Stacey Abrams Always Knew They’d Try to Cheat

Stacey Abrams Always Knew They’d Try to Cheat

Stacey Abrams Always Knew They’d Try to Cheat

But here’s her plan to win anyway.


As she campaigns across all of Georgia’s 159 counties—from Fulton to Brantley, Gwinnett to Chatham, Glynn to DeKalb—Democrat Stacey Abrams’s pitch comes down to this: I’m one of you. “I’m not running to be governor of Atlanta; I’m running to be governor of Georgia” is one way she often puts it.

If elected, Abrams would become the state’s first black and first female governor, so it’s understandable that her political gamble has a personal edge to it. Can she take the details of her impressive biography—devoted daughter of two ministers who were “genteel poor”; loving sister of five siblings; doting auntie; graduate of Spelman College, the University of Texas, and Yale Law School; small-business owner; tax attorney; the first woman leader in either house of the State Legislature; award-winning romance novelist (yes, you read that right)—and find something in it, at every stop, to reach a different group of voters? And will this be enough to bridge Georgia’s deep fissures of race, gender, and culture?

“Well, she’s gonna have a tough time, being black,” a white suburban retiree tells me flatly as we sit down for lunch at Savannah’s historic Olde Pink House restaurant. His candor about race, which I appreciate, isn’t the only thing that surprises me. David (a pseudonym) is a lifelong conservative and Trump voter who nonetheless plans to vote for Abrams. He thinks her Republican opponent, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, is “an idiot.” Trump’s administration has turned out “worse than I even imagined,” he confesses. And in an age when we suffer at least 10 school shootings a year, “I’m sick of the NRA,” he tells me, even though he’s a gun owner and former member.

“I’m an angry Republican, and I’m trying to give my party a kick,” he declares. Even though David doesn’t want me to use his real name, he says he’s extremely vocal about his plans to vote for Abrams when talking to fellow Republicans in his affluent white retiree community. “And, honestly, I don’t get a lot of pushback,” he adds.

Years before she decided to run for governor, Abrams had famously banked on an unprecedented surge of black voters, along with other nonwhite voters and progressive whites, to win state elections. In 2013, she began the New Georgia Project, a voter-registration-and-mobilization group focused on Georgians of color. Her overwhelming victory in the Democratic primary this past May—she won 76 percent of the vote, including the majority of the white vote, against a formidable white opponent, turning out 200,000 more Democrats than had voted in the 2014 primary and 43 percent more black voters than had voted in the 2010 primary—was a powerful demonstration of this strategy. Now, in campaign speak, she needs to mobilize “low-propensity” black voters, who sometimes vote for president but rarely turn out for the midterms. Campaign officials are cautiously optimistic: According to, 42 percent of the early voting has been done by African-American voters, who make up 30 percent of registered voters, a surge that Georgia hasn’t seen since Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

Unfortunately, Abrams’s opponent is, as secretary of state, also the man in charge of overseeing the mechanics of voting. A recent investigation by the Associated Press found that Kemp has held up 53,000 new voter-registration forms. Seventy percent of the registrants involved are black, but Kemp—who has long tangled with the New Georgia Project—says that this racial disparity is the group’s fault for submitting inaccurate or incomplete paperwork. The New Georgia Project rejects this assertion, and lawyers are trying to force Kemp to process the forms. “As he has done for years, Brian Kemp is maliciously wielding the power of his office to suppress the vote for political gain and silence the voices of thousands of eligible voters—the majority of them people of color,” says Abigail Collazo, spokeswoman for the Abrams campaign. “This isn’t incompetence; it’s malpractice.” Abrams has since renewed her call for Kemp to step down as secretary of state, a demand he has repeatedly rebuffed.

But in a race in which the polls have the two candidates essentially tied, Abrams also needs to pick up some “white persuadables,” by and large suburban independents turned off by Trump and Republican extremism. Drawing the far-right Kemp as her opponent—he finished second in the GOP primary to Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, but triumphed in a runoff after Trump endorsed him—has given Abrams an opening, especially with the business community, which had enthusiastically backed Cagle. “The state Chamber [of Commerce] is freaking out,” one campaign official told me midsummer, with some glee.

The bad news is there may not be that many white persuadables left. Only 6 percent of the electorate is undecided, according to the most recent polling, and Trump won 75 percent of the state’s white voters in 2016. The good news is that a white retiree like David, who by no means fits the definition of a “white persuadable,” is against all odds in Abrams’s corner. He’s a bonus vote, and if she gets a lot of bonus votes, Abrams will be the next governor.

