Stacey Abrams' playbook faces a new test in second run for Georgia governor

by 24USATVMay 24, 2022, 4 a.m. 22
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(CNN) When Stacey Abrams acknowledged defeat to Republican Brian Kemp in her 2018 campaign for governor of Georgia, she refused to call it a "concession." Four years later, the man she once described as an "architect of voter suppression" is the incumbent -- and the state she came so close to leading has enacted some of the nation's most restrictive voting laws .

Abrams is running unopposed in Tuesday's Democratic gubernatorial primary, which means her general election campaign really began in December 2021, when she announced plans to run against Kemp, who's facing a Donald Trump-backed primary threat . But Abrams' status has changed since her name was last on the ballot.

An underdog with little following outside of Georgia four years ago, the former state House minority leader is now one of the most popular Democrats in the country -- a political star some in the party wanted to run for president and a key figure in helping turn the state blue for Joe Biden in 2020 and electing Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock, who is on the ballot again this year, and Jon Ossoff in subsequent runoffs.

Abrams' rise to national prominence has also triggered a backlash from Republicans. Her efforts to increase access to the ballot and turnout in communities traditionally ignored by candidates from both parties has run up against Trump-inspired Republican efforts to make voting more difficult, with Georgia at the front of that line. Abrams must also contend with a harsher political atmosphere: the Democratic wave of 2018 has crested and the 2022 midterms are expected to be much kinder to Republicans, who are now riding a swell of discontent over Biden and Democratic rule on Capitol Hill.

Though the circumstances around her have changed, Abrams says this campaign's mission looks a lot like the old one's -- to drive turnout among new and occasional voters, while hammering Kemp and Republicans over issues like health care and education.

"We have to reach every single voter, in every way we can. We had record turnout and we saw a composition of voters the state had never seen before," Abrams told CNN. "My mission in '22 is to go back to those voters and tell them how working together, we can make certain they thrive, and that will lead us to victory in November."

In March, she launched her "One Georgia" tour in front of a closed rural hospital, pledging to expand Medicaid if elected. Though she is recognized nationally for her work as a voting rights advocate and organizer, Abrams is -- again -- centering her campaign on the state's economic disparities and the intersection of race and health care in a state where the maternal mortality rate is more than twice the national average.

Leading Abrams supporters are confident her message will break through the national din.

"Stacey has a very localized approach. And I think that's really important, because if we were to gauge how people are going to be voting based on the approval ratings of Biden, we know that that's going to be a disaster," said Michelle Sanchez, field director for Poder Latinx. "But she has been a champion here in Georgia for so long."

"Remember when Biden smeared (Georgia's) election integrity law as 'Jim Crow 2.0'?," Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, a Trump ally, tweeted last week.

But Abrams said the headline numbers do not account for the targeted nature of the law, known as SB 202.

"The moral equivalent of saying that voter turnout defuses or disproves voter suppression is like saying that more people getting in the water means there are no longer any sharks," she said.

The state's new voting rules limit the number of drop boxes for absentee ballots and curtail the hours in which they are accessible; make it more difficult for voters to cast provisional ballots if they go to the wrong polling place; create new obstacles for voters seeking to cast their absentee ballots; and, in a move that made national headlines, prohibit groups from offering food or water within 25 feet of waiting voters or 150 feet of a polling place.

"We have to remember, voter suppression isn't about stopping every voter," Abrams said. "It's about blocking and impeding those voters who are considered inconvenient."

Abrams and supporters put new resources to work

Despite Trump's unsettling of the Republican primary, the GOP campaign apparatus is poised to run a fierce campaign against Abrams in 2022. Democratic groups and Abrams' campaign know it, and believe they are better equipped -- and funded -- to enact the intensive groundwork that was a hallmark of her first run for governor.

"What has changed about her campaign is, simply, that they have more resources. So they have a larger budget and they have a bigger spotlight," said Abigail Collazo, Abrams' spokeswoman in 2018.

Collazo pointed to the hiring of a full-time American Sign Language interpreter and director of constituent services -- jobs traditionally attached to the offices of elected officials -- to the new campaign as a choice example of its intent to immediately engage more deeply in underserved communities around the state.

"She's not waiting for the job title. We've now seen what you do and what you can do with additional funds," Collazo said. "And it's not just funneling it all into really expensive tech tools and the other stuff people pitch you."

Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, executive director of Georgia's Asian American Advocacy Fund, which has endorsed Abrams, said that when Mahmood ran for a statehouse seat in 2018, there was no "cohesive effort to mobilize Asian American communities for a progressive candidate."

But Abrams' near-miss -- along with Democratic successes in 2020 and 2021, which helped Biden to the presidency and delivered the party control of the Senate -- changed the equation.

"Now there's just so much more attention and such a strategic support lined up for Stacey ahead of November," said Mahmood. "Whether it's from her campaign directly -- I'm sure she's got an incredible strategy planned -- but also generally from these independent political organizations like ours that are ready to really throw down in a way that, unfortunately, we didn't get to see in 2018."

Grassroots organizers, like the Abrams-founded group New Georgia Project Action Fund, are confident an Abrams victory is possible because of the infrastructure they've built, including a plan to turn out 150,000 new voters.

"What we learned is that we need to do a better job of reaching out to Black males. That was part and parcel, some of the reason that she was defeated. And we have been more intentional about reaching out to that demographic, not just New Georgia Project, but others in the progressive ecosystem," said Kendra Cotton, chief operating officer for New Georgia Project and its affiliated New Georgia Project Action Fund.

Kimberlyn Carter, the executive director of Represent Georgia Action Network, also sees a path for Abrams.

"Georgia is truly a state full of voters who are eager to be seen, heard and mobilized," said Carter, who argued the changing racial demographics of the state makes Democrats like Abrams more competitive than they were before in areas outside of the Atlanta metro region.

The campaign will be won or lost at the local level, said Hillary Holley, formally the director of organizing and strategic adviser for Fair Fight, another Abrams-founded activist group. Holley worked on the 2018 campaign and says the devastation among Abrams' supporters is still raw.

"I think voters are ready to finish the job," she said.

Kemp has traveled a bumpier road to his expected rematch with Abrams.

While Abrams has no competition for the Democratic nomination, the governor is facing a Trump-backed primary challenge from former Sen. David Perdue, who lost his seat to Ossoff last year.

Though Kemp is poised to defeat Perdue, and Republicans in the state -- whether they support Trump or not -- appear to be brushing off the former President's input, the divisions underscored by Trump's involvement could potentially dampen GOP support for the incumbent in November.

Kemp has largely ignored Perdue's stumbling campaign and, on Monday, sought to downplay Trump's opposition.

"I'm not mad at him," Kemp said of the former President. "I think he's just mad at me, and that's something that I can't control."

Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Kemp pointed to his Democratic rival as the figure who, more than anyone else, would fire up any wavering GOP voters.

"I think Stacey Abrams is a great unifier," Kemp said. "I think every Republican in Georgia will be unified after Tuesday."

For her part, Abrams said she was "looking forward to unifying all of Georgia."

"I'm glad," she quipped, "(Kemp) said I'm halfway there."

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to clarify Kendra Cotton's position as chief operating officer of New Georgia Project and its affiliated New Georgia Project Action Fund.

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