The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stacey Abrams’s next move could bolster Democrats in Georgia — and her own political fortunes

Stacey Abrams at an event at the Carter Center in Atlanta on April 23, 2019. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)

DECATUR, Ga. — In a quiet suite of offices above a bank in this eastern Atlanta suburb, Democrat Stacey Abrams’s newest venture is quickly taking shape.

With her decision this week not to run for the U.S. Senate, Abrams is directing her political energy squarely into promoting voting rights, the cause that helped propel her unsuccessful bid in Georgia last year to be the nation’s first African American female governor and made her a star in national Democratic circles.

Abrams’s command center is now Fair Fight Action, a nonprofit organization she formed in December to increase access to elections and combat what she describes as Republicans’ systemic efforts to suppress voting by people of color. The organization, where at least four of her former campaign aides work, has filed a federal lawsuit over the election, lobbied for legislative reform and released videos featuring Abrams.

If the group is successful, it could help further boost the ranks of voters of color in Georgia, a state that saw a record turnout of 1.9 million Democrats last year, when Abrams narrowly lost the governor’s race to Republican Brian Kemp. That could also bolster Democratic fortunes in 2020 — as well as Abrams’s personally if she decides to challenge Kemp to a rematch two years after that.

Abrams’s emergence as the champion of one of the left’s central issues heading into a presidential election year reflects a rapid political climb during which she has deeply intertwined her voting advocacy with her own political career, a coupling that has drawn criticism at times.

Abrams, 45, likes to say that she won in November even though Kemp assumed office, and although the statement has earned jeers from conservative critics, it is true that her national profile has surged since then.

Since her loss, Abrams has delivered the Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union address, traveled the country and the liberal talk-show circuit promoting her book, “Lead from the Outside,” and has met about her political future with dozens of influential Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who urged her to run for the Senate. Others have asked her to throw her name into the crowded field of Democrats seeking to challenge President Trump, a notion she has so far not ruled out.

At every stop, the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives has pressed the issue that helped ignite her rise in her home state.

“Our democracy is under attack,” Abrams told Stephen Colbert on his late-night program in April, one of multiple national appearances she has made this year promoting Fair Fight Action as well as her book. “We have to stop voter suppression. It is real. It is pervasive. And it will destroy America if we don’t stop it.”

Allegations of voter suppression

Last fall, the governor’s race in Georgia was roiled by reports that thousands of voter registration applications had been rejected under a strict policy, championed by Kemp, who was then the secretary of state, that required every detail of a person’s application, down to the middle initial, to exactly match other government records.

Most rejected applications came from voters of color. Abrams decried the policy as a form of voter suppression.

Concerns about voter access intensified when local election officials began rejecting absentee ballots for signature discrepancies, missing addresses or incorrect birth years. And on Election Day, widespread reports of long lines, inadequate equipment and reduced numbers of polling locations sparked additional accusations of voter suppression.

In Georgia, governor’s race evokes old tensions over voting and race

After Abrams lost by less than two percentage points, Fair Fight and other plaintiffs sued the Georgia secretary of state. They argued that Georgia has restricted access to voting with voter-roll purges, voter ID requirements, proof of citizenship requirements and curtailment of polling locations and hours.

All these actions, the suit argues, erect barriers to voting, particularly among people of color.

If Fair Fight prevails, Georgia could be limited in the kinds of voting restrictions it can enact — and similar lawsuits could be launched in other states.

A spokesman for Kemp did not respond to requests for comment. But other Republicans have accused Abrams of lobbing racially polarizing accusations without evidence of intentional voter suppression.

“There is zero evidence to back up those claims in Georgia,” said GOP strategist Brian Robinson, who worked last year for one of Kemp’s primary opponents, Casey Cagle. “We had record turnout. How in the world can we have presidential-level turnout in a midterm and the story line coming out of it that is swallowed hook, line and sinker by the media is that we had voter suppression?”

Others say the higher turnout does not diminish the number of irregularities — meaning there is plenty of room for further reforms to allow for higher registration.

A bigger question, they said, is how Abrams can maintain her public profile if she’s not running for office.

“You’ve got to have your name out, and in a positive way,” said Buddy Darden, a former Democratic congressman who supported Abrams’s primary opponent last year but went on to vote for Abrams.

Fair Fight is showcasing Abrams as she contemplates her next political move. The nonprofit coordinated State of the Union watch parties and published videos and Facebook ads about Abrams with the feel of campaign spots. One such video on the organization’s homepage is called “Stacey Abrams Highlight Reel.”

It is unclear who is funding the group, which is not required under tax law to publicly disclose its contributors. Fair Fight officials declined to identify its donors.

Abrams declined a request for an interview.

The conservative watchdog group Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, or FACT, filed a complaint with the IRS in March accusing the group of abusing tax laws to advance Abrams’s political career.

Lauren Groh-Wargo, Fair Fight Action’s chief executive — and Abrams’s campaign manager last year — dismissed the accusation, noting that the charge was coming from a group once led by Matthew G. Whitaker, President Trump’s onetime acting attorney general. Groh-Wargo said Fair Fight Action’s voting advocacy is its primary activity.

A focus on race and equality

Abrams’s public debut as an activist came with a speech on the Mall in 1993, on the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington, which was led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I come to you as a young person, as a young woman, as a young, black woman, to ask you to pave a road that will last forever,” Abrams, then 19 and a junior at Spelman College in Atlanta, said with the same fierce speaking style she uses now.

The second of six siblings, Abrams was also informed by her parents’ experience coming of age in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era. Both were involved in the civil rights movement from early ages; her father was arrested when he was 16 while helping register people to vote. As Abrams told Elle magazine last September, “My mom would take us with her to vote. She wanted us to see the act of casting a ballot and understand it was a sacred right.”

Abrams has zigzagged her way from Mississippi to the national stage, earning a law degree from Yale, practicing tax law and serving as a deputy city attorney in Atlanta before filling a state House seat in 2007. She has launched private businesses — including a smartphone app that helps families stay connected and a line of bottled water for babies — and has written African American-focused romance novels under the nom de plume Selena Montgomery, with titles including “Deception” and “Reckless.” She launched her first nonprofit organization, Third Sector Development, in 1998, to provide technical assistance to community organizations in Southern states. She was 25 at the time.

From many of her experiences, Abrams has drawn lessons on race and equality. In her new book, “Lead from the Outside,” she recalls her sense of not belonging while at a summer program for gifted high schoolers in Ithaca, N.Y., and describes with frustration that bookstores tend to shelve her novels with black literature rather than with other romance titles.

Allies say they saw Abrams more as a consensus builder — and tax policy wonk — than a partisan combatant during her years in the legislature. That profile changed somewhat in 2014, when Abrams launched a voter-registration drive while she was minority leader of the Georgia House — the first African American woman to serve in that position.

Called the New Georgia Project, the organization set out to register tens of thousands of Georgians who are part of what Abrams and others call the New American Majority — primarily young people and people of color who vote in lower numbers than older and white voters. It drew funding from billionaire George Soros and his son Alexander, Abrams has said.

It was a venture steeped in Abrams’s stated vision for equality and racial justice, a vehicle for her own political ambitions — and a shot across the bow of Republicans whose hold on power