Opinion

Stacey Abrams has already delivered her message

No matter what she says in her SOTU response, the Democrat is heralding a new era for her party

Democrats picked Stacey Abrams, who fell short in Georgia’s governor’s race, to respond to the State of the Union. The choice makes a lot of sense, Curtis writes. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — Move over Beto O’Rourke, the candidate who brought Texas Democrats closer than they had been for years in his eventually unsuccessful Senate race against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz last year.

Will he or won’t he run for president? That’s the question that’s been following him during his postelection adventures. But another Democrat who caught the attention of national leaders and celebrities in her midterm contest is getting ready for her moment on the national political stage.

Though Stacey Abrams lost her race to become Georgia’s governor in November, she will be the face and voice of the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union on Feb. 5, a speech that most anticipate will be less unifying oration than politicking to shore up the GOP base.

The choice makes sense.

The candidate who acknowledged the success of her opponent, now Governor Brian Kemp, without conceding, made quite an impression during her historic run, especially as she highlighted a voting system that was anything but fair. And as bitter as that defeat had to be, Abrams immediately continued her voting rights crusade — backing a new organization called Fair Fight Georgia and efforts to get to the bottom of voting irregularities — showing the resilience and fight that will determine how much and how soon her party will make serious inroads into the deep red deep South.

A statement from DNC Chair Tom Perez following the announcement from Democratic leaders showed how much is riding on Abrams: “Stacey didn’t just inspire the people of Georgia last year, she electrified voters across the country with a powerful vision and a positive message of unity, inclusion, and opportunity. She is a rising Democratic star who embodies our party’s values and our fight to build a brighter future for all. And when she responds to Trump, there will be no question in voters’ minds about what it means to be a Democrat and which party is truly fighting for the American people.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Abrams “embodies the American Dream.”

There is reason for the party’s confidence, when Abrams’ loss is considered in the context of what she was fighting against, including the 2017 purge of Georgia voting rolls that disproportionately affected minority voters. The state’s election officials were also accused of tossing out a disproportionate number of absentee ballots from minority voters and holding up close to 53,000 voter registrations because they did not satisfy a controversial “exact match” requirement with other government documents.

And there was the fact that Kemp, as Georgia secretary of state, refused to step away from overseeing his own race, a sketchy decision by any standard.

Abrams fired up a diverse Democratic base and reached first-time voters ignored by previous candidates too busy wooing moderate Republicans who had repeatedly spurned past entreaties. No wonder Democrats want her to remain front and center, perhaps as a challenger to GOP incumbent Sen. David Perdue, up for re-election in 2020.

The selection of Abrams brings some equity to the discussion of rising party leaders that had for a while seemed, with all due respect, as all Beto all the time. Also expect to hear more from Andrew Gillum, who moved from a loss to Ron DeSantis in the Florida gubernatorial race to a new gig as CNN political commentator.

For her part, Abrams welcomed the challenge: “At a moment when our nation needs to hear from leaders who can unite for a common purpose, I am honored to be delivering the Democratic State of the Union response,” she said on Twitter, though the SOTU response has been a perilous task that has tripped up many who have tried.

The Democratic Party at long last may be respecting its most loyal and consistent base of voters, African-American women, who fueled Doug Jones’ Alabama Senate win and the success of a diverse freshman U.S. House class. Those new representatives joined a House that already boasted a deep bench of black female leaders. Reps. Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee of California, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas and Marcia Fudge of Ohio are among the Congressional Black Caucus members who will chair or co-chair at least five House committees and more than two dozen House subcommittees.

The situation and recognition have changed since a group of black female lawmakers, activists and community leaders sent Perez and the DNC a letter in 2017 accusing the party of taking black voters for granted. And the change is evident at the intersection of politics and culture. Take Oprah Winfrey, who, at 65, is just getting started. When her campaigning for Abrams didn’t push the candidate over the finish line, Trump took notice, claiming a win in a game the self-made billionaire is not interested in playing. She does get under the president’s skin.

Michelle Obama has been drawing global audiences as she talks about her best-selling book “Becoming,” in which she takes Trump to task for his Obama lies, and fears that they endangered her family. On a recent trip, I had to tuck away the copy I was reading because everyone who glanced at her portrait on the cover stopped to either ask how the book was or tell me how much they loved it — and her.

The impact of these strong political and cultural voices is rising, with Abrams just the latest example. As she recently toured her state to thank supporters, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed her favorability numbers besting Kemp’s, not that national Republicans are impressed. A Republican National Committee spokesperson said in a Tuesday statement: “While Chuck Schumer may feel her agenda would be a good fit for national Democrats, it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t even a good fit for her fellow Georgians who rejected her bid for governor just last year.”

Still, if Trump is noticing, the president who famously likes to wing it may want to practice extra hard before Tuesday.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Also watch: First 2020 Senate race ratings are here

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