The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stacey Abrams lost the Georgia governor’s race. But her star is rising.

Stacey Abrams meets with Georgia voters in Metter. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

ALBANY, Ga. — Stacey Abrams walked into the roomful of cheering supporters with the posture of a winner — head high, bright smile, hearty hugs and handshakes.

“Sta-cey! Sta-cey! Sta-cey!” sang the crowd of more than 200 people who showed up at a soul food restaurant in this city, a 2½ -hour drive south of Atlanta, last month for the kickoff of rallies to thank the volunteers and voters who had supported her 2018 bid for Georgia governor.

In that moment, it felt as if Abrams’s historic campaign was successful, even though she came up short in her race against Republican Brian Kemp, edged out by fewer than 55,000 votes. Unlike many politicians who have lost big races, Abrams has made clear she isn’t going away.

The former state legislator has stayed on the public stage and stoked interest by declaring that she will run for elected office again, perhaps as soon as next year for the U.S. Senate or maybe for president, joining a crowded field.

In the latest indicator that Abrams’s star continues to rise, she will deliver the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday.

Abrams “is a present and future leader in this country” and “a dynamic, moral leader,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in announcing her selection. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that Abrams’s “electrifying message of courage, perseverance and hope reinvigorated our nation and our politics.”

Aides said that Abrams, who proved herself to be an inspiring orator on the campaign trail, is writing her own speech. She weaves together stories of her life and anecdotes of people she has met on the campaign trail to help explain her policy positions and to connect with audiences.

Traveling around Georgia, she focused on expanding eligibility for Medicaid, providing more money for public schools, creating jobs and helping small-business owners, especially in smaller cities and rural areas. Those themes are likely to be included in her 10-minute response Tuesday.

Abrams has said that she will use the platform to “deliver a vision for prosperity and equality, where everyone in our nation has a voice and where each of those voices is heard.” She also reportedly joked that she would “hydrate” before her speech, an apparent reference to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is remembered for pausing during the 2013 response to take a sip of water.

Abrams, 45, is a former Democratic leader of the State House, the first woman and first African American to hold that position in Georgia. But at the start of her campaign, few believed she could win, and many questioned whether Georgia was ready for a black woman in the governor's mansion.

So when Abrams won her Democratic primary by 56 points, excitement spilled beyond the border of Georgia. Progressives across the country dispatched money and foot soldiers to Georgia to help Abrams. Before her race was over, big names had flown in to help her campaign — including Oprah Winfrey.

But her near-victory was not just the result of excitement over the chance to elect the nation’s first African American female governor. Her campaign identified potential voters and worked tirelessly to contact and persuade them to vote in the election.

Voters responded. Abrams received more votes than any Democrat who has run statewide in Georgia. Four years ago, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee lost by 200,000 votes; Abrams closed that gap considerably.

“There’s a whole universe of people out there who’ve never even been asked to participate and that’s why we’re so proud we turned out a comprehensive and competitive number of people,” Abrams said in an interview last month. “This is a 54,000-vote margin, and that’s with voter suppression, that’s with 10 years of assiduous restrictions. . . . So in a fair fight, we won.”

After a 10-day standoff over the fate of thousands of outstanding absentee and provisional ballots in the November election, Abrams decided to end her campaign. But she did not concede.

In a defiant speech on the day that Kemp was declared the winner, she said: “Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede.”

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Instead, she has formed a group focused on pushing for changes in Georgia’s elections system. The political action committee, Fair Fight Action, filed a lawsuit against state elections officials alleging that they “grossly mismanaged” the 2018 election and violated the constitutional and civil rights of Georgians.

Lauren Groh-Wargo, who has been friends with Abrams for the past seven years and managed her gubernatorial campaign, said the election was “incredibly challenging — intellectually, emotionally, financially, every single dimension of life — and that 10-day period that I call the overtime period was excruciating.” She said Abrams did take some time off — “the second vacation I’ve actually known her to take since I’ve known her” — but it’s not surprising that she’s back in the thick of politics. “She’s been criticized for wearing too many hats, but that’s how she has always operated. It’s how she functions.”

When Abrams was growing up, her family struggled financially. But her parents also were strivers, moving their six children from Mississippi to Atlanta, where her mother and father studied for the seminary. In campaign speeches and interviews, Abrams said her parents sought out addresses that, although in low-income neighborhoods, put them within the boundaries of better schools.

“We grew up reading books and watching PBS,” she often says. A graduate of Spelman College, Abrams has a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and a law degree from Yale University. She also is a published author, having written several romance novels during the early 2000s under the pen name Selena Montgomery, and has owned several small businesses.

Abrams is not the only overachiever in her family: Four of her five siblings also have advanced degrees. One, however, dropped out of Morehouse University after becoming addicted to drugs. It was not until he went to prison that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He and a girlfriend had a daughter that Abrams’s parents are raising.

Her mother and father, both Methodist ministers, have been struggling with medical bills because of her father’s cancer treatments. Abrams said she has had to chip in to help them out. The family obligations, along with lingering debt racked up in college, caused her to fall behind on her taxes, which she revealed in a book, “Minority Leader,” released last year during the campaign.

Throughout the campaign, Kemp frequently brought up Abrams’s delinquent taxes while also warning that her proposal to expand Medicaid and offer grants to small entrepreneurs would raise taxes on Georgians. But supporters often describe Abrams as “authentic,” and people would nod and murmur “uh-huh,” when she talked about having a brother addicted to drugs and helping pay her parents’ bills.

Abrams describes herself as an introvert. “I prefer to be alone and tend not to be as gregarious and outspoken,” she said in an interview. That doesn’t mean she did not enjoy campaigning: “There is something wonderful about being able to talk to voters and hear people’s stories,” she said, “and luckily, because I’m an introvert, I spend most of the time listening.”

In her book, Abrams writes about how she developed the confidence to run for governor as a progressive in the Deep South. She tells the story of how as a student activist at Spelman, she once challenged then-Mayor Maynard Jackson during a panel discussion. Abrams questioned whether he understood the frustrations of young African Americans who took to the streets after white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King. Jackson put Abrams to work in his youth services office, where she wrote she got a chance to see “how government, though an imperfect tool, provided a way for an introvert like me to raise my voice and act.”

At the event in Albany last month, the crowd roared its approval when Abrams, who quit the legislature after 10 years to run for governor, said she will definitely run for elected office again. Kiana Jackson, who heads the Young Democrats chapter at Albany State University, said she hopes that Abrams will challenge Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), the state’s junior senator, who is up for reelection next year.

“I feel that having a black female senator out of the state of Georgia would just send a message,” she said. “The South has this image of being really racist, really backwards. . . . I think having someone who is a progressive representing Georgia on the national level, I think that would be so amazing.”