What’s next for Stacey Abrams?
“I’m interested in everything,” the 2018 Democratic nominee for Georgia governor replied when asked about the electoral alternatives.
On Monday, she returned to the town where she kicked off that campaign to pump up supporters for her next move. The specifics, though, are still unclear.
Earlier this month, Abrams met in Washington with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who is seeking candidates to run against Republican Sen. David Perdue in 2020.
Abrams’s ability to energize Georgia voters — she got more votes than any Democrat who has ever run statewide — has prompted some to suggest she should be among those considered to be in the presidential or vice presidential mix for 2020. Abrams herself agrees, in words that appear to refer to the adulation that has surrounded another losing 2018 candidate, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
“It is telling that that conversation [about her] isn’t happening as frequently. And that is to take nothing away from those whose names are being bandied about, but I worry, not just for myself, I worry about the person who comes next who is kept out of the conversation because of arbitrary filters about what viability looks like,” she said, citing among the filters race and gender.
And there’s always the option of a 2022 rematch with Republican Brian Kemp, who was sworn in a week ago as Georgia’s new governor.
Abrams said in a recent interview that she has given herself until the end of March to make a decision. Her statewide tour, which will begin at a mom-and-pop restaurant in Albany, Ga., about 180 miles south of Atlanta, serves as a momentum-builder for that announcement.
“It is easy to run for office because an office is available but that is not my approach. My goal is to be the person who has the right skills and capacity to do the work, and that the work I want to do creates the change I want to see.”
Abrams has refused to cede defeat in the governor’s race since ending her campaign on Nov. 17 with a defiant speech blaming her loss on voting irregularities. (She received 48.8 percent of the vote to Kemp’s 50.2 percent.)
Instead, Abrams announced a new organization, Fair Fight Georgia, focused on battling voter suppression. The group filed a federal lawsuit against state elections officials, alleging that they “grossly mismanaged” the 2018 election and violated Georgians’ constitutional and civil rights. State officials have until the end of the month to respond to the suit.
Abrams, who ran on promises to expand Medicaid eligibility, increase funding for public education and help grow small businesses outside of metropolitan Atlanta, has joined the board of directors of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. She spoke at a TEDWomen 2018 event in November in Palm Springs, Calif., and she has remained visible on the media circuit, including an appearance in an episode of “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” that used cutting humor to raise questions about whether Abrams lost because of voter suppression. Google reported that Abrams, the first black woman to win a major party nomination for governor, was its most searched political figure of 2018.
A poll released Friday by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that 52 percent of registered Georgia voters have a favorable view of Abrams. Kemp’s approval rating was 37 percent.
Karen Finney, a Democratic consultant who served as a senior adviser to Abrams’s campaign, said the former gubernatorial nominee’s options are many.
“I think if she chooses to run for Senate, she would be an excellent candidate and I think it would be an exciting race, no question. Even if she chooses not to run I would expect she would play a role in the 2020 cycle because she is such an important voice in Georgia and nationally,” Finney said.
If Abrams decides to sit out next year and wait for a rematch with Kemp in 2022, Finney said, she can continue to be a megaphone for voters drawn to her message last year.
“Health care is not going anywhere as an issue in the state,” Finney said. “Education, jobs, wages, are all issues that will be important” in the next gubernatorial election.
Candidates interested in challenging Perdue next year, as well as taking on Kemp three years from now, are waiting on Abrams to make her move.
“People are talking about this being her moment and striking while the iron is hot, but she’s got to make her own decision,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Given that Georgia still trends toward Republicans in statewide races — the partyswept all statewide contests in November — it’s not an easy decision, Gillespie said.
If Abrams chooses to run against Perdue next year and loses, “she might lose some of her luster” as the presumptive Democratic nominee to challenge Kemp in 2022, Gillespie said.
Then again, there is the uncertainty of not knowing “how Brian Kemp is going to govern and whether he’s going to have the normal amount of advantage as an incumbent going into his reelection,” she added.
Nikema Williams, a Democratic state senator who worked to turn out black women voters in 2018, said Abrams’s candidacy “changed the game in Georgia.”
The campaign’s strategy focused on persuading infrequent voters to participate in the election by reaching out to them several times via canvassing, phone banks and text messages. Williams said voters also connected with Abrams on a personal level, as she shared parts of her personal history: growing up in a poor but striving family, trying to help a brother caught in the throes of drug addiction, struggling to pay off school loans and a tax bill while also helping out her parents.
“Stacey opened the door for people to find their voice,” said Williams, who is running to lead the Georgia Democratic Party. “Whatever she decides to do, you best believe I am with her 100 percent.”
Whatever Abrams decides to run for — and she has emphatically said she will run again — she said she will continue to fight restrictive voting rules. Abrams insisted she did not lose the election; what happened, she said, was that “an insufficient number of votes were counted or even allowed to be cast.”
Kemp, who was secretary of state during the campaign, has said that he hewed to existing state law and denied any intent to disenfranchise Abrams’s supporters. The election results were delayed because of questions about thousands of voters forced to use provisional ballots. Voter purges and blocked registrations also raised concerns.
Abrams said the work of Fair Fight is vital to the political empowerment of the country’s emerging majority — people of color and young people, as well as liberal whites, women and LGBTQ individuals. Restrictive voter registration and identification laws, and other policies that make it hard for people to vote, lessens their ability to choose leaders who look like them and share their policy priorities, she said.