On Tuesday night, Stacey Abrams became the first African American woman to give the official Democratic rebuttal to the State of the Union. In her definitive rebuke of President Trump, Abrams castigated him — and the entire GOP — over immigration, voting rights, health care and the economy.
During a roughly 11-minute speech, Abrams sought to sharpen the distinctions Democrats are seeking to draw with Trump and the GOP ahead of the next election, as well as introduce herself to a broad audience ahead of a possible Senate run in Georgia, a potential 2020 battleground. In Abrams, a former state legislative leader, Democratic leaders selected someone they felt presented an appealing snapshot of what the party is offering as it gears up for the next election — and someone who provides a strong contrast with Trump. Abrams is a woman of color who has never held federal office and does not currently hold an elected position.
The speech was risky in a sense, since the record of recent responses to the annual address has been spotty. While some recent turns drew ridicule and others left no lasting impact, Abrams spoke without any obvious missteps for opponents to seize on.
Abrams wrote her speech and did not watch Trump’s address, according to her team. She wore a white brooch honoring suffragists.
Abrams cast the recent government shutdown as a “stunt” by Trump. She dismissed the critique by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of a proposed voting overhaul from Democrats. And she accused the GOP of disregarding or failing to understand average Americans. Here’s what else she discussed:
Trump’s address mixed bipartisan notes with polarizing themes, such as his renewed pitch for a wall. Abrams also infused her speech with nods to unity, noting that she had worked with GOP leaders in the Georgia state legislature.
“America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants, not walls,” Abrams said, referring to Trump’s determination to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
Abrams took aim at the recent government shutdown, which polls suggest was unpopular with the public.
“The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people — but our values,” Abrams said.
The partial shutdown was the longest in U.S. history, spanning 35 days. Trump demanded money for a border wall, refusing to sign legislation to reopen the government before changing course under pressure from both parties.
A new shutdown deadline looms on Feb. 15.
Abrams has long stressed voting rights and registration, an issue increasingly important to Democrats, who have made the case nationally that GOP officials are placing obstacles in the paths of minority and other voters.
In her speech, Abrams addressed the recent comment by McConnell that a Democratic proposal to make Election Day a federal holiday, along with other voting overhaul measures, amounts to a “power grab.”
Abrams used the occasion of her speech to promote her new political group, Fair Fight Action, which is seeking to call attention to concerns about Georgia’s election system and has filed a lawsuit alleging that officials “grossly mismanaged” the 2018 contest in violation of Georgians’ rights.
Abrams challenged Republicans to embrace stronger gun safety measures, saying, “This White House responds timidly while first-graders practice active-shooter drills.”
When it comes to racist words and actions, “we must hold everyone from the very highest offices to our own families accountable,” Abrams said. Her comment came days after the revelation of a racist photo in a medical school yearbook entry for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
In 2018, Trump backed Republican Brian Kemp, who narrowly defeated Abrams. Trump said last week that he respected Abrams and hoped she would do “a good job” in her address.
Many Washington Democrats are hoping Abrams will challenge Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) in 2020. Abrams met with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, last month, according to a Democrat familiar with the conversations.
Cynthia Huffman, who attended the party in Edgewood, said she is ready to volunteer if Abrams runs for the Senate. Huffman said the speech was “great, very uplifting.”
Sullivan reported from Washington.