Stacey Abrams won’t be on Georgia’s ballot in 2020 unless she’s tapped as a vice presidential candidate. But over the last week, the Democrat has sharpened the role she’ll play in the state’s twin U.S. Senate contests even after she rejected efforts to recruit her to run.
Abrams, who narrowly lost last year’s race for governor, sent a playbook to national Democratic strategists and White House hopefuls that urges them to pour unprecedented resources into Georgia in 2020 – and warns that failing to do so would amount to “strategic malpractice.”
And though Abrams has remained neutral in the Senate contests, she has not ruled out playing a more forceful part in Democratic efforts to oust first-term Republican Sen. David Perdue and capture the seat soon to be vacated by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson next year.
“She will campaign vigorously in the general election to ensure Democratic victories. She has no current plans to endorse in the primary, but how that ends up working out is to be seen,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, her top aide, adding: “A lot has to shake out.”
It puts Abrams on new terrain after refusing overtures to run for the two Senate seats – a decision that upset some liberal activists who view her as the party’s best shot in Georgia to help erase the GOP’s 53-47 edge in the Senate.
She’s embraced her role as the state’s most prominent active Democrat, using her megaphone to plead with party officials to devote significant resources to the state next year and promote a national expansion of her voting rights initiative.
But she’s also signaled she may play a bigger part in shaping the two races – either overtly or behind the scenes – as Democrats worry about a glut of candidates in the contests.
There are already four Democrats challenging Perdue, and that field could soon grow. But party leaders are equally concerned about the wide-open race for Isakson’s seat – a special election that pits candidates from all parties on the same ballot with no primary.
They fear a repeat of what almost happened to Republicans during the state’s last federal special election in 2017, when relentless sniping and attack from a dozen GOP contenders almost allowed Jon Ossoff, the leading Democrat in the race, to flip the conservative-leaning seat.
‘Still out there’
While Abrams has stayed on the sidelines since deciding against a Senate bid, it may not seem like it.
The first candidate to enter the Perdue race, former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, said she would only compete if Abrams decided against it. And her name has been glowingly invoked in campaign videos, social media messages and candidate speeches.
Case in point: When Ossoff launched his Senate bid this week, he singled out Abrams as the most talented politician in Georgia and an inspiration to his campaign.
“One of the things I learned from my race in ’17 is a fight well fought – even if you lose it – can be worth what you build in the process,” Ossoff said. “That’s how I look back on my race in 2017 and that’s certainly how I look at Stacey Abrams’ historic, extraordinary performance in 2018.”
Although she has connections with many of the candidates and potential contenders, she is particularly close with a few of the names that have surfaced.
Sarah Riggs Amico, who announced her bid to challenge Perdue last month, crisscrossed the state with Abrams last year as the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor. And some of Abrams’ allies are said to be trying to recruit Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Not surprisingly, Abrams has also emerged as a frequent foil for Republicans. Conservative U.S. House candidates have mocked her refusal to concede last year’s election to Kemp. And Perdue has framed her as a nemesis while ignoring his Democratic opponents.
“She’s still out there, and she’s doing everything she can to deliver Georgia for national Democrats in 2020,” read a recent fundraising appeal Perdue’s campaign sent to donors. “Between now and November 2020, we cannot let Stacey Abrams and her political machine go unchallenged.”
Abrams would probably not quibble with at least one part of Perdue’s assertion. In a 16-pagememo that ricocheted around Washington this week, she challenged national Democrats to “do better and go big” next year in Georgia.
The playbook, authored by Abrams and Groh-Wargo, pressed Democrats to reject “false choices” between chasing more moderate white voters and left-leaning minorities who often skip elections.
“We do not lose winnable white voters because we engage communities of color,” it read. “We do not lose urban votes because we campaign in rural areas.”
The two also pushed back on the notion that Abrams is the only candidate who could bring Republicans to the verge of defeat, making the case that her strategy can be advanced by any “aggressive, authentic candidate and campaign.”
“Thoughtful candidates and campaigns can take a look at what we did and see tons of room to grow,” Groh-Wargo said in an interview. “There are more African-American voters who didn’t cast ballots last year, there are white voters who are dissatisfied with President Donald Trump – there’s tons of opportunities.”
Much depends on Kemp’s pick to succeed Isakson, who is stepping down at year’s end. The governor said in an interview Monday he’s in no hurry to tap a replacement who would stand for election in 2020 to fill the remaining two year’s on Isakson’s term and again in 2022 when Kemp is on the ballot.
“There’s no timeline. I have a lot of good options,” Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There’s a lot of different ways we can go. I want to be very thoughtful and diligent in the process.”
Kemp has an array of potential candidates to choose from depending on the approach he decides to take: An effort to energize the party’s base with someone who appeals to conservative Donald Trump supporters or a chance to broaden the GOP’s appeal in suburbs where Democrats have gained ground.
Among his options are Reps. Doug Collins and Tom Graves, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, Attorney General Chris Carr, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, former Rep. Karen Handel and U.S. Attorney BJay Pak. He’s also likely to vet a less conventional option, such as a judicial official or business executive.
“We’re going to run together, whoever it is, to get Donald Trump in a second term,” Perdue said in a radio interview Tuesday. “It’s an easy thing to see that the agenda the president started here is working. The partner that I want is someone who can take this fight passionately to the voters.”