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ATLANTA – Theron Jones is tired of Black men being left out of national and state conversations by lawmakers.
"The old adage was, 'If you want to know what Black folks think, you ask Jesse Jackson.' No one bothered to ask us," said the 53-year-old dentist and real estate owner. "No one bothered to talk to us."
Jones is supporting Democrat Stacey Abrams to become the first Black female governor of Georgia – and the first in the nation. But he's concerned about recent polling and stories suggesting Black men are lagging in support for Abrams.
Black men, Jones added, want to know how Abrams will tackle issues that are of extreme importance to their daily lives. "Because Black men have been shut out of jobs. We've been shut out of education. We got this pipeline to prison," he said. "No matter what we do the book is thrown at us in court."
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Abrams has trailed Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for much of the 2022 campaign. If she hopes to prevail in her much-anticipated rematch, she’ll need to improve upon the coalition of first-time voters, young voters and Black voters, who helped her come within 1.4% of winning the governor's race last time.
So far, though, not only has she not gained ground among Black voters, she's significantly behind where she was in 2018.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, the Abrams campaign has been upfront that it needs to shore up support with Black voters overall. Her team provided USA TODAY with internal polling showing Abrams within 2 points of Kemp, at 46% and 48% respectively, closer than earlier public surveys. That's also within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 3.1percentage points.
Within those figures, Abrams holds a commanding 85%-to-9% lead over Kemp among Black voters. But that is 10 percentage points lower for her than in 2018.
The shift could be a warning sign for national Democrats, who are trying to hold on to their slim majorities in Congress – eight seats in the House, and, in the 50-50 Senate, only the slender thread of Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote. With control of Congress hanging on so few seats, Democrats slipping with a crucial voting bloc this year could have wide-ranging implications not just for the party but for the whole nation.
“To win elections you have to turn out the most voters, and so I have been intentionally engaging Black men as part of building that narrative,” Abrams told a group of Black journalists in September.
“What we know is that Black voters are not deciding between whether they're going to vote for me or for Kemp. They are deciding if they're going to vote for me or not vote.”
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Frustration at the ballot box
Georgia voters, political experts and strategists told USA TODAY that if Democrats want to win in Georgia and beyond, they must fundamentally rethink how they court Black men’s votes.
Black Georgians said their political power has decreased since the last presidential election, according to a September survey by the NAACP and HIT Strategies, a public research company.
The poll showed 73% of Black voters said their vote was powerful in 2020, but that dropped to 46% by 2021, according to the survey.
For Black men, those who felt their vote carried weight dipped from 73% to only 43% during the same period.
“I do think that a lot of us have lost faith in elected officials in general, not just Black ones, but just elected officials in general," said Nkosi Belle, 31, a truck driver in Riverdale, Georgia.
Terrance Woodbury, founding partner and chief executive officer of HIT Strategies, said Black men's frustrations with Democrats provide an opening for the GOP.
“If you are a Republican strategist in Georgia, working for (Senate candidate Herschel) Walker or for Kemp, then you see the same opportunity,” Woodbury said. “Republicans have identified a new swing voter, and it's men of color.”
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A USA TODAY Network analysis of Georgia voters across race, gender and geography found that voter turnout increased across every demographic between the 2018 and 2022 primaries but that Black voters had smaller turnout increases.
Black women increased by 5.4% in suburban counties and 3.6% in Georgia’s single urban county compared with 2018. But for Black men, the increase was noticeably less, with 3.5% in suburban counties and 1.6% in the lone urban county.
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Belle, the truck driver, said he remains undecided in the governor's race but nevertheless called Abrams “a remarkable person” and believes Abrams will win.
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Black male voters need consistent and specific engagement from public officials and candidates before and beyond election season, political strategists told USA TODAY.
Ray Lakes, 73, a retired professor from Columbus State University, in Columbus, Georgia, said making health care more accessible for Georgians is a top priority for him. He is supporting both Abrams and Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is running to keep his seat.
COVID-19 hit Black men harder than other groups between 2019 and 2020, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Whereas U.S. life expectancy overall dropped by a full 1½ years, Black men saw the second-steepest decline at 3.3 years, behind only Hispanic men at 3.7 years.
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Former NAACP President Ben Jealous, a personal friend of Abrams', said candidates must have those types of targeted conversations with Black men.
“Generally, Democratic Party-aligned groups, when they say Black voters what they imagine is a churched Black woman over 50,” he said.
