Can Stacey Abrams Save the Democrats Again?
Newsweek|November 19, 2021
The Georgia progressive has big ambitions for the party (and for herself)
By Steve Friess

MORE THAN 1,000 TICKET-BUYING fans bathe Stacey Abrams in adulation the minute she steps into the spotlight at the cavernous Chevalier Theatre in the Boston suburb of Medford in late October. She waves with both hands, sits down in a deep leather chair and flashes her famous gaptoothed grin until the standing ovation subsides and the sixth stop on her three-month, 12-city national speaking tour can start. That evening's moderator, NPR host Meghna Chakrabarti, says she's awed to be “sharing the stage with one of the great defenders of democracy,” and tees up Abrams to deliver her core message: that efforts to suppress voting rights, particularly of people of color and young voters, are a scourge in this country that must be fought. And with that, the former Georgia State Representative and current Democratic breakout star gets to work.

Work for Abrams these days—whether speaking at events like this, stumping for like-minded candidates or mobilizing voters through her nonprofit Fair Fight-is all about bolstering the Democratic Party at a time when it badly needs help. A tough loss in Virginia and close call in New Jersey in bellwether governor races this month, coupled with President Joe Biden's sharp drop in approval ratings, are sounding alarms about a possible rout in next year's midterm elections. Abrams, who famously turned a bitter loss in Georgia's 2018 governor race into a powerful get-out-the-vote movement that helped deliver the White House and Congress to Democrats, is increasingly looking like a possible savior, although it's far too early in the process to place safe bets.

She's also made no secret of her own ambitions to seek political office again one day. But for now at least, Abrams is sticking to the script on voter suppression, thinly disguising a rallying cry for Democrats as a nonpartisan message—something she makes clear at the event in Massachusetts.

“My selections when I go into the voting booth may be partisan, but the process that gets me there should not be, she says as hundreds of heads bob in agreement. “I'm doing what I am doing so that the people who never want me to hold public office again have the same access to voting. The people who decry those who share my complexion or my ideology, or any of the inconvenient truths that I hold in their estimation, should have not been denied their access by virtue of their belief.

It's a clever inversion of her theme since nobody is actually trying to keep those people—white conservatives, presumably—from voting. But Abrams' more impressive feat here, a reflection of her drawing power, is that her audience has paid as much as $200 a seat to hear much the same spiel she regularly issues for free. A few days earlier, for instance, Abrams was in Virginia campaigning for doomed Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe, delivering a similar message at no charge.

It's the same message she's been delivering since she lost in Georgia three years ago to now-Governor Brian Kemp, a defeat she asserts was the result of systemic voter suppression by Republicans. The massive voter registration and turnout drive she subsequently led brought some 800,000 new Georgia voters into the process, half of them people of color and 45 percent under 30. Most political analysts credit her organizing work with winning the Peach State for Biden (he topped Trump by a mere 11,000 votes), a critical battleground victory, and for Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who won close runoff elections that gave Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.

“[STACEY] PLANS TO BECOME the FIRST BLACK WOMAN GOVERNOR in the UNITED STATES NEXT YEAR. And THEN RUN for PRESIDENT.”

Abrams did all this while simultaneously burnishing her reputation with a viral TED Talk and a central role in an Amazon Prime documentary about voter suppression in the 2018 election, and writing a best-selling Supreme Court crime thriller While Justice Sleeps (her sideline career as an author additionally includes the nonfiction political treatise Our Time Is Now and romance novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery). As if that weren't enough, she's also an entrepreneur, most recently co-founding a fintech startup called Now, which offers inexpensive short-term credit to small businesses.

It's all a giant precursor—but to what, exactly?

Those who know Abrams say her goals are threefold. First, she believes she can teach Democrats in increasingly diverse, Republican-dominated states like Texas, North Carolina and Florida how to win by engaging long-neglected segments such as people of color, the poor and young voters. Second, she wants to prevent restrictive voting measures and manipulated district maps that suppress or dilute minority votes. If Abrams accomplishes the first two goals, she believes the third and ultimate goal is also possible: Launch herself by 2029 into the White House, perhaps via a term or so as Georgia governor.

“Stacey has a plan, and it's only a surprise to people who haven't paid attention,” says an adviser who asked not to be identified to speak freely about her thinking. “She plans to become the first Black woman governor in the United States next year. And then run for president in 2024 if Biden does not, or in 2028 if he does.”

Yet none of that happens, the Abrams theory goes, if the administration of American elections is stacked against people of color, against Democrats and, therefore, against her. And to many who are paying to see her talks in theaters around the U.S. this fall, nothing less than saving democracy-and, in the process, the Democrats—is at stake. As Trevor Johnson of Somerville, Massachusetts, a 55-year-old Democrat lifer who attended the Medford appearance, puts it: “She may be the only one who can fix it.

The Very Long Game

TO MOST AMERICANS, STACEY ABRAMS BURST INTO public consciousness in 2018 with a political idea that ran contrary to conventional wisdom: Instead of softening progressive views to appeal to moderate suburbanites, make those policies more relatable while encouraging the people most likely to agree with them-people of color, young people and those with lower incomes—to vote. She was among a crop of fresh Democratic faces to emerge in that first cycle of the Trump presidency; gubernatorial nominee Beto O'Rourke of Texas, now-Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and the four women elected to Congress who became known as “The Squad” also became national figures.

In Abrams' case, she drew attention both as the first Black woman nominated by a major party for a governorship and as a gifted orator with an army of volunteers pushing into long-neglected neighborhoods to teach residents the way to political power. She zeroed in that year on encouraging her supporters to use the state's no-excuse vote-by-mail option to avoid sometimes day-long lines at the polls on Election Day; mail-in voting had been among the very first reforms Republicans passed in 2005 after taking control of the Georgia Legislature because it was seen as a means of assisting rural and elderly voters who tended to be more conservative. In 2018, though, it worked in the Democrats' favor: Abrams thumped Kemp in absentee balloting by some 50,000 votes.

Her newfound national prominence may have seemed sudden after 10 relatively low-profile years in the Georgia House of Representatives, but it was not an accidental outcome for the notoriously long-term planner. At their first hotel-bar sit-down in 2011, Abrams told her future 2018 campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo that she intended to ABRAM run for governor and had a plan to flip the state. Groh-Wargo was then an activist crisscrossing red states to is 519 find promising Democratic leaders, and Abrams was a second-term state legislator about to ascend to Assembly minority leader at a moment when the Republicans were redrawing district lines to bolster and codify their electoral advantages.

We did sketch out the entire decade in terms of the transformation that needed to happen in Georgia, and specifically her goals to run for governor, Groh-Wargo says.

Abrams also had very clear ideas about what a winning strategy would be. “When she started her 2018 run for governor, everyone in Georgia basically said, 'You need to be focusing on moderates and try to get Republicans to swing over but she said, No, no, the party needs to focus more on people who look like me,” says longtime Georgia political analyst Bill Crane. “I admit I was one of those who doubted that strategy.

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