In January 2020, Stacey Abrams made an appearance on the podcast, The Wilderness, hosted by Jon Favreau, Barack Obama’s former speechwriter. He asked her what her “best case” was for why the Democratic presidential nominee in the coming election should “play big” in her state, Georgia.
Two years before, Abrams had tried to make the case in person. She resigned from Georgia’s legislature, where she was serving as minority leader, to run for governor. She was the first black woman candidate to run for governor for a major party ever in the United States. But she ran against Republican Brian Kemp, who retained his capacity as secretary of state, meaning that he was overseeing his own election. Kemp also announced an investigation into the Democratic Party’s potential cybercrimes two days before the vote.
When Kemp won by 50,000 votes, Abrams, rather than running for president or becoming a pundit, launched Fair Fight Action, a voting rights non-profit. She saw that there were people who could be registered and empowered in the voting process. And she knew, even though the game seemed so rigged to so many, that the Democrats could win.
“She wrote the playbook for how to play in the Republicans’ game,” said one Democratic strategist, who asked to speak anonymously so as to speak freely.
On the Wilderness podcast, Abrams made the case she’d been making for years: Georgia has the youngest population of the battleground states as well as the highest percentage of black Americans. It has 16 electoral votes and two Senate seats. “Those are the things that you need long term,” Abrams said, taking a breath before delivering her final line: “And Georgia, we’ve packed them together, and we’re a really cheap date.”
National Democratic Party resources were poured into Georgia. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both visited the state.
And it worked. Georgia went blue in November’s presidential election, bringing Biden up to as many electoral votes as Donald Trump had in 2016. And then, in January’s run-off elections, a year after Abrams’s podcast plea, Georgia delivered two Democratic seats to the Senate, securing the party’s control of the chamber.
Reverend Raphael Warnock, a black man who preached at Martin Luther King Jr’s former church, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish millennial, ran as a team and won. They presented the kind of coalition-building politics about which Abrams so often speaks.
After the victory, however, Democrat’s praise for Abrams’ role slowly tipped from deserved credit to hero worship, to the extent that she was likened to a character from the Marvel movies.
Yet Abrams did not wear a superhero’s cape. Hers was a victory won by years of hard work, not magic. It’s an insult to a person devoting her life to improving a broken system to suggest otherwise.
Nor did she accomplish what she did on her own, a fact she has pointed out. Part of what made her so effective, the Democratic strategist told me, was that she knew that hers was not the only organising group in the game. Georgia also didn’t change overnight; the 2020 election results were the result of years of organising.
That isn’t to say that Abrams didn’t play a unique role: she was vaulted into celebrity with her 2018 gubernatorial run, and she translated that celebrity into attention and financial support for state elections. It is to say that no politician should receive cult status.
What she, and others, achieved also isn’t secure yet. Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University, noted that Georgia elected Biden, but one district in the state also sent the extremist Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene to Congress. At present, Gillespie said, it looks like Georgia is on its way to becoming like North Carolina – a close-fought state, but one that went for Trump in 2020. It’s too early to declare that Georgia has become the next Virginia, a once-purple state that now reliably goes blue. But it is competitive and, for Democrats, worth fighting for.
As for Abrams? The Democratic strategist I spoke to said that it’s well known in Georgia politics that she wants a rematch with Kemp in 2022. Warnock will also be on the ballot that year, which could make for a compelling combination, particularly for Georgia’s black voters.
Republican state officials, to their credit, stood up to Trump when he said that the election had been stolen from him. To their discredit, they are using the claims of unproven electoral fraud to push for change to Georgia’s electoral laws, which could suppress turnout. Ideas floated include no excuse absentee voting – where one cannot request an absentee ballot without giving a particular reason for it – and requiring proof of ID with absentee voting, which in turn requires access to a photocopier.
It isn’t as though we have to pour over historical documents and wonder why Republicans are changing the rules, said Gillespie. These changes are being made in plain sight for an obvious reason. “Donald Trump loses the election, he poisons the well by making all sorts of unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud, people are mad… and now we have legislators who feel pressured to create rules to address a problem that didn’t exist in the first place.”
But Abrams helped write the rule book on beating the Republican rule book once before. She may well be able to do it again.