ATLANTA — When the Service Employees International Union, a highly political group of 1.9 million members, was looking for ways to boost outreach, union president Mary Kay Henry invited Stacey Abrams to tell its top officials how she had turbocharged turnout in her Georgia governor’s race by courting long-ignored voters.
Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman running for president, sought his own audience with Abrams recently, absorbing her campaign tips and incorporating her suggestions into a voting rights policy he rolled out a short time later.
Then there’s Mike Espy, a former Senate candidate in Mississippi who is mulling another run. He flew to Georgia, sprang for lunch with Abrams, and midway through regretted not bringing a notebook. “What I got,” said Espy, 65, who served as President Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary, “well, it was a graduate course in politics.”
Those private meetings and countless others suggest how quietly influential Abrams has become in the Democratic Party. Organizers and candidates are trying to copy her tactics and win her blessing following a governor’s race that startled many in both parties when Abrams fell just short of victory — an unheard-of feat for an unabashedly liberal black woman in Georgia.
But if Abrams is becoming an oracle for Democrats, she’s an emerging target for Republicans. At a Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday, she was challenged by Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), who complained that her celebrity supporters are maligning the state by claiming that she would be governor “if Georgia wasn’t racist.” Collins also pressed Abrams on whether she had pushed for noncitizens to vote, which she strongly denied.
Abrams’s unmistakable presence hangs over the Democratic presidential race, and not just because she hasn’t quite ruled out running. Many black and liberal voters find Abrams a moving, authentic figure — with her unapologetic style, tough childhood and long devotion to voting rights — while many of the presidential candidates are struggling to win over the black community.
Abrams lost that 2018 governor’s race in the end, as Republicans are quick to note. But her strong showing gave Democrats a jolt of hope that the future is on their side and that it’s a matter of time before states such as Georgia, North Carolina and Texas swing firmly into their camp, sealing a liberal, racially diverse Democratic majority.
And yet her crusade raises a big question: Does the Stacey Abrams method — a charismatic figure painstakingly courting disadvantaged and often-ignored voters — really work for anyone besides Stacey Abrams?
Stacey Abrams shakes hands with Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) after she testifies before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, on Capitol Hill on June, 25, 2019. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post) In Georgia, she advertised on R&B and country music stations, courting black audiences as well as white ones. She hired people who work in Korean communities to canvass in Korean communities. She sent out campaign messages in four languages. And once her campaign identified potential voters, it kept up a repeated, tireless contact.
“We went to communities that were largely left out of the political calculus,” Abrams said in an interview. “We got them involved and we kept them involved.”
If that sounds obvious, it’s a far cry from Democrats’ usual strategy in conservative states, which involves boosting turnout in cities while delivering a soothingly moderate message. Abrams offers Democrats the hope — or illusion, depending on whom you ask — that they can win without gravitating to the middle to coax moderate voters from Republicans.
In the end, Abrams came within fewer than 60,000 votes of becoming the first black woman to lead Georgia, or any other state for that matter, in a much better showing than the usual 200,000-vote loss for Democrats in Georgia. Republicans say a loss is still a loss; they call her complaints of voter suppression sour grapes, and the notion that she represents some brilliant new Democratic future a fantasy. Either way, Abrams has become one of her party’s major centers of gravity. And not always in expected ways.
When Georgia earlier this year passed a law severely restricting abortion, Abrams summoned four female presidential contenders, all U.S. senators, to join her in a video condemning the measure. But she also sent a lower-key message to left-leaning Hollywood figures that they should drop a planned boycott of Georgia, saying it would mostly hurt lower-income and minority workers.
Christine Pelosi, a California Democratic activist and daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said that message was powerful coming from Abrams. It significantly slowed the momentum for a Hollywood boycott.
She has “the kind of credibility and moral leadership and representation to be able to say, ‘These are my people and this is what they want,’ ” Christine Pelosi said. “That’s to me what’s so strong and critical — the ability, when there’s a national celebrity-driven message that might be moving in one direction, to very forcefully and diplomatically say, ‘Thank you, but.’ “
Other examples abound. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose presidential campaign is struggling to attract African Americans, met with Abrams privately for advice. The Buttigieg campaign recently hired Kevin Groh, an Abrams campaign veteran, as “organizing director” for Iowa, with the aim of adopting her approach.
Jaime Harrison, a South Carolina Democrat who is challenging Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, has also met with Abrams.
“I tell everybody that her race gives us the blueprint for our race,” Harrison said. “She gave me a few tips, which is make sure you’re going all across the state, that you talk to everybody you can talk to — no voter left behind, which is really, that’s our focus.”
