Stacey Abrams aims to recapture energy of first campaign
For Stacey Abrams, everything is different this time.
Unlike her first campaign for Georgia governor in 2018, she enters Tuesday's primary election as the presumptive Democratic nominee, facing no competition. She's not the relatively unknown former state representative from the first campaign, but a leading advocate for voting rights, someone credited with laying the organizational groundwork for Joe Biden to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in 28 years.
But the same dynamics that lifted Abrams to national prominence four years ago could be a vulnerability in the general election in November. With her rise, she has become a millionaire, something Republicans have highlighted to portray her as out of touch, even though both leading GOP candidates for governor are far wealthier. Donald Trump, who drove suburban moderates like those around Atlanta away from the GOP, is no longer in the White House. Instead, Biden is confronting the lowest approval numbers of his presidency, alarming Democrats who fear he could drag down candidates across the country.
If she's elected, the 48-year-old Abrams would make history as the first Black woman to lead a state. But to get there, she must tap into the energy that contributed to her rise while averting the newer crosscurrents that could work against her.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat it: We have fundamental headwinds," said Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams' campaign manager. "We have a whole history where Democrats have trouble winning in midterms."
Abrams' fate could hinge on whom Republicans choose as their nominee on Tuesday. If they side with incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, the race would be a rematch of the bitter 2018 campaign, which Abrams lost by 1.4 percentage points. She was defiant at the time, acknowledging Kemp as the victor but refusing to concede the race, citing "gross mismanagement" in his role as secretary of state overseeing the election.
If Kemp is the nominee, he would again have the advantage of incumbency in a powerful office. He has shoved rafts of legislation through a GOP-led General Assembly and is unveiling big economic developments, like a $5.5 billion, 8,100-job Hyundai Motor plant that he announced near Savannah on Friday.
Polls so far this year show a close race, with Kemp narrowly ahead if he is the nominee. In 2018, polls usually found the race about tied, although little polling had been done this early that year, reflecting a national political establishment that didn't believe Abrams could win.
Abrams and other Democrats say they'll be ready if David Perdue wins the GOP nomination. Trump personally recruited the former U.S. senator to challenge Kemp after the incumbent governor refused to go along with Trump's push to overturn election results in Georgia.
But Abrams is eager to attack Kemp, with Groh-Wargo noting Kemp is now an incumbent with a record and saying "his record is pretty out of step with Georgia voters."
Those attacks can be lacerating. At a Democratic dinner on Saturday in suburban Gwinnett County, Abrams proclaimed that "I am tired of hearing about being the the best state in the country to do business when we are the worst state in the country to live."
Republicans pounced on the remark Sunday, a likelihood Abrams acknowledged even as she delivered it, saying "let me contextualize" and saying that when Georgia has dismal rankings for mental health access and maternal mortality, "then you're not the No. 1 place to live."
"Georgia is capable of greatness, we just need greatness to be in our governor's office," Abrams said. "We need someone who actually believes in bringing all of us in there together."
Abrams is steadily hammering her lead issue — a call for full Medicaid expansion to provide health insurance for uninsured adults in Georgia. But there's a new set of issues, including crime, education and inflation.
On public safety, Abrams plans to hit Kemp on his successful push to abolish the requirement for permits to carry concealed handguns in public. And with the likelihood that the Supreme Court will overturn a nationwide right to abortion, Kemp is also likely to face flak for signing a now-frozen law that would ban abortion after six weeks in Georgia. Groh-Wargo argues that alarm over abortion rights will motivate many Democrats.
Many Georgia Democrats believe 2022 is their year of destiny. That's in part because they believe the state, on the verge of being majority nonwhite, continues to trend Democratic.
"We're ready to show everyone that it wasn't a fluke, it wasn't just about one election cycle, and it wasn't about Donald Trump," U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams of Atlanta, also chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, told reporters at a recent state party dinner.
Even some Republicans say they believe Abrams is well positioned. Republican pollster Matt Towery said Georgia's shifting population and the enthusiasm of Black voters to cast ballots for Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock make it "extremely difficult for a Republican to win."
"I have consistently stated that I believe she will be the favorite in the race regardless of which GOP candidate wins the nomination," Towery said.
But discounting Republicans would be a mistake, said Martha Zoller, a talk show host and former Republican candidate named to the state Board of Education by Kemp. She said Abrams is open to attack for being more focused on national influence than on Georgia.
"She is looking so much past the governorship and thinking about running for president that she's not doing the work she needs to do to be governor," Zoller said.
To help offset that, Abrams has tried to steer clear of national politics. She was noticeably absent in January as Biden swung through Atlanta to press for voting rights, citing a scheduling conflict. More recently, her campaign has issued advertising trying to highlight what she's been doing outside of politics, including her business record and work on COVID-19 relief.
"Our mission is to define Stacey before anybody else gets a chance to undermine her or to define here in a way that's inaccurate," Groh-Wargo said.
Abrams has one other potential advantage — disunity in the Republican Party.
Both Kemp and Perdue have cast their run for governor as a mission to "stop Stacey," and heavy turnout in the GOP primary suggests many Republicans have overcome Trump-inspired misgivings about voting. But questions will remain whether Kemp, if he wins, can achieve the overwhelming party unity and turnout that may be needed to defeat Abrams. That will be especially true if Trump continues to criticize Kemp.
For now, though, the general election race is barely begun. But what's different this time is that Abrams won't be surprising anyone. When she says she's ready to win, people believe her.
"We win together, we lose together, we fall together or we rise together. And we are a party on the rise, we are a people on the rise," Abrams said at the state party dinner. "Now is our time and this is our moment and we are Democrats because we can see the future."