Georgia Democrats have a 200,000-vote problem. That’s roughly the margin by which the party’s statewide standard-bearers have lost recent elections, whether they were scions of old-time native pols, like Michelle Nunn or Jason Carter in 2014, or presidential nominees like Hillary Clinton in 2016. Over 550,000 people voted in the Democratic primary in May, just shy of the 608,000 who voted in the six-way GOP primary, so making up that margin is not impossible. “We have over 15 field offices and 150 staffers” in both red and blue counties, says state party chair DuBose Porter, including in places where nobody’s laid eyes on a Democratic staffer in years. “It’s the biggest field operation the party has ever seen.”

The Abrams campaign has also been bolstered by visits from high-profile Democrats, a rarity in a state long written off as solidly red. Former vice president Joe Biden and Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker have all showed up to campaign for her; one writer dubbed this parade of potential presidential candidates “the Stacey Abrams primary.” For better or worse, this is a nationalized race, much like the gubernatorial contest in Florida, where Andrew Gillum could become the state’s first black governor if he defeats the Trump-worshipping Ron DeSantis. (Gillum currently has a small lead.) Meanwhile, in Maryland, another African-American candidate for governor, Ben Jealous, trails far behind GOP incumbent Larry Hogan. The news is better in the race for a US Senate seat in Mississippi, where the black Democratic candidate, Mike Espy, is given a good chance of making it into a late-November runoff.

Abrams and her campaign strongly dislike the notion that her race is somehow a rematch of Clinton versus Trump. And they positively hate the idea, peddled by The New York Times in July, that the two parties’ extremist wings are squaring off in the Peach State. The Abrams-Kemp battle, the Times wrote, “has come to mirror the disorienting polarization of the Trump era and expose the consequences of a primary system that increasingly rewards those who appeal to the fringes.”

That equivalency, of course, would require Abrams to be as far to the left as Kemp is to the right, which is patently absurd. She supports the expansion of Medicaid, which is backed by 73 percent of Georgians (including a majority of Republicans); he favors a wildly unpopular religious-freedom restoration act that would allow discrimination against LGBTQ citizens. She has worked successfully with Republican Governor Nathan Deal on criminal-justice reform, education, and tax bills; Kemp, who calls himself a “politically incorrect conservative,” has slavishly embraced Trump and promised to “round up criminal illegals” in his pickup truck.

And yet at least part of the media narrative fits. Like the 2016 election, the Georgia contest is being played out against the backdrop of racial transformation and white backlash. In 1990, the state was over 70 percent white, but today only 54 percent of registered voters identify as white, and within less than a generation, the state is projected to be majority-minority. And then there’s the live wire of gender. White women in Georgia backed Trump in 2016, as they did elsewhere in the country, while women of color were the party’s solid-blue wall. Abrams and her campaign aren’t necessarily expecting to change that dynamic in one election cycle, but like Democrats nationwide, they are hoping to ride a wave of women activists and first-time candidates who have been galvanized by Trump’s election.

The confirmation of accused sexual assaulter Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court only adds fuel to this fire. During the nomination fight, Lucy McBath, a candidate for Congress in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, told me on the trail, “That’s the reason more women have to run. We’re not just numbers and statistics—we’ve lived these experiences.” But the effort to mobilize the state’s women voters long predates the Kavanaugh fight. “Georgia women have been organizing for a while,” former Savannah mayor Otis Johnson tells me. “During my campaigns, the people who I could always depend on were women. The difference this year is that they’re running.”

And boy, are they running! As I travel with Abrams from rural Nahunta to metro Atlanta and places in between, I meet astonishing women, many of them black, who have moved from being organizers to candidates themselves. “Yes, ma’am, I plan to be the first,” Nahunta mayoral candidate Barbara Mayfield tells me. “First black, first female!” a friend adds, making sure I get it. “After the Women’s March, we were telling women to step up, and I said, ‘OK, I gotta step up!’” says Julie Jordan, a registrar in suburban Brunswick who’s running for the Georgia House of Representatives. In suburban Marietta, north of Atlanta, I followed Essence Johnson, who was an Indivisible activist when she knocked on doors for Jon Ossoff in 2017. He narrowly lost that special congressional election. But now Johnson is knocking doors for her own campaign, also for a State House seat. Abrams is counting on these women to lift her, and they’re counting on her to lift them. If they succeed, the future will finally overtake the past here in Georgia on November 6.

