face Brad Raffensperger, the Republican incumbent who became a national figure after refusing former President Donald Trump’s demands to “find” votes to overturn his loss to Biden.
There are few policy differences between Nguyen and Dawkins-Haigler. Both candidates oppose a Republican-led overhaul of voting laws after the 2020 election, including new restrictions on voting by mail and greater legislative control over how elections are run. Both criticized Raffensperger for backing the changes and said they support hand-marked paper ballots rather than touchscreen voting machines he implemented that print a paper ballot.
The contest has highlighted different visions for Democrats in Georgia as both the state and party base become more diverse.
Nguyen, who won about 44% of the vote in last month’s primary, has the backing of a wide swath of party leaders, most importantly Abrams. Dawkins-Haigler, who snagged nearly 19% of the primary vote, has been endorsed by the three Democrats — all of them Black — who didn't make the runoff.
Besides elections, Georgia's secretary of state's office is responsible other functions that include corporate registration and professional licensing.
All but one of the eight incumbent Republican secretaries of state who sought re-election this year drew at least one GOP challenger who either denied Biden won the presidency or made unsubstantiated claims that elections are not secure.
Raffensperger dispatched a challenge from U.S. Rep Jody Hice, a Trump-endorsed primary challenger without being forced into a runoff.
Black women make up an outsized share of the Democratic electorate in Georgia and are among the party's most reliable voters. In the 2020 primary, they made up 36% of all Democratic voters, and Black people overall made up 57% of Democratic voters. The shares were even higher in the 2018 primary, when Abrams first ran against now-incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp. Then, Black people were 60% of all Democratic voters and Black women were 39%.
Georgia’s Democratic electorate, like the nation’s, also leans toward women, who made up 61% of voters in the 2020 primary and 62% in 2018.
Both Democrats and Republicans are also striving to incorporate more of Georgia’s fast-growing Asian and Hispanic populations into their coalitions. While those voters have become more important in general elections, they haven’t historically been a big factor in primaries. Asian and Hispanic voters combined made up only 4.2% of the Democratic primary electorate in 2020.
Dawkins-Haigler says prominent Georgia Democrats believe a more diverse ticket would appeal more to white voters who could be scared away if there are too many Black people on the party's ticket. It's a calculation she says risks alienating the party's base.
“It’s what I’ve heard all across the entire state. Everyone is having this conversation,” she said.
Nguyen said she's proud to have built a broad-based coalition of endorsers and supporters that she says will help her win in November.
“When I first put my name on the ballot in 2017, folks told me that I wasn’t the right candidate based on my race, on my gender and on my age – things I cannot change about myself,” she said of her first legislative run. “But I connected with the voters in the state of Georgia, and I listened to my constituents on the issues that matter most to them.”
Abrams, who was the only Democrat to run for governor, refrained from endorsements until after the primary. She started with Nguyen, who occupies the state House seat Abrams once held. In the lieutenant governor's race, she chose Charlie Bailey, a white man running against Kwanza Hall, who's Black. In the runoff for labor commissioner, she's backing a Black man, William Boddie, over a white woman, Nicole Horn.
Floyd Griffin, a former state senator and former mayor of the central Georgia city of Milledgeville, was one of the three former Democratic rivals for secretary of state who has endorsed Dawkins-Haigler in the runoff. He tweeted what he called his “Georgia Black Slate” for the Democratic runoffs, which also includes Hall, Boddie and Janice Laws Robinson, who's in a runoff for insurance commissioner against another Black candidate, Raphael Baker.
State Rep. Al Williams of Midway is a Black Democrat who served in the legislature with both Nguyen and Dawkins-Haigler and counts both as friends. Williams said the diverse slate Abrams is trying to build is the best possible future for the party.
“I think her idea is to do what we’ve been talking about for years and that is to make our constitutional offices look like Georgia,” Williams said.
Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie said she's not surprised to hear about appeals to race, says Abrams' endorsement is a clear advantage for Nguyen because it means that Abrams will likely throw the her formidable operation behind Nguyen and her other chosen candidates.
“Whichever group has the best turnout operation is going to win,” she said. “And so I think the question is: Do the insurgent campaigns of Kwanza Hall and Dee Dawkins-Haigler have what it takes to stand up to the juggernaut of the Abrams operation?”