Van Jones: Governor's races can show the world who we really are

All eyes are on the battle to control the US House of Representatives. But the fight to occupy a handful of governor's mansions may hold more important keys to the Democratic Party's strategy for 2020.

Gubernatorial elections always matter. The winners on November 6 will affect the lives of millions of people in the 36 states and three territories where governor's races are being held. Someday, one of these leaders could even end up being president of the United States (17 previous Presidents have been former governors).

But there is an additional reason this year to watch these contests.

Inside the Democratic Party, a battle is raging over both demography and philosophy. It all comes down to whether, in the Trump era, Democrats should nominate heterosexual white men with more moderate views -- who theoretically could more easily appeal to Republican-leaning moderates and independents.

Or should Democrats nominate people of color, women and LGBT candidates who espouse strong progressive views and who might better motivate the Democratic base?

A growing number of Democratic activists are fed up with the party being dominated by politicians who don't look, think or live like most Democratic base voters. These rebels believe that more progressive and diverse candidates would give the Democrats a clearer path to victory. The outcome of Tuesday's election, particularly the governor's races, will give insight into whether their strategy is sound.

Here are the governor's races I am watching that are poised to make history:

Georgia. House Democratic Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is up against Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. If she wins, Abrams would be the first black woman governor in US history.

For a long time, Georgia Democrats put up conservative white Democrats who went down to defeat. Now, with Abrams offering a bold alternative that appeals to an increasingly multiracial, working-class state, the race is among the closest in the country. So close, in fact, that Kemp's history of trying to pick his own voters by purging voter rolls (something he denies doing) -- and his refusal to step down as Secretary of State, where he will administer his own election -- has become a major flashpoint.

Florida. Perhaps no contest better captures the peril and possibility of American politics better than the governor's race in this battleground state. Rep. Ron DeSantis surged to win the Republican primary by defending Trump at every turn. But after securing the nomination, he revealed himself by warning Florida not to "monkey this up." Most Floridians heard a clear reference to his opponent, Andrew Gillum, who is black.

Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, shocked the political world with a surprise victory in the primary. Like Abrams, he put forward commonsense policies to retake power from elites. But I think his grassroots campaign, focused on reaching and organizing a multiracial coalition, will matter more to whether or not he wins than his progressive positions. This race could show whether Trump's divide-and-conquer strategy might outlast the candidate, or fall short against unity candidates.

Maryland. Entrepreneur, lawyer, and civil rights activist Ben Jealous is trying to unseat Republican Governor Larry Hogan. Even though Maryland is a far bluer state than either Georgia or Florida, Hogan is quite popular. Still, this is one of those races where a blue wave could surprise prognosticators. Jealous' embrace of bold policies like Medicare for All and free college tuition, among others, has the potential to resonate across racial lines. And a surprising uptick in early voting might portend an upset win for Jealous.

America has elected only two African-American governors in the modern era: Douglas Wilder, elected in Virginia in 1990 and Deval Patrick, elected in Massachusetts in 2006.

America could more than double that number this year by electing three in one night -- Abrams, Gillum and Jealous. At a time when white supremacists are marching openly, that is a welcome and inspiring prospect.

Idaho. A longshot of longshots made possible only by an inspiring candidate. Paulette Jordan is a 38-year-old state legislator and Coeur d'Alene tribal council member who has captured the imagination of young people, women and minorities in this deeply conservative state. Recent shake-ups in her campaign staff make this an unlikely test of whether that new coalition can win in Republican strongholds. But it is still worth watching -- if she wins, she would be Idaho's first female governor and the nation's first Native American governor.

Colorado and Vermont. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate in Colorado, is vying to become the nation's first openly gay governor. It is a tight race that his conservative voting record in Congress makes tougher by deflating grassroots energy. In Vermont, Christine Hallquist has already made history as America's first openly transgender major-party nominee for governor and is in an uphill battle to go one step further.

I would be remiss if I failed to note Arizona, where Democrat David Garcia is mounting a surprisingly potent campaign to be that state's first Latino governor in decades. Though less historic, Ohio is also on my radar, where consumer advocate Richard Cordray is running for governor, and there is also the possibility that GOP stalwarts Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Kris Kobach in Kansas may have overreached and will be punished at the polls.

If even one of the history-making candidates above wins on November 6, it would represent a rejection of both Donald Trump's politics and the play-it-safe Democratic strategy of the past.

Demographically, these races preview the future of the Democratic Party and of the United States. The only question is whether that future arrives -- in political terms -- this year or in years to come.

By Van Jones, Host. The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

The Gayly – November 5, 2018 @ 4:05 p.m. CST.