But Abrams is not merely the lucky beneficiary of this unprecedented surge in women’s political participation. In Georgia, she’s one of its original and prime sponsors. “She’s been at the center of it for a long time,” Johnson tells me.

When Abrams became Democratic leader of the State Legislature in 2010, Republicans held all statewide offices and were on the verge of attaining a legislative supermajority that would prevent any checks on their plans to curtail women’s rights, labor rights, or voting rights. So Abrams began working around the state to groom a new generation of Democrats, many of them black women. “It was part of my mission to build the capacity of new voices to enter the political arena,” she tells me. “I had a very intentional focus on women and people of color.” This behind-the-scenes recruitment, many Democratic activists believe, was part of the reason she enjoyed that lopsided primary victory, despite opposition from some white Democrats who didn’t believe that Georgia was ready for a black, female governor. “They had no idea of the reach and the groundwork Stacey had put in,” DuBose Porter says.

Sitting down with Abrams in her bare campaign office, her desk adorned with a Post-it note reminding her to eat, I am struck by her apparent calm in the eye of the storm. She is warm, greeting me with a hug. We met four years ago, when Emily’s List named her a “rising star,” but she’s nonetheless cautious, speaking slowly and in full paragraphs.

Abrams takes nothing for granted, believing the race is essentially tied despite internal polling showing her ahead. When I tell her that I’m surprised to have met white suburban ladies and Republican men who support her, Abrams replies that she isn’t. “Part of my approach to this campaign is to build on the work I’ve done the last decade, and I’m constantly engaging with communities that are not seen as natural supporters of mine…. It’s why I won so many counties in the primary; I won every major demographic,” she reminds me with pride.

What about my white progressive sisters, I ask: Are they finally starting to see the light and get behind the campaigns of black women? Abrams smiles and says, “There are anecdotal moments where women tell me they are surprised they’re supporting me. But I’m not surprised. The scenario for me for victory has always been multiple communities to engage and step up. And they are.”

Indeed, in the epicenter of white-lady wokeness—Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District in suburban Atlanta—the energy is behind African-American gun-sense activist Lucy McBath. The Moms Demand Action organizer is one of the Mothers of the Movement, a coalition of black women who have lost children to police or gun violence, many of whom traveled with Clinton in 2016. McBath is challenging freshman GOP Representative Karen Handel, who beat Jon Ossoff by only four points in 2017, and the same multiracial, women-led coalition that backed Ossoff is supporting her bid.

One veteran of the Ossoff campaign, Tracy Prescott, volunteered to host a canvassing launch for McBath, and she’s stunned by the turnout: 50 people on a hot Saturday afternoon have shown up to walk the precincts for McBath and the full slate of Democrats. “I’m just blown away,” Prescott tells me. She and her husband, Jeff Corkill, are active in their local Democratic Socialists of America chapter—Prescott wears a big red DSA button—as well as the Bernie Sanders–inspired Our Revolution, which endorsed Abrams. In a naked attempt to red-bait his opponent, Kemp has claimed that Abrams was also endorsed by the Metro Atlanta DSA chapter. But Corkill tells me plainly that that’s not true. “We endorse socialists,” he says. “We did encourage our members to participate…. But Stacey didn’t seek our endorsement, and we didn’t endorse her. If she was a socialist,” he adds, “we’d endorse her. But she’s not.” Even so, Prescott and Corkill describe themselves as hard-core Abrams supporters.

Later, when I ask Abrams about Kemp’s red-baiting, she takes it in stride, while welcoming voters to her left. “They support me; so do labor unions. So do some moderate Republicans. People of all stripes stand with me. The common trope to beating a candidate with my background is to try to vilify her. If you look at my record, I’m absolutely a progressive, but I’m a pragmatist who is able to get things done.”

This corner of the Sixth District, in DeKalb County, is diverse and heavily Democratic. In the opposite corner, Essence Johnson, the black Indivisible activist now campaigning for a seat in the Georgia House, is walking the rolling hills and steep driveways of Eastern Cobb County. It’s a much less diverse area (75 percent white and only 10 percent black), so Johnson likes to team up and knock on doors with white State Senate candidate Christine Triebsch, most of whose district she shares.

At every door, the two women leave their own literature, as well as a Democratic-candidate card with Abrams at the top of the ticket. (“Vote down ballot!” it reads.) And while they’re hoping to run and win on Abrams’s coattails, their hard work in this wealthy suburban district also helps Abrams, raising the possibility of a “reverse-coattails” effect in which an unprecedented number of female candidates, at all levels of the ballot, lifts Abrams to victory. “We’re all out here trying to help each other,” Triebsch says. “That’s how women do it.”

