Can Stacey Abrams Turn the Tide in Georgia?

Can Stacey Abrams Turn the Tide in Georgia?

Can Stacey Abrams Turn the Tide in Georgia?

Despite years of laying the groundwork, she’s trailing in the gubernatorial election. Will Georgia’s discouraged voters rise again to lift the nation?


Here’s a case of political affirmative action for white male Republicans: As they run for reelection, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both of whom resisted former President Donald Trump’s arm-twisting to overturn Joe Biden’s victory there, are getting credit as democracy-affirming GOP moderates. Trump backed “Big Lie” primary challengers to both men in May, but both prevailed. That gave them a patina of independence and integrity, and they are leading their Democratic opponents right now—despite their ongoing actions against democracy.

“Because Raffensperger did not [commit a] crime that one time, he’s been given so many passes,” says a frustrated Nsé Ufot, director of the New Georgia Project, the voter-empowerment group founded in 2013 by then–state Assembly minority leader Stacey Abrams, who is running against Kemp in a rematch of their 2018 standoff (she lost by 55,000 votes in an electorate of almost 4 million). Raffensperger is being challenged by state Representative Bee Nguyen, a rising Georgia star who got elected to Abrams’s seat when she left the Assembly. So far, Nguyen and Abrams are trailing.

Abrams says much the same thing about Kemp. “He gets the benefit of not committing treason, something that every other governor in American history has also not done,” she told me wryly.

“He doesn’t have a position on whether Trump should run again,” Nguyen says incredulously about Raffensperger, who said he voted for Trump although he stood his ground against the former president in 2020.

While both Republicans correctly denied that Trump won their state, they nonetheless supported the Georgia GOP’s voter-suppression bill SB 202, which took seriously Trump’s claims of voter fraud and moved to combat them—even though both men know no serious voter fraud took place. It let them have it both ways: They stood up to Trump and avoided treason, allowing Biden to collect Georgia’s 16 electoral votes. But by supporting SB 202, they also validated Trump’s claim that there was something fishy about the Democrats’ lawful use of absentee ballots, ballot drop-off boxes, extended early voting and other measures designed to make it easier for Georgians to participate. All of which will be curtailed this November, thanks to the voter suppression bill Kemp and Raffsperger backed and which the GOP-dominated legislature passed in 2021.

The site of Democrats’ most exhilarating wins in 2020, when Biden carried the state, and 2021, when against all odds Democrats elected a young white Jewish man and a Black pastor, the head of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, to the Senate in a special election, Georgia is a big question mark right now. Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock gave Democrats control of the Senate (with the first black and female vice president, Kamala Harris, casting tie-breaking votes).

But just as the January 6 insurrection prevented a full appreciation of what Georgia gave to Democrats one day earlier, the ensuing gridlock on so much of the Biden agenda, the persistence of Covid, the lack of federal action on voting rights as well as the failure to hold Trump accountable for his many apparent crimes, could prevent Georgia’s weary, discouraged voters from rising again to lift the nation—by reelecting Warnock, and making Abrams governor and the popular Nguyen secretary of state.

Warnock is virtually tied with his opponent, the Trump-backed former NFL player Herschel Walker, who has admitted to mental health challenges and a history of domestic abuse. Abrams narrowly trails Kemp. Nguyen is double-digits behind Raffensperger. Earlier this summer, polls showed Warnock doing better with Black voters than Abrams was, which led to headlines that she was “underperforming” with her core supporters. At least in Abrams’s internal polling, by TargetSmart, a well-respected pollster, she has improved on her Black support and pulled roughly even with Kemp. Other polls say differently.

But The New York Times just aired Democrats’ worries about Abrams—some of them distorted or unfair, some accurate. One stung: “While Mr. Warnock draws some support from Republican moderates, Ms. Abrams—who has been vilified more by the G.O.P. than any other statewide figure—has shown little sign of peeling off significant numbers of disaffected Republicans.”

A few of her most ardent supporters are genuinely concerned, even on the record.

“I’m deeply frustrated. I don’t see the organic enthusiasm,” Nsé Ufot told me, adding that core Democratic voters “are feeling embattled, tired, attacked.” She also worries that Republicans were energized by competitive primaries, while Abrams and Warnock weren’t challenged. That might seem counterintuitive; most Democrats might think it’s good that the two candidates got to protect their war chests and volunteers for the November battle. But Ufot worries that meant both started the general election late, with their base not so fired up and ready to go. “I really wish they’d gotten into general election mode right away,” she adds. And she’s critical of the Warnock campaign for chasing “moderate” Republicans, and spending too much on television instead of turning out the stunning Democratic base that elected him, Biden and Ossoff, against all odds.

Abrams has heard those worries, from supporters as well as journalists, but she was optimistic when I spoke to her over the Labor Day weekend, when the general election is traditionally assumed to begin in earnest.

“It’s not underperformance,” she says of her status with Black voters. “It’s a decision about whether people are going to vote or not. And what we’re seeing is that we’re consolidating those voters, they’re coming back in and they’re saying, yes, things are bad enough, and it matters enough that we’re going to vote.

“But we have work to do. Covid hurt our community disproportionately. The promise of removing Trump became so amplified in the public imagination, the fact that the world didn’t completely change with his ouster was a dramatic letdown. I look at polls and I understand why people are hesitant and skeptical and cynical. But my success has always been premised on building the electorate I need, not relying on the electorate that exists. I see polling as a gauge of what more work I need to do, not a predictor of where I’m going to end up. If I used it as a predictor, then I wouldn’t have run for any of the offices I have.”

Abrams is understandably irritated that Kemp seems to be at least partly getting away with his double-talk about Trump. In a state where Trump supporters tried to overturn the legal 2020 results from every angle, Kemp is cozy with several “fake electors,” she notes, Republican officials who volunteered to replace officially appointed electors, who were bound to certify the state’s electoral votes for Biden. One of them is his running mate, candidate for lieutenant governor Burt Jones.

“He has reappointed fake electors [to state posts], he has accepted a quarter of a million dollars from fake electors, and he’s a man, as he has said himself, who’s never had a bad word to say about Trump,” Abrams notes. Kemp also recently said he would welcome Trump’s endorsement, despite their past tension.

The governor resisted a subpoena to testify to the grand jury empaneled by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who’s investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 Georgia results, most notably with his recorded phone call pleading with Raffensperger to “just…find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have.”

Kemp “went to court to quash a subpoena, because he didn’t want to be on record saying anything that could be construed as anti-Trump prior to the election,” Abrams noted. “He directly said he didn’t want to say anything that could impact the election.” While the judge said Kemp had to testify, she did allow it to be postponed until after the November contest, essentially a victory for Kemp.

It’s also frustrating to Abrams, having run on a pledge to expand Medicaid in 2018—which, as she argued at the time would bring in eight federal dollars for every one out of Georgia’s coffers—that Kemp continues to resist the reform. Recently came word that one of five Georgia trauma centers, Atlanta Medical Center, will close because of financial problems November 1.

“Now they’re gonna say, ‘Oh, expanding Medicaid this year wouldn’t save it,” she told me. “Well if they’d expanded it earlier, and let them draw down the dollars, which has happened in 38 states, it would have worked. But because of [Kemp’s] cruelty we are going to lose this hospital, thousands of people are going to lose their jobs.”

But what might be most frustrating to Abrams supporters is the sudden open carping about what her campaign is doing “wrong.” Except when you talk to people, it’s not that clear. This New York Times piece hit some supporters hard. But when you read it, you don’t get a clear sense of what Abrams should be doing differently.

Ufot wishes the Warnock campaign would embrace the grassroots efforts that she says elected him. “He seems to be chasing moderate Republicans, and putting a lot of money into television. And they’re not running as a ticket!” she says incredulously. “They’re Morehouse/Spelman,” Ufot adds, referring to their attending Atlanta’s premier Black colleges for men and women.

Warnock disappointed many Georgians when he refused to answer a question from the Times about whether he would start campaigning with Abrams. “The pundits want to know who I’m campaigning for and who I’m campaigning with,” Warnock said. “I’m focused on my campaign.” A few days later, though, as the Times reported, they appeared together at a large and vibrant suburban Atlanta Cobb County rally.

I asked Abrams directly about the notion they should be running as a ticket. I kind of asked it badly. Here are my questions (in bold) and her answers, verbatim.

In 2020 and 2021, Reverend Warnock and Jon Ossoff ran together, almost as if they were in a buddy movie. I hope that’s not—

“No, it’s not pejorative.”

But some supporters wish you were campaigning together more, almost as a ticket. Senator Warnock also seems to be ahead of you, slightly, with Black voters.

“We’re polling roughly the same with Black voters. He’s also an incumbent, and incumbents poll better than challengers. That said, the numbers have tightened, reflective of the consolidation I talked about before.

“In terms of a buddy movie, [2021] was a very unique situation where we had eight weeks and two candidates with a very directly tied fate. [Warnock and I] are going to be running as colleagues and allies, but he’s got to tell a national story and I’ve got to tell a state story. I’ve got to bring an entire state cabinet with me, and a state legislature with me.

“My responsibility is going to be traveling the state with a lot of different folks, including state legislative candidates, congressional candidates—all need to be lifted up under the One Georgia banner. And always, happily, doing so with Raphael Warnock! But I’ve got to be with everyone.”

Despite her warnings, Ufot told me she’s not despondent about November, or Abrams’s chances.

“Here’s why. We have a more sophisticated electorate than we used to have. We have a lot of ‘super-voters’ now—folks who now vote in every election in which they’re qualified,” Ufot said, after almost a decade of New Georgia Project activism. “We saw in 2020, and 2021, how powerful young voters and Black voters are. Black women are continuing to be super-voters. Now we’ve got to make sure all their votes are counted.”

She, Abrams and Nguyen also say that the post-Dobbs environment makes this election especially unpredictable. “The majority of women spend their entire adult lives trying not to get pregnant,” Nguyen observes. “I find women are very angry and very worried” since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, she told me.

Abrams agrees. She volunteered the name of a Republican-turned-Democrat, Lynne Laube, the founder of the firm Cardlytics, who called her offering support. As well as an awful story from an ob-gyn supporter.

“She told me she got a call for a prescription she wrote, from a pharmacist who was refusing to refill the prescription—he wanted a diagnostic code, because the prescription could be used for abortion. [It wasn’t for abortion.] That is now legal.” We agreed: Women who want abortions should have them, but women who aren’t even trying to have abortions shouldn’t have to deal with this garbage.

Speaking of women. My friend Nsé Ufot is willing to say what many Abrams supporters won’t on the record: Comparing Abrams to Warnock without factoring in sexism is wrong. “There’s a reason we’ve had a black president and not a woman,” Ufot tells me. “Speaking as a black woman, I think sexism is a deeper and more intense problem than racism.”

I didn’t ask Abrams about that. I didn’t have the heart.

Meanwhile, even the critical New York Times piece acknowledged that Abrams’s problems with Black voters are probably overstated.

“White voters are going to come home to Republicans and Black voters are going to come home to Democrats,” pollster Lazarus told the Times. “That’s what happens in Georgia.”

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