ATLANTA — Pick a strategy Democrats are considering ahead of 2020, and Stacey Abrams’s narrow loss in the Georgia governor’s race serves either as a blueprint or a warning sign.
Democrats are debating how much voting issues can swing an election, whether identity politics are energizing or polarizing, and if it is better to double down on politically engaged women, people of color and left-leaning voters or tack to the center. All of those played out in a fight that catapulted Ms. Abrams to national attention. The open question is what lesson to draw: that her strategy was more successful than any recent Democrat who ran statewide, or that it still was not enough to tug Georgia — and perhaps the country — into the blue column.
For Ms. Abrams, the answer is unequivocal: Her campaign turned out record numbers of black, Latino and Asian voters, and she also won a larger share of the white vote than President Barack Obama or scions of Georgia political royalty like Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn. She actively courted voters and highlighted issues central to an emerging demographic majority that proved elusive for Democrats in 2016.
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“We recognized that we could center communities of color, marginalized communities, and talk about their needs without alienating the white community,” she said in a recent extended interview. “That’s been a false narrative that’s been part of politics, especially in the South, for a very long time.”
This, she argues, is a playbook Democrats should follow for 2020, whether or not she runs for president — a choice she is actively considering.
“I need women of color, particularly black women, to understand that our achievements should not be diminished,” she said, particularly that she came so close in a red state. She added, “Now I’m not saying I would be the best candidate, but I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand the way others do.”
The warning signs, though, remain. Ms. Abrams struggled to win votes in rural areas, which will be key in some battleground states for Democrats. And the debate continues over whether she ran to the left of some Georgians she needed to persuade, and whether emphasizing turnout of new and infrequent voters will compensate for the loss of non-college-educated white voters.
In the bitter days after a defeat she did not expect, Ms. Abrams was uncharacteristically flattened. “I’m angry, I’m sad and for about eight days I was despondent,” she said. In the end, she concluded, “I believe in turning anger into action.”
So she has filled her days with activity — speeches; helping to found two organizations; revising her nonfiction book, originally titled “Minority Leader,” for paperback release — “and then I’ve got this little decision about what I’m going to do with the rest of my life that’s also hanging over me like the sword of Damocles.” She said she will run for office again, and will decide whether for senator, governor or president by late March or early April.
Until then, she has been crisscrossing Georgia — and making strategic national appearances — on a combination thank-you and mobilization tour, offering her experience as Exhibit A of a cause Democrats are pressing with renewed fervor: voting rights.
“The fight I see today is a fight for our democracy,” she said at one of those stops, the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus’s annual Heritage Dinner. “It’s not a partisan fight. It’s a hard fight, the fight to defend the right to vote in Georgia. Voter suppression is real.”
She has stumped for Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group she founded that is suing Georgia officials over voting irregularities it argues distorted the election results. The state legislators she addressed had just concluded a heated debate over a bill aimed at redressing voting issues that many in the room believed did not go far enough.
She is spurred by her conviction that she lost because her opponent, Brian Kemp, who oversaw elections as secretary of state, took actions that are now being challenged in lawsuits: purging voting rolls, disqualifying voters whose names varied across state databases, and closing polling places.
“A candidate could always be better, but I don’t believe there’s a flaw in our process that someone can point to and say this is why this happened,” she said. “The results were purely and fully attributable to voter suppression.”
Hillary Clinton echoed that charge over the weekend at the commemoration of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., describing a litany of tactics to suppress registration and voting that left candidates “deprived of votes they otherwise would have gotten.” She added, “Stacey Abrams should be governor, leading that state right now.”
It is a sweeping conclusion that even many voting rights advocates say remains extremely difficult to prove. Sara Henderson, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, who worked for Ms. Abrams in the State Legislature and admires her, said: “None of our groups has hard data on exactly what happened. We have no way of knowing, no paper trail.”
The charges infuriate Republicans. “It’s the most incendiary, divisive line of political rhetoric imaginable,” said Brian Robinson, a political consultant who worked in the administration of Georgia’s previous governor, Nathan Deal. “When you say voter suppression, that brings to mind racial connotations of historical acts of abuse by the state. That’s not what is happening here. They’re talking about technical issues.”
Ms. Abrams is also championing a key Democratic priority for 2020 and beyond — pressing for the fullest census count, a key determinant of political power, congressional seats and redistricting. She is working with others to create an organization, Fair Count, that will promote hard-to-count groups like people of color and the poor. In Georgia, she said, that includes two million people.
Turning out these new and infrequent voters as well as policing voting rights and allying with white liberals, focusing on issues like health care, jobs and education that speak to both groups, is the playbook, she said, that can turn Georgia blue.
Her campaign was a preview of the ongoing debate about identity politics — how explicitly candidates can embrace race and gender without alienating white male voters. Ms. Abrams, who wrote an extended defense of identity politics for Foreign Affairs, said that while she believes it essential to fight for groups that have been excluded and marginalized, the issues she emphasized appealed to white voters as well. In a white rural community, she said, she focused on the perils of closing rural hospitals, which meant job losses and health risks. Before black audiences, she emphasized high rates of black maternal mortality.
“Georgia can be won,” she said, particularly with the added resources of a presidential campaign. There is the inconvenient fact, however, that she lost.
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said Ms. Abrams’s focus on turnout was far more effective than previous Democratic candidates’ assumptions that minorities would support them while they courted what she called “the elusive moderate or centrist voter.” But she said Ms. Abrams did not get the level of support she needed in rural parts of the state, despite intensive efforts to reach out, particularly to rural black voters.
Mr. Robinson, the Republican consultant, said he believed that Georgia was in play for Democrats and that they were investing more money than Republicans trying to win it. But he said the party’s leftward turn would undo them. “Democrats are doing everything they can to assure that those Republicans who just started voting Democratic lose faith,” he said. “Their embrace of socialism, they’re leaving Middle America and going too far.”
Ms. Abrams scoffs at that line of attack. She thinks people are hungry for bold proposals, but also willing to be led through incremental steps to achieve them. “We have to give the public credit for being able to hear about big ideas without expecting those big ideas to come to fruition immediately,” she said.
Ms. Abrams’s track record as the minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives suggested a willingness to compromise and work across the aisle that drew attacks from her left during the primary. During the general election, Mr. Kemp, now the governor, called her radical.
“That’s not her,” Professor Gillespie said. “People believed it because she was a black woman. Because she dared to say we’re going to try to increase minority turnout, all of a sudden that was a radical idea.”
In a season in which six women, one of them black, are already running for president, Ms. Abrams said she had already seen echoes of what she faced in her campaign. Some people she considered friends did not back her because they did not believe that a black woman could win. Others counted up every black politician who supported her opponents in the primary. And still others picked over her hairstyle, weight and personal life as a single, childless woman.
“We’ve already seen questions about how Elizabeth Warren reaches for a beer, about Kamala’s racial heritage and how close to 100 percent is it,” she said, referring to the Massachusetts senator and Senator Kamala Harris of California. “We have already seen recaps of questions asked of women’s behavior in leadership that are not asked of men.”
She added, “Some of the critiques of me were based on race and gender, some were based purely on race and some were based purely on gender — I got to experience the entire landscape of concern.”
As Ms. Abrams keeps to a frenetic schedule, there is one task she has not been able to check off: finishing a trilogy in her series of romance novels. (She has written eight featuring adventurous black women under the pen name Selena Montgomery.) “My mother has mentioned more than once I haven’t gone it done,” she said. “I’m working on it, man. It’s a different mind-set.”
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