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Opinion Distinguished pol of the week: Stacey Abrams showed Democrats how to win

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks during a campaign rally for then-vice presidential candidate Kamala D. Harris in Duluth, Ga., on Nov. 1. (John Bazemore/AP)

Stacey Abrams, more than any single Democrat, showed her party that winning in a red state does not require finding the right candidate to fit the electorate. It requires doing the hard work of changing the electorate so the right Democratic candidate can win.

Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race in 2018 amid replete evidence of voter suppression, wrote in a post on Friday that “the transformation to the now-Georgia of Democratic presidential victories and competitive Senate races did not happen overnight.” It did not even start in 2018. It began in 2014 when she founded the New Georgia Project and, along with other civil rights groups, began a massive effort that “added hundreds of thousands of Georgians of color to the voter rolls and at the polls.”

She lost in 2018, but she kept going. “Together, Democratic and progressive Georgians focused on the successes revealed in 2018 and redoubled our commitment to dismantling the barriers of voter suppression,” she explained. “We raised even more funds, reengaged allies, and filed new lawsuits to mitigate the suppressive techniques that had been on obvious display in Georgia since 2010. I founded Fair Fight to energize, engage, and mobilize voters through advocacy and organizing. In partnership with voter defenders in Georgia and across the country, elections changed in 2020.”

The effort included litigation against voter suppression techniques, grass-roots organization, training for outreach volunteers and efforts to overcome hurdles ranging from Republicans’ voter roll purges to covid-19. It took six years for the New Georgia Project and its progeny to put together the multiracial coalition that produced President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential race. But Biden was not the only winner, as Abrams wrote:

In a tough down-ballot year for Democrats, Georgia was the only state in the country in which Democrats picked up seats in both chambers of our state legislature. In addition to re-electing heavily targeted Lucy McBath, Georgia earned the only Democratic Congressional pickup in the country in which district lines had not changed, with Carolyn Bourdeaux being elected to represent Gwinnett and Forsyth counties. We won district attorney races in some of our largest counties and just elected the first Latina District Attorney in Georgia’s history.

The “fast take” on the election was that suburban Whites delivered Georgia for Biden. They were part of the winning coalition, but just as critically, newly diverse suburbs lifted Biden to victory. (“[A]ccording to a post-election analysis by TargetSmart, turnout among black voters increased by about 20%; Hispanic voter participation soared by 72%; Asian-American turnout nearly doubled when compared to the 2016 election; and turnout among voters under the age of 30 also increased sharply, growing from about 14% of ballots cast to about 16%.”)

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Democrats should draw a few lessons from this experience: First, red states are not static demographically. Where urban centers and new industries bring new voters (e.g., Asian Americans in Georgia, high-tech workers in Virginia), there are opportunities to shift the political environment from a White, culturally conservative bastion to a more diverse and progressive landscape in which delivery of services such as education and health care become determinative.

Second, Democrats cannot wait until an election year to get started. Texas Democrats might be frustrated to have not won in 2020, but they can build on advances achieved in Beto O’Rourke’s near-miss in 2018. That means years of investment of money, time and personnel to engage and cultivate a new electorate.

Third, you need people on the ground who can speak authentically to voters about common problems. In 2018, Abrams saw that a new coalition of rural Whites and urban African Americans had the same concerns about expanding Medicaid. “Identity politics," as she likes to say, is not about segmenting the population, but about understanding where voters are coming from and what their special circumstances require. Then it is about overcoming obstacles unique to their community to facilitate participation in elections.

States that have been moving Democratic can learn from Abrams’s successes. Texas, North Carolina and bizarrely unpredictable Florida need their own fleet of Stacey Abrams figures and groups — plus the investment of time and money.

For showing how political organizing really works, forging a new political identity for her state and, yes, helping to defeat President Trump, we can say, well done, Ms. Abrams.

Read more:

Katrina vanden Heuvel: How Georgia went blue

Paul Waldman: Stacey Abrams won’t let you ignore her ambition

Karen Bass and Stacey Abrams: Trump is resurrecting the census’s horrific history

Jennifer Rubin: Listen to Stacey Abrams

Paul Waldman: The fight in Georgia is a nearly perfect microcosm of American politics in 2020

Greg Sargent: Mitch McConnell is destroying the case for electing Georgia’s GOP senators