Vanessa Williams and Reis Thebault
Atlanta, Georgia – Stacey Abrams did not deny her anger when Republican Brian Kemp was declared the winner of the Georgia governor’s race two years ago, after a bitter contest marred by widespread irregularities and allegations of voter suppression.
Instead, she channelled that anger into the work she had started years before to organise and mobilise an army of voters to break the Republican Party’s lock on state politics and create a government that looked more like the new Georgia.
That army, anchored in metro Atlanta and in smaller pockets of predominantly Black cities and counties, helped to push former vice president Joe Biden several thousand votes ahead of President Donald Trump in the state this week. Now Democrats are on the verge of achieving a long-held dream: flipping Georgia, which hasn’t voted for a presidential nominee of that party since 1992.
That optimism is giving the party further hope that its Senate candidates have a fighting chance in two run-off elections expected to unfold in January.
Abrams, 46, who was the first Black woman to win a major-party gubernatorial nomination, was roundly applauded by Democratic political leaders and activists on social media and elsewhere on Friday after Biden overtook Trump in ballots counted in Georgia. The state is continuing to tally overseas, provisional and military ballots and plans to conduct a recount.
The accolades often mentioned the overall work of Black women, among the most engaged and active segments of the Democratic electorate – both as voters and as activists like Abrams, who register voters, rally them to the polls and, more and more, run for office.
Throughout the 2018 governor’s race, Abrams criticised Kemp for refusing to step down as secretary of state, whose office oversees elections, while he was running for governor. She also called him the “architect of voter suppression“.
When the contest ended with Abrams trailing by 55 000 votes, she refused to concede to Kemp – a decision that conservatives and Republicans have criticised. Instead, she filed a lawsuit against the state for “gross negligence” in managing the election and formed a political group called Fair Fight Action, focused on battling restrictive laws and educating people on how to protect their right to vote.
Abrams has said she thought it was important not to walk away from 1.9 million voters who backed her candidacy, many of them new voters or those who hadn’t cast ballots in recent elections because they didn’t think it would make a difference.
National party leaders lobbied her heavily to run for the Senate this year, and Biden considered her during his search for a running mate. She became a sought-after speaker at political and issues conferences, on news programmes, and on late-night talk shows, sounding the alarm about what she said was an assault on the rights of young, liberal and multiracial voters by the Republican Party. Fair Fight Action raised tens of millions of dollars to finance voter education and protection initiatives in battleground states across the country.
Friday morning, Abrams posted a tweet thanking organisations and activists who also have worked to increase the numbers and participation of liberal voters. Dozens responded with praise for Abrams, including Hillary Clinton, actress Viola Davis and basketball star LeBron James.
Georgia, thank you. Together, we have changed the course of our state for the better. But our work is not done.
— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) November 7, 2020
Abrams’s spokesman said she had no further comment Friday, but in remarks to a coalition of liberal activists Wednesday, she talked about her approach to change, which she said relies on hard work, patience and picking up after setbacks.
“What matters is that we tried and we made progress. That’s what we’ve done in Georgia. Election after election, year after year, when people compared us to Lucy and the football with Charlie Brown. Why bother because it’s never going to happen?” Abrams said. “Well, we made the possible happen, and we can do it across this country, we can do it in every community, and we can do it on every issue because we will not stop. We will not give in, we will not give up, but more importantly, we will dream bigger than they think our imaginations can contain.”
Since 2018, Abrams said, 800 000 new voters have been added to Georgia’s voting rolls, 49 percent of whom are younger than 30 and 45 percent of whom are people of colour, both groups more likely to vote Democratic.
On Friday, Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff held a rally where he praised Abrams for leading efforts to register and turn out voters – without whom Ossoff would not be headed to a runoff against Republican Sen. David Perdue. Georgia’s other Republican senator, Kelly Loeffler, in a separate runoff will face Democrat Raphael Warnock, who was the top vote-getter in a special election also held Tuesday. Abrams has said she will work to elect both Democrats.
“We are now seeing that change has come to Georgia, and Georgia is part of the change that’s coming to America,” Ossoff said. Abrams and her fellow organisers capitalized on the state’s changing demographics, he said, and transformed Georgia into one of the most competitive battleground states in the country.
“Georgia has become younger and more diverse every day of the last decade,” Ossoff said. “The effort that has gone into registering voters and empowering voters is unmatched anywhere in the country.”
Lauren Groh-Wargo, who managed Abrams’s gubernatorial campaign and is now executive director of Fair Fight, said it wasn’t demographics alone that put Georgia in reach for Democrats. “I’m sure you’ve heard Stacey say, ‘Demographics are not destiny, they’re just an opportunity.’ ” People of colour, young people, poor people and people in far-flung rural communities are often overlooked and have to be courted, just like White voters.
“Georgia is really the tip of the spear. It’s what is happening to our country, in terms of the demographics,” Groh-Wargo said in an interview a week before Election Day. “Overall, whichever party is building the multiracial, multiethnic coalition is going to be the party that will ascend in Georgia.”
Stefanie Brown James, a co-founder of the Collective, a political action committee working to elect liberal Black candidates, was among the first to support Abrams when she began putting together her gubernatorial campaign. She said she respected Abrams’s roots as an organizer and state legislator.
“Stacey is really the standard-bearer when it comes to what a leader looks like. I think her [gubernatorial] run also was able to really show a lot of people, especially Black women, that you can be of service to your community and run for office. Some of the best public servants are the ones who work at the PTA or have been a community organizer or a schoolteacher.”
“I’m so glad to see her getting her flowers now. I’m so used to seeing people’s pictures all over social media because they’ve passed away” – but images of Abrams celebrate her political leadership. “Yes, give his lady her flowers now and help her continue to build.”
Deborah Scott, who has been working to register voters and mobilize them through the Black Women’s Roundtable, a national civic engagement group, said many of Abrams’s supporters thought she was cheated out of the governorship. Critics of Abrams say she has fanned that impression, and some have used it to defend Trump’s refusal to say he will concede if Biden wins.
But Scott said the obstacles that Abrams and voters faced in the election were a reminder of Georgia’s racist history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, which openly denied Black people the vote.
“It made people understand that this was still happening in 2020,” she said. “Stacey was very courageous. She did not sit on the sidelines. Instead she got involved and said, ‘This will never happen again.’ I think it galvanized people.”
Scott, who is also executive director of a group called Georgia Stand-Up, said dozens of social change groups have begun to work together to educate and motivate residents to be more active in voting, focusing on issues important to their everyday lives. She also said young people had become more engaged as a result of racial justice protests over the summer. All of those factors converged to create a climate for change, Scott said.
And even if Democrats don’t flip the state this time, Scott said, “can’t say that we didn’t try.”