An Ode to Stacey Abrams
"As the Bible tells the story, Moses delivers his people from bondage and to the “promised land,” but even with all his efforts he is not allowed to enter. He must gaze upon it from a distance.
This, I fear, is the story of Stacey Abrams. She built the huge voter registration and turnout machine that helped Joe Biden carry Georgia in 2020, and helped the state elect its first Jewish and Black senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, giving Democrats control of the Senate. If Warnock wins his runoff next month, she will have helped Democrats strengthen their control of the chamber.
It would be easy to be cynical here and say that a woman did the work, and now a man is benefiting from it, again. But that obscures the fact that what Abrams gave to Georgia and the country was so much larger than any one contest, hers included.
Georgia is a state transformed. Liberal Georgians have tasted power, and there is no turning back from it. It is no longer a fantastical possibility, a hope and a prayer among people prisoner to their numerical disadvantage. Georgia now has the proof and validation that not only could it be flipped, it was flipped.
Much of the credit belongs to Abrams.
So what went wrong? I wish I had a comprehensive answer and could articulate it briefly, but I don’t and I can’t.
All I know is that every time I asked people about Abrams’s chances this cycle, they’d demur, or roll their eyes, or give an incredulous and worried “I don’t know.”
In fact, “worried” was a word I heard too often. It seemed to me contagious and self-perpetuating: People became worried because others were saying they were worried.
I simply couldn’t find enthusiastic Abrams voters in my everyday interactions. I live in midtown Atlanta, but I also wasn’t seeing many yard signs or window placards. I wasn’t seeing many TV ads.
I figured, my news consumption had become like that of many young people: I was mostly watching national news or getting news online, including through social media. So I turned back the clock to my younger self, and I started watching more local news and listening to more radio. There were the ads!
Still, to me, that was a problem. If I had to go searching for her ads, plenty of people — many younger than me — weren’t hearing them at all. This baffled me. This was her moment. She was supposed to reap the fruits of her labor, but instead it was worry that ripened.
In September, I made clear to the campaign that I would like to interview Abrams for this column, but the campaign wouldn’t make a slot available for that. That’s fine. A candidate’s time is precious. Still, I wanted to know from Abrams herself why the fire hadn’t caught this cycle. She was clearly the better candidate. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues. And she had a message that should have energized liberals.
But she just couldn’t get enough traction. Her message lacked momentum.
This was in part because her opponent, Gov. Brian Kemp, went out of his way to appear more moderate than the national party and more moderate than he truly is.
First, he leaned into the fact that he had resisted Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the results in Georgia in 2020. People remembered that. It wasn’t that Kemp was pro-democracy and pro-voting — he signed the voter suppression law his Republican-led legislature passed after the 2020 election — but being pro-democracy in that moment when the transfer of power hung in the balance left a lasting impression.
Kemp was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but his sheep suit was impeccably tailored. So much so that at one point during the campaign, the Atlanta rapper and organizer Killer Mike praised Kemp for “running an effective campaign” and reaching out to Black voters and suggested that Abrams should go “everywhere Mr. Kemp just went.”
This made Abrams’s efforts to highlight Kemp’s extremism all the more difficult. People started to come to the false conclusion that Kemp was “not that bad.”
Kemp, who has been horrible on the issue of women’s reproductive rights, was caught on tape being asked about banning Plan B and answering, “Yeah, you can take up pretty much everything.” When asked if that was something he could do, he said: “I think I’d have to check and see. There’s a lot of legalities with all that stuff.”
It also didn’t hurt that just months before the election Kemp rolled out a program of cash payments of $350 to low-income Georgians. It wasn’t exactly money for votes, but money to mitigate anger. Kemp paid for placidity.
All of this hurt Abrams. But I’m sure that this is not the end of her story. She is relatively young, incredibly smart and a brilliant tactician. She has a future that only she can write. But one thing is clear: She has made it possible for the people of Georgia, many of them Black people, to enter a reality where state power is attainable and accessible."