FORSYTH, Ga. — Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee who hopes to make history next month, kicked off her statewide bus tour Monday by granting a wish.
Abrams rallied a lively crowd of supporters at St. James Baptist Church, making a dream come true for a city council member who had repeatedly asked her to make a campaign stop in this small town often skipped over by candidates running for higher office in Georgia.
John Howard, whose effort to get Abrams to visit Forsyth was chronicled recently in The Washington Post, said before introducing her, “If I don’t do anything else, this is the one thing I won’t forget.” Several people congratulated him before and after the event.
It is just these sorts of places, far from the busy highways and shiny high-rises in Atlanta, that Abrams is relying on to help her become the first black female governor in U.S. history. Monday also marked the first day of early voting in Georgia, where Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp are tied in the polls. Abrams told those gathered that she needed them to vote and then get others to vote.
Quoting from the Bible, Abrams said: “Faith without works is dead. I have faith in all of you, but I need y’all to work. We’ve got to volunteer every single day … I need you to make phone calls, knock on doors. I need you to reach out to the people you like and the people you’re mad at.”
Abrams, 44, a former Democratic leader of the Georgia state House, has built her campaign around registering and mobilizing tens of thousands of new voters, focusing on people of color and young people, groups that vote at low rates and are usually virtually absent during midterm elections.
In recent days, her campaign has blasted Kemp, who is Georgia’s secretary of state, after the Associated Press reported that the voter registrations of 53,000 Georgians had been frozen because information on their applications did not exactly match information in motor vehicle and Social Security records. Some discrepancies are as simple as a dropped hyphen in a name or a transposed number in an address. Kemp also has been criticized for aggressively purging Georgia’s voter rolls, removing more than 1.4 million names since 2012.
Kemp, who has defended the practices as necessary to root out fraud, has returned fire at Abrams. He blamed the voter education group she started several years ago, the New Georgia Project, for submitting problematic voter registration applications. He said Abrams was using the issue to rile up her supporters, noting that people on the pending list can still vote if they are able to prove their identities at the polls.
Kemp spent Monday in southern Georgia assessing damage from Hurricane Michael and meeting with state and federal officials about storm recovery efforts, according to his campaign spokesman, Ryan Mahoney.
Abrams said that Kemp has “made it his life’s mission to create the architecture of voter suppression, but we won’t let him win.” When Kemp decided to run for governor, Abrams said, he should have stepped down from his post as secretary of state, as she did from her seat in the legislature.
She vowed to “work as hard as we can to get all 53,000” voters whose status is in limbo to show up to the polls and try to cast ballots. In the meantime, she told the audience, “I need all of you to find 53,000 additional votes just in case. This election is about history. We are talking about our voices and our votes because this is our time.”
Many of the people at the church, her first of a half-dozen stops, were older, and most were women. The audiences were mostly made up of black people, but white people wearing campaign T-shirts, caps and buttons were not hard to spot.
Black women made up the largest contingent of Abrams supporters at most of the events. Evelyn Mann, who several times yelled “We love you!” during Abrams’s speech at the church, said afterward that she was heading to round up people to drive to an early-voting site. Lois Allen, a retired teacher, said she was also going to vote after the rally, then “hit the streets to canvass!”
Allen said she is particularly drawn to Abrams’s vow to bring Medicaid expansion to Georgia, where hundreds of thousands of residents have no health care, and several rural hospitals have closed or are on the brink of collapse.
At a town hall at Fort Valley State University, Abrams’s proposal to boost funding for public education caught the attention of Joseph Cornick, a senior and political science major. He also was interested in Abrams’s criminal justice plan, including community policing and reducing the prison population.
Cornick said the school’s political-science student group had done “dorm storms” urging students to register before the state’s Oct. 9 deadline. Now the students are planning a march to an early-voting site next week.
A new poll by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Atlanta’s Channel 2 showed that the race is a statistical dead heat. Kemp had the support of 48 percent of likely voters to 46 percent for Abrams. The poll of 1,232 has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.
“We’ve got to turn out because if we do, we will win this election,” Abrams told audiences at several stops Monday. “This is not a fight of miles, this is a fight of inches, and we are close to the goal.”
On Monday night, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe stumped for Abrams at a rally in Atlanta. He told a large and lively crowd stuffed into a middle school gym that Democrats, who for years had struggled to win governorships in Southern states, were now running Louisiana, North Carolina and Virginia. “And we’re going to have Stacey Abrams in Georgia,” he said.
McAuliffe also gave a shout out to Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee in Florida, who would be that state’s first black governor if elected.
He drew gasps and groans from the crowd when he said: “92 million Americans did not vote in the 2016 election … They all woke the up the next day and said, ‘Holy … cow. How did this happen? We cannot let that happen to us ever again.”