“And they run it like that, but you've got work a little harder than just showing up at church because (Black men) are less likely to be in church than women.”
Jealous, a former Maryland gubernatorial candidate, is now president of People For the American Way, a left-leaning advocacy group that targeted roughly 3 million Black men under 55 across two dozen states leading up to the last presidential contest.
Jealous said their first tactic was text messaging that helped those voters find their polling places and decipher disinformation.
As a result, 68% of those voters the group engaged turned out in 2020, including 72% in Georgia alone, according to the group.
Fenika Miller, senior state organizing manager in Georgia for Black Voters Matter, a civic engagement group, said candidates and political parties "have not been in tune with or intentional about having conversations around the conditions that Black men are living and living under."
Black Voters Matter hosted a 12-week listening tour through rural Georgia during the primary. She said her group didn't see many candidates in those areas.
Abrams has had several events targeting Black male voters and has partnered with prominent entertainers like comedian Steve Harvey and rapper Common. She has released a Black men’s agenda as well as a Black women’s agenda.
But numbers show Abrams is lagging among Black men and women when compared with her last campaign.
A September survey by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, for instance, clocked her at receiving 79% of Black support.
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In 2018, Abrams racked up 95% of the Black vote, including 96% of Black women and 93% of Black men, according to the campaign.
But, argues Rashawn Ray, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in Black male voting patterns, that's still a lot of votes – enough that an Abrams loss shouldn't be put at the feet of Black men.
“I definitely think that Black men are being used as a scapegoat in this situation by Democrats to prepare for any potential losses that haven't happened,” Ray said.
Black men and the GOP
Republicans are bullish on attracting more Black men in the coming years.
Speaking to a group of Pennsylvania Republicans last year, Steve Bannon, one of former President Donald Trump’s top advisers, made a bold prediction.
“African American males are also another central part of our coalition, and you wait, we’re going to get 50% of that vote in 2022,” he said.
The GOP fielded a record number of 81 Black congressional candidates this year during the primary season compared with 27 in the 2020 election cycle, according to the Republican National Committee.
But of those, only 13 survived to be on the November ballot.
In a statement, Tate Mitchell, Kemp's spokesperson, did not specifically address Black voters but said: "Through tax cuts, refunds, and suspending the gas tax, Governor Kemp is fighting to bring Georgians economic relief from 40-year-high inflation so they can put food on the table for their families."
Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, said that like most American men, Black men's votes tend to tilt more conservative than those of their female counterparts.
But Black men and women “are still the two single most loyal Democratic voting blocs,” she said.
“The majority of those conservative Black men are still Democrats,” she said. “They're still Democrats because race matters and the Republican Party hasn't done enough to acknowledge systemic racism."
W. Mondale Robinson, founder of Black Male Voter Project, said slight increases in the percentage of Black men who favored the GOP in the last election means Abrams and the Democrats should start listening to Black men "before you start talking."
If not, they risk them staying home.
"The villain of this cycle is how invisible that these parties have made Black men feel, and the answer to that is to make Black men visible," he said.
'A political home'
Al Bartell, a former independent Georgia gubernatorial candidate, said many Black male voters are holding back their votes because they want direct overtures.
Black male voters, he said, are particularly troubled about the lack of follow-through by Democrats on curbing police brutality.
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“That's why I'm championing an independent movement and saying that Black men can be the tipping point because Black man in America – we don't have a political home anymore,” Bartell said.
But Garrison Douglas, a Republican National Committee spokesperson in Georgia, said the GOP is registering Black men through community centers where they host events on crime, cryptocurrency and inflation.
“There's obviously a concern or a desire to start businesses and grow wealth within the community," he said.
Kemp, Abrams’ opponent, is taking those cues when engaging Black men.
In October, the governor’s campaign Twitter account touted how he hosted two town halls at Clark Atlanta University and how he is meeting with Black male business owners from across Georgia.
“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished these last few years, and I’ll continue working every day to secure greater opportunity for all who call our state home,” he tweeted.
And whatever connections the parties forge now could pay off well beyond Nov. 8.
"The issues that are going to impact our communities, that we should care about, are still going to be there two years from now," said Jones, the Atlanta dentist. "I don't want to always have us be given fish. I want us to learn how to fish so we can feed our own communities."
Contributing: Augusta Chronicle reporter Abraham Kenmore
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia midterms: Black men could be the key to Stacey Abrams' win