African Americans stood on the cusp of history Tuesday night, poised to break barriers in tight races in Georgia, Florida and across the country.
Among the list of potential firsts: the nation’s first African American female governor, the first black governor of Florida, the first black women elected to Congress from Connecticut and Massachusetts, the first black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction in the 1870s.
But it remained an open question how many would achieve those trailblazing victories.
In Georgia, where polls closed at 7 p.m., it was unclear if Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former state legislator, had enough votes to become the country’s first black female governor in a razor-thin contest with Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. And in Florida, where polls close at 8 p.m., Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, remained locked in battle with Republican Ron DeSantis, a former congressman, in an emotional gubernatorial race.
In Madison, Fla., a rural community where Gillum spoke Monday night, black church vans cruised through downtown and housing projects on Tuesday with signs offering free rides to the polls. Black voters there made electing Gillum a mark of racial pride.
“You know who I voted for,” said 62-year-old Bernice Williams, who came to the polls with her husband, Thomas. “I know Gillum is going to be a positive leader of the state — not just because he is black but because he’s from Florida and knows our community. We grew up working. When you come on board, and you’re a rich person, you just don’t know how it feels.”
Leading up to the election, Gillum’s campaign tried to drum up as much energy as possible. In Tallahassee, it held a midnight concert at the historically black Florida A&M University featuring rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs, comedian Tiffany Haddish, Fat Joe and other famous hip-hop artists. Diddy said he flew from Los Angeles to help support “black excellence” and thwart the efforts of President Trump.
The unprecedented racial, gender and religious diversity of Tuesday’s candidates at both federal and state levels provided a rare chance to test exactly how far long-standing barriers could be pushed, especially amid a midterm that Trump has tried to shape by tapping into resentments between whites and minorities.
But that diversity also drew blatant racial attacks rarely seen since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. And Republican officials in several states, including Georgia, tried to impose restrictions on voters that some voting rights advocates said harked back to suppression tactics against blacks in the Jim Crow South.
Gillum was one of three black candidates for governor this election season and has been the target of both direct and subtle racial jabs.
Less than a day after he won the Democratic primary, DeSantis told a crowd that voters can’t afford to “monkey this up,” a turn of phrase many interpreted as a racist dog whistle.
Shortly afterward, Gillum was the subject of a “We Negroes” robo-call that featured the sounds of drums and monkeys in the background. “Well, hello there. I is Andrew Gillum,” the call began. “We Negroes . . . done made mud huts while white folk waste a bunch of time making their home out of wood an’ stone.”
And last week, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told a rally in Lakeland, Fla., that “this election is so cotton-pickin’ important.”
In Georgia, one of the most racially charged jabs at Abrams came in the form of a robo-call to voters last week that featured a voice impersonating Oprah Winfrey and calling Abrams “a poor man’s Aunt Jemima.”
“This is the magical Negro, Oprah Winfrey, asking you to make my fellow Negress, Stacey Abrams, the governor of Georgia,” the message said, according to a copy obtained by WSB-TV in Atlanta. “Years ago the Jews who own the American media saw something in me — the ability to trick dumb white women into thinking I was like them. And to do, read and think what I told them to.”
On Election Day, just after voting in Tallahassee, Gillum addressed some of those comments.
“Us winning tonight will send a message to Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis as well that the politics of hatred and division won’t stand,” he said. “By voting . . . we’re returning to the politics of decency.”
In the election’s closing days, the president strongly criticized both Democratic candidates, calling Gillum “not equipped” and Abrams “not qualified” to be governor despite their long experience in government. A Trump tweet also referred to Gillum as “a thief,” which some critics called racist given the president’s rhetoric associating black men with criminal activity.
Tuesday, Trump took fresh aim at Gillum, claiming that he would turn Florida into “a crime-ridden, overtaxed mess” if elected.
By running so overtly on racially tinged messages, Republicans in some ways put the explosive tactics on the ballot. And for some voters, the outcome of Tuesday’s vote would be either a validation of such blunt attacks on immigrants and minorities or a repudiation of that strategy.
Voter access remained a concern in Georgia into the evening given the policies that Kemp tried to push through. His current position as secretary of state puts him in charge of election operations — essentially making him both competitor and referee. According to preliminary results by AP VoteCast’s Georgia survey, nearly 3 in 10 voters in that race said they were not confident that people eligible to vote would be allowed to do so.
In that same survey, about 4 in 10 voters said it was important to their vote that Abrams would be Georgia’s first black governor, while 6 in 10 said that was not too important or not important at all.
In recent days, Kemp’s actions as secretary of state came under sharp scrutiny in the wake of an Associated Press report that he had stalled more than 50,000 voter registrations by disproportionately black voters under the state’s “exact match” signature requirements.
Last Friday, a federal judge ordered Georgia to change its procedures to make it easier for some people flagged under the state’s restrictive law to cast a ballot.
Regardless of the final result in these and other banner races, activists in black communities said the 2018 election redefined their efforts. Many of the groups that have been most active did not even exist until when Trump became president.
Atlanta activist LaTosha Brown, 47, attributes the increase in black candidates on the ballot to African Americans who decided to take control of their political fates rather than leave those in the hands of the Democratic Party. Two years ago, Brown co-founded Black Voters Matter, a grass-root efforts focused on organizing and mobilizing African Americans across the South. Since 2016, several other political groups have come into being, including Black PAC, Collective PAC and Woke Vote.
“Our community had a wake-up call in 2016,” Brown said, citing the election of Trump and his choice of advisers like Stephen K. Bannon and cabinet members like Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “We knew that we could not continue down this road. We recognized that our fate could not be tied to waiting on someone else to save us.”
Matt Viser, Scott Clement, Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Eugene Scott and Eli Rosenberg contributed to this report.