It’s not surprising to find such passion for Abrams among the activists in suburban Atlanta—but to win the state, she’s got to get votes beyond the metro area. In mid-September, I watched her address the Georgia Economic Developers Association convention in Savannah and saw how she put another aspect of her variegated biography to work. For a statewide, business-oriented gathering, it was a fairly diverse group. Whether they’re county staffers or local businessmen, these folks tend to be the do-gooders in their communities—but they are not necessarily liberals.

Here Abrams promotes herself as not just the daughter of ministers or a pioneering state legislator, but also as a small-business owner—one business failed, another is thriving—and a tax attorney. She immediately dives deep into the weeds of so-called tax-allocation districts, which funnel local tax revenue into economic development, and describes one widely hailed project that she worked on in the Atlanta mayor’s office back when she was deputy city attorney. And in case they worry that she’ll look out only for Atlanta, Abrams talks about her time in the State Legislature working with rural colleagues on similar issues, asking: “Why can’t Valdosta get the same tax flexibility Atlanta does?” Representatives of rural counties in the crowd nod in agreement.

Abrams also wows the group with her trademark command of Georgia facts. For example, the state has 64 counties without a pediatrician, and almost half of its counties have no licensed psychiatrist. There are 5,000 4-year-olds on a waiting list for pre-kindergarten, and 140,000 people living with Alzheimer’s. Georgia is second only to Florida in the number of retirees, and second to California in film production. Abrams also tells virtually every crowd that a main provider of mental-health services in Georgia is the prison system. She knows this because that’s where her brother Walter, whom she describes as “brilliant” and a heroin addict, had his bipolar condition diagnosed.

As she does at every stop, Abrams promises that her top priority will be expanding Medicaid. “Georgia loses $8 million a day in federal Medicaid funding,” she tells the room. Someone in the crowd gasps; another whistles in amazement. The state provides $1.7 billion in uncompensated care annually, Abrams adds, usually through emergency-room visits. Her pitch is bipartisan: Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown expanded Medicaid, but so did Vice President Mike Pence in his days as Indiana’s Republican governor. “If Jerry Brown and Mike Pence can agree on anything in politics, then it’s the right thing to do,” she says to laughs and applause.

But Abrams’s best moment comes when she’s asked whether she would veto a state religious-freedom restoration act, which would allow discrimination against LGBTQ people. Governor Deal vetoed it, reacting to outrage from the business community; Kemp has promised to sign it. One member of the association says that an overwhelming majority of the group opposes such an act, so Abrams is not taking a particularly brave stand here, but she makes the most of the moment. “I’m the daughter of two ministers. Protecting my faith by discriminating against others is against my faith,” she tells the crowd. She mentions a recent trip to California—state Republicans had chastised her for this visit to Blue America—and says, “Yes, I met with studio heads. They will pull their films [over this]. The mere conversation is toxic.” Later, Kemp would play down his support for the act, promising to sign a state bill that simply mirrors the language of the federal version.

After Abrams’s address, one economic-development professional (speaking off the record because his agency works closely with the state) says that he was impressed. “Abrams was clear and had a plan,” he tells me. “She wasn’t afraid to mention her failures in business as well as her successes. The consensus from my group of peers is that Abrams outperformed Kemp.”

From Savannah, I follow Abrams and her campaign to Nahunta, in rural, red Brantley County, where members of the Little Rock Baptist Church and others in the community are waiting for her. It will prove to be a milestone of sorts: As of this afternoon, Abrams will have officially visited all 159 of Georgia’s counties. We take the Clarence Thomas Interchange out of Savannah (the Supreme Court justice was born in nearby Pin Point) and pass a Confederate-soldiers park and a towering Confederate flag near Waynesville. As we approach Nahunta, a smaller Confederate flag waves at us, right next to a Kemp for Governor sign. A little white church awaited, with about 30 people, mostly older black women, inside. Abrams has traveled from a crowd of nearly 700 to a smaller gathering of 30 because she knows that rural black women, so often ignored, were a cornerstone of Senator Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama last year. Mayoral candidate Barbara Mayfield introduces her as “a child of God,” and Abrams tells the group that her parents sometimes pastored multiple small congregations at a time. “So I’m very familiar with churches like this,” she adds. “You need a governor who sees everybody!”

