Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid last year to become governor of Georgia, has decisions to make. Should she run for the Senate in 2020? Should she wait until 2022 to run again for governor? Or, audaciously, should she join the crowded field of candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination?
Losing campaigns are not the normal launching pads for a run for the White House. But these are not normal times, and Abrams, who came within a 1½ percentage point of becoming the first female African American governor in U.S. history, is in the unusual — some might say enviable — position of being encouraged to think about running for president.
Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, sat down last week with my colleague Steven Ginsberg, The Washington Post’s national editor, and talked about the choices, the timetable and what kind of presidential campaign she would run. If she decides to make the leap, the campaign would talk about race and identity, organizing, and voter engagement and voter suppression, among other things.
“I think that I am a skilled communicator,” she said. “I think I’m a very good thinker. No, I know I’m a good thinker. I know I have policy chops. I have foreign policy experience. . . . I’ve done a great deal of work on a number of issues. But I need to make certain that I am the best person at this moment for that job and that’s what I need to think about.”
Abrams says she is not an impulsive politician. She is methodical in her thinking and her analysis. Running for president has been in the back of her mind for many years, though not a race in 2020. Candidates for president don’t always get to pick their moment. Abrams’s gubernatorial race has provided an unexpected opportunity to consider a White House bid. But time is pressing in on her.
Abrams is one of three Democrats who gained national prominence, in Democratic circles at least, while losing statewide races in red or swing states. Another is Andrew Gillum, the former mayor of Tallahassee who lost his race for governor of Florida by fewer than half a percentage point.
The other is Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from Texas whose losing campaign for the Senate turned him into a national celebrity in Democratic circles, who recently declared his candidacy for president with a Vanity Fair cover story complete with photos by Annie Leibovitz.
Abrams has been pushed hard by Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and many of his colleagues to challenge incumbent Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) next year. If she isn’t going to do that, she knows she owes it to her party to make that known soon. She said she expects to decide about a Senate campaign by early April. If the answer to that is no, she will then turn immediately to the question of running for president.
If she enters the presidential race, her campaign would be an extension of how she ran in Georgia, with a focus on turning out voters who don’t always show up, concentrating on communities of color and raising pointed questions about the state of democracy under President Trump.
“To win in 2020, a Democrat has to talk relentlessly about voter suppression because when Republicans talk about vote fraud they are telling a lie, and they’re repeating that lie so much that it sounds like the truth,” she said. “Voter suppression is real, and one of the ways it works is it has a psychological effect of convincing people that it’s their responsibility that things are wrong.
“But when you talk about it from an activist perspective, it’s an engagement tool. We turned out voters because they knew someone was trying to take something from them, and I want Americans to understand that someone is trying to take their democracy from them and they’ve got to fight to keep it.”
Republicans bristle at claims that voter suppression cost Abrams the governorship in the fall. They note that overall turnout was at a high level. Even Abrams proudly talked about the overall increases, as well as higher turnout among African Americans and Latinos and her success in raising the Democrats’ share of the white vote.
She also talked about irregularities that occurred during the election. “The vote differential was 54,000 votes,” she said. “I cannot prove empirically that I would have gotten every vote that could have been counted, but I do know that the absence of an effective system robbed me and Georgians of having a fair election where we could say with certainty that what happened was right.”
Asked whether she could make a bigger statement on the issue about which she is passionate by running and winning an election in Georgia or going national, she said, “I think that is a legitimate frame, but it’s not the one I can use. These are jobs. I’m applying for a job, and I should run for office because I want to do that job at that moment. The issue of voter suppression is an existential issue, and no matter what job I have, I’m going to talk about that issue.”
Would a campaign on those issues spark a backlash, and a surge in turnout, among those who might feel excluded? Abrams thinks not. “For those who feel excluded by the articulation of another’s identity, I would say that we all have parts of ourselves that are important,” she said. “But when, in the American jurisprudence and in the American policymaking, we use those identities to harm you or to foreclose your opportunity, then it’s in everyone’s interest that we resolve that. It is not good for anyone.”
Abrams said she already believes she could do a better job than Trump in the highest office in the land. She could not cite anything the president has done on his own initiative that has been good for the country, and she offered a blistering description of him.
“He is a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobe who has diminished our sense of cohesion as a nation. Regardless of where a president stood on issues, there has always been at least a veiled attempt at some sense of national unity. His intentionality to speak only to a narrow group that he calls his base, his willingness to only administer his office for that population, has diminished the credibility of his time in office.”
Abrams said she does not believe Democrats lost in 2016 because Trump was a superior candidate with superior ideas. “We lost because our organizing method in 2016 did not engage voters who had long been out of the body politic,” she said. “I do not believe in turnout targets. And one thing we demonstrated in our campaign, much to the suspicion and chagrin early on, is that you cannot run a campaign in the 21st century that believes in a base. Every voter is a persuasion target.”
She knows she would make history if she ran and won but says she is not driven by that ambition. “I think history always informs who we are, but it should never decide what we do. When you run to be a marker, that’s insufficient to carry you through the hardest times,” she said.
Abrams insisted that she has not made up her mind, but it’s fair to say that, if she were to run, her campaign would be a striking contrast to that of many of the others in the race, particularly the white male candidates — former vice president Joe Biden, who is considering a bid, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and O’Rourke — who are attracting the most attention.