Henry, the SEIU chief, was so struck by Abrams’s message to her union’s leaders that she asked her to speak by video to a broader group of the union’s officials.
At Tuesday’s hearing before the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties, Abrams and Collins — who served together in the Georgia legislature — sparred like the old foes they are.
Abrams blamed Georgia officials for using “typos” to improperly disqualify voters. Defending those officials, Collins said Abrams was throwing “all voter registration people under the bus.”
Collins also suggested that Abrams’s overall message greatly exaggerates voter suppression. She answered that “we as a nation stand as an emblem of what democracy can mean, and that is diminished when there are irregularities and when there is malfeasance . . . that is what I have drawn attention to.”
A mural featuring of Stacey Abrams covers a building in Atlanta. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post) For Democrats, it’s not clear whether other candidates can ride the Abrams method to victory. By her own description, Abrams has been refining her strategy for more than half a decade, implying that it can’t be quickly replicated. And there’s little doubt Abrams has her own kind of charisma.
Abrams attributes her narrow loss in Georgia last year to voter suppression tactics led by her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp. Kemp, who now is governor, has called the allegations a “farce.” He continued serving as secretary of state during the campaign, essentially overseeing a race in which he was a candidate.
Democrats complained about a range of tactics, from voter registration rules they said were designed to thwart minorities to the closure of polling places in poor areas. Republicans dispute those contentions. Karl Rove, the former political strategist for President George W. Bush, accuses Abrams of using “fantastic claims of a stolen election” to keep herself in the spotlight.
Even Abrams’s biggest fans suggest her qualities are not readily transferrable to others. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, citing her mix of policy smarts and strategic acumen, said, “I’m hard-pressed to think of others that immediately come to mind.”
Dubose Porter, who preceded Abrams as minority leader of the Georgia House, said her strategy “is very much intertwined with who she is. She has this unique ability to do it.”
But Democrats hope they can at least harness her appeal to motivate liberal voters, including people of color. Party leaders chose Abrams to offer the Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union address, making her the first black woman to do so.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) tried to recruit her to run for Senate, an entreaty she rejected. She is widely seen as a possible presidential running mate, assuming she does not run for president herself. And many expect her to run for governor again.
Stacey Abrams appears on stage with Valerie Jarrett at an event in Atlanta in April 2019. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post) In the meantime, Abrams has launched Fair Fight Action, a nonprofit organization that pushes for voter reform in Georgia and not incidentally also provides a platform for Abrams.
She has also been appearing in less-traditional venues, raising her profile and introducing herself to new audiences. She recently addressed foreign relations before two Washington think tanks, the Council on Foreign Relations and National Security Action.
In seemingly every appearance, Abrams conveys indignation over what she portrays as an unfair voting system. She both reflects and amplifies a growing Democratic message — that the GOP now routinely deploys anti-democratic tactics.
“I’m proud of the folks who are running for president who are talking about voter suppression,” she said recently in Atlanta at an African American Leadership Summit sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.
Abrams sometimes talks of a young boy she met while campaigning who initially did not believe she was real. Abrams encountered the boy and his grandmother in Sandersville, Ga., a small town of roughly 6,000 residents.
The boy had never seen a black woman running for governor; in fact, pretty much the only candidates he had seen were on his television screen. His skepticism, Abrams told a crowd in Atlanta recently, was not surprising, considering Democrats’ traditional strategy in Georgia: prioritize big cities with dense populations and inundate the airwaves to reach the rest. In a sense, Abrams’s biggest tests are in upcoming races where she’s not running. Even before Abrams was a national figure, Porter said, her presence helped others on the Democratic ticket. Now many are likely to be facing their first election in years without her name on the ballot.
“A lot of people are trying to copy her playbook,” Porter said. “They’re saying the same thing about mobilizing voters. It’s kind of like a junior Stacey Abrams speech.”
Abrams insists that her approach works for whoever is willing to embrace it.
“We were able to crack the code — anyone can do this,” she said. “You have to do it with an intentionality that belies the conventional wisdom. You don’t believe in just base voters. You believe in every voter being a persuasion target. That means investing much more heavily, and that means spending time reaching people.”
So while Democrats wait to see what Abrams does next, her success will arguably be measured by her ability to become unimportant.
“One factor in my approach is that I should be irrelevant,” she said. “I’m not a good leader if I’m the only one who does this. It was just as important to build an infrastructure that is able to replicate this, one that isn’t reliant on Stacey Abrams or any one person.”
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