As Abrams drives away to her next event, the church ladies mill about in the yard outside, looking at the photos on their phones and savoring the moment. One older woman grumbles about Abrams arriving a few minutes late; a younger church member—an avid Abrams volunteer—quickly comes over to tell me that her neighbor doesn’t understand how campaigns work, because “we don’t get too many candidates coming to see us.”

In Brunswick, about 45 minutes away, Glynn County Democratic Party chair Audrey Gibbons knows exactly how that feels. Democratic candidates rarely visited her district in the past, but with four days’ notice, Gibbons got about 250 folks to come out in the 90-degree heat on a Friday afternoon to hear Abrams and a slate of local candidates. Gibbons is ecstatic: “We hit a home run today!”

Women are powering the Democratic revival in Glynn County, Gibbons continues. The local Women’s Voices group “started out with six ladies, and now we have 400,” all of them working on issues of education, criminal justice, climate change—and yes, a lot of local campaigns. Many women in the crowd wear the group’s lavender T-shirts, along with campaign buttons for one (or all) of the local Democratic candidates. “When I took over in 2012, we had no more than two Democrats on the local ballot for five years,” Gibbons tells me. This year, eight of nine Glynn County ballots have a Democratic challenger, and five of the eight are women.

When Abrams comes to the stage, the crowd chants her name, waving blue cardboard fans adorned with a picture of her smiling face. Here, she draws on another tale from her biography: the story of when she became her high school’s valedictorian. Invited to a reception at the governor’s mansion in Atlanta, Abrams and her parents arrived on a city bus, she recalls softly, only to have a guard at the gate tell them it was “a private event.” After much haggling, the guard found Abrams’s name on his list and let them in. “I do not remember meeting the governor or my fellow valedictorians,” she recalls. “I just remember a man telling me I don’t belong. On November 6, I’m gonna open those gates wide so everyone knows they belong.”

In his run against this potentially historic candidate, Brian Kemp isn’t trying to wow Georgians with either his résumé or his big ideas. Instead, he’s trying hard to counter Abrams’s pitch that “I’m one of you.” The tagline for his campaign commercials is dire: “Stacey Abrams: Too Extreme for Georgia.”

Kemp is also playing dirty, running a scurrilous ad claiming that Abrams supported legislation to let convicted sex offenders live near schools and even “take pictures of our children.” Local fact-checkers have called it bunk: Abrams voted no on a 2008 bill to create a new set of punitive restrictions on where convicted sex offenders could live and work, even though state law already prohibited them from being within 1,000 feet of schools and other places where children gather. But I saw the ad a dozen times in my two days in Atlanta.

Other campaign materials hit Abrams hard for owing $50,000 in back taxes and $170,000 in student-loan and credit-card debt. But Abrams has turned the issue around, explaining that she ran into tough financial times taking care of her parents, while making common cause with the many Georgians who also carry such a burden. “Paying the bills for two households has taken its toll,” she wrote in an op-ed for Fortune. “Nearly twenty years after graduating, I am still paying down student loans, and am on a payment plan to settle my debt to the IRS. I have made money mistakes, but I have never ignored my responsibilities…. I suspect my situation will sound familiar to others who are the first in their families to earn real money.”

The Kemp campaign has also skirted the edges of race-baiting. A Republican Governors Association ad about Abrams’s tax issues featured a giant-size Abrams clutching the State Capitol dome, reminding some of King Kong wrapped around the Empire State Building. When white supremacists who identified as Kemp supporters disrupted an Abrams event for female military veterans in Augusta, the Republican refused to explicitly denounce them. Under pressure, Kemp released a bland statement decrying “hatred, violence, and bigotry” but made no mention of the incident.

In the end, Abrams and her campaign know that her real opponent isn’t Kemp—it’s the isolation and alienation of many Georgia voters, especially the low-income voters of color she’s bet the race on. While she’s doing an extraordinary job, it’s still an uphill climb. At a campaign office that Abrams visits in Savannah, the mostly black women who turn out to volunteer there are on fire, many putting in seven days a week. One of them, Tammy Lawrence, has just returned from registering voters at her grandson’s high-school football game. “We’re gonna make her the next governor,” Lawrence says proudly.

But a couple of women admit to me that their day working the phones has drained them. “I made calls today and talked to so many people who tell me they don’t vote at all, they’ve never voted—they don’t think it matters,” says Olivia Ray, a retired social worker. “Even with a black woman running, it’s not really making a difference to them.” Another female volunteer jumps in. “If they’re not woke now, what will wake them?”

Abrams believes she can do this, despite the obstacles of race, class, gender, and a pervasive voter alienation that’s part fatalism, part deliberate disenfranchisement. In addition to the 53,000 voters whose registration forms he’s so far failed to process, Kemp is also being sued for purging almost 700,000 voters, many of them minorities, from the rolls in the past two years without notifying them. Activists are trying to make the list of purged voters public so people can see if they’re on it. The Abrams campaign is also spearheading an effort to help people make sure that they’re registered and to get them to vote early or use absentee ballots, which provide more security than the state’s traditional paper-free voting system. There’s no doubt that Democrats are concerned about ensuring that every vote is counted.

Then there’s the ineffable fact that Kemp is a white man running in a state that has always been governed by white men. At the Savannah economic-development conference, one attendee told me, “It seemed a little like he was laying on the Southern accent to prove his conservative street cred. I’ve met him a few times, and this thick accent seems new to me, almost like he is trying to ‘out-Bubba’ anyone.” There’s always the chance that some of the white men and women who disdain Kemp now will go home to the Republican Party in November, as they did overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016.

Abrams knows what she’s up against, but she trusts her campaign and its plan for victory. Watching her in large crowds, in small groups, and with her staff, I can see how this quiet confidence might strike some as aloofness. “I’m naturally an introvert,” Abrams confesses. Her whole approach in this campaign—excavating her biography to make the case that “I’m one of you”—doesn’t come at all naturally, she says. “But being governor is one of the most personal jobs you can have. Because, done right, the governor of a state helps guide the future of your family: your access to education, to a job, to health care, to housing—all of these things. People should trust who that person is.”

Abrams also had to come to grips with the fact that her leadership style is very different from that of many other politicians—most of them white men, it goes without saying. “I had to learn that my introversion had to accommodate my job. We often learn how to expand who we are in order to get good done.”

But this introvert comes alive in a crowd of her people. At the Gwinnett Democratic Party dinner in suburban Duluth, I am able to meet some of the women (and men) who have been partners in Abrams’s project of turning red Georgia blue. In 1990, Gwinnett County was almost 90 percent white. By 2010, it had become majority-minority, and today it’s only 39 percent white. In 2010, a little over 17,000 Democrats voted in the primary—just a quarter of the total vote. This year, more than 40,500 voted—53 percent of the county total—for the largest Democratic increase in the entire state.

Among the people in attendance at the party dinner is Donna McLeod, who ran for a State House seat in 2016, lost by 200 votes, and decided to run again in 2018. She was just endorsed by Barack Obama. “Stacey’s gonna do this, I promise you,” she tells me. Local congressional candidate Carolyn Bourdeaux, an academic, comes over to talk about the tax bills she worked on with Abrams in the State Legislature. “She is just the smartest,” Bourdeaux kvells. I also meet “two white Stacey stalkers,” as Susan Clymer, chair of the Gwinnett County Democratic Party, describes herself and her close friend Sharon Wood, an Abrams volunteer. State party chair DuBose Porter is there as well. The former Georgia House leader tells me that he retired after Republicans took over his state—“I didn’t switch parties when so many others did, because I actually believed in my values”—but returned to politics when Abrams recruited him to be party chair, “to help get this place back to how it should be.”

When Abrams walks into the dinner, she’s quickly mobbed. She normally wears tailored dresses in solid colors, but here she’s wearing a flowing, black-and-white dress with wavy lines and bell sleeves. Her demeanor is less buttoned-down, too. She hugs her way up to the podium and begins with a story about her parents losing their Mississippi church during Hurricane Katrina. Expecting to rescue them, she and her sister made a beeline home, only to find them coordinating relief efforts and rescuing neighbors. They’d lost nearly everything, but they still had something to give.

For Abrams, it’s a parable about the condition that she found the Democratic Party in at the start of her career: flattened by a political hurricane. “We could have cowered in the corner. It could have been the beginning of the end of the party,” she tells the crowd, to applause. Instead, they built the party back up, starting in places like Gwinnett County, which “now looks like America.” People talk about a blue wave, she continues, but “waves don’t just come up. We’ve been building for that wave for a long time. The blue wave is not coming,” she roars, as the crowd gets to its feet. “The blue wave is here!”

Susan Clymer is sobbing. “Stacey makes me cry every time,” she says unapologetically. “She is such an authentic person. She’s raised up a crop of women, and she’s bringing us all along with her.”

“Don’t get me wrong—it’s gonna be a very tight race,” DuBose Porter tells me later. “But Stacey has the field operation and the broad appeal to do this.”

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