Campaigns

Stacey Abrams makes national debut ahead of her next campaign

Democrats want Abrams to challenge Georgia Sen. David Perdue in 2020

Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams gave the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images file photo)

Georgia’s Stacey Abrams has made it clear she wants to run for higher office again — it’s just a matter of which one. 

The former state House minority leader, who narrowly lost a bid to become America’s first black female governor last fall, formally introduced herself on the national stage Tuesday night by giving the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. 

Whether she agrees to run for Senate in 2020 or holds out for governor again in 2022 — which is thought to be her preferred office — Abrams has raised her national profile in a way that will likely boost her already rising star in the party and her fundraising base. 

Also watch: First 2020 Senate race ratings are here

Speaking from Atlanta, she delivered a message about economic security and fairness for working Americans, interlacing her message with details about her own “lower middle class and working poor” upbringing. 

She alluded to a classic progressive message about people helping each other, and not simply pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Notably, though, she didn’t cast that as a role just for government to play, but for communities. 

“We do not succeed alone — in these United States, when times are tough, we can persevere because our friends and neighbors will come for us,” she said.

Abrams zeroed in on the recent partial government shutdown to recount her own experience coming to the aide of her neighbors and cast blame on Trump for what she called “a stunt.”

Familiar themes

Abrams spoke about the years she led her party in the state House, previewing a Washington outsider message she may use if she runs against an incumbent senator.

She called out the GOP tax plan for having “rigged the system against working people” and blasted the administration and Republicans for making border wall funding a necessary part of any immigration deal. 

She specifically highlighted the Trump administration’s treatment of migrants.

“Compassionate treatment at the border is not the same as open borders. President Reagan understood this. President Obama understood this. Americans understand this,” Abrams said.

But as a Democrat looking for a future in Trump state — he won Georgia by 5 points — she didn’t cast herself as an enemy of the president. 

“So even as I am very disappointed by the president’s approach to our problems — I still don’t want him to fail,” she said. 

Democratic leaders are urging Abrams to challenge GOP Sen. David Perdue, a first-term senator who’d start as a slight favorite in the still-red state. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Leans Republican. But not only could Abrams put the race in play, Democrats argue, she could also give the party a chance at winning the state at the presidential level. 

Abrams’ presence on the national stage was a departure from the past two years, when white men gave the Democratic rebuttal to Trump’s address to Congress. 

In 2017, Democrats choose former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a pick that was supposed to highlight Democrats’ viability in a red state. The next year, they went with Massachusetts Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III, projecting a more youthful image.

Their choice of Abrams this year speaks to the party’s efforts to energize a diversifying electorate. Democrats won the House majority last year by flipping diversifying suburban seats, and that strategy is key to the party’s hope of winning in the South in 2020 and beyond.

Abrams’ speech comes during a difficult week for Democrats, with the governor of a state where the party has recently made significant gains admitting to dressing up in blackface in the 1980s. 

Abrams addressed Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam’s scandal implicitly.

“We continue to confront racism from our past and in our present — which is why we must hold everyone from the very highest offices to our own families accountable for racist words and deeds,” she said.

Voting rights

Abrams made voting rights a central focus of her remarks.

At the end of voting last November, she trailed Republican Brian Kemp by less than 2 points. As Georgia’s secretary of state, Kemp came under criticism for supervising his own own election and for enforcing restrictive voting laws that Abrams believes disenfranchised minority voters. 

Abrams initially sought to make it to the general election runoff. But a week after the election, she acknowledged Kemp’s victory, although she refused to call it a concession.

“While I acknowledged the results of the 2018 election here in Georgia — I did not and we cannot accept efforts to undermine our right to vote,” Abrams said Tuesday.

After the defeat, Abrams quickly formed a new voting rights group called Fair Fight, which aired an ad during Sunday’s Super Bowl. She name-dropped the organization in her speech Tuesday.

The nonprofit group recently amended its articles of incorporation to be able to engage in political activity, according to OpenSecrets.org. It has a sister PAC that is registered with both the Federal Election Commission and the Georgia Government and Transparency Campaign Finance Commission.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee spent Tuesday attacking Abrams as a failed gubernatorial candidate and “far left extremist” who refused to concede the race last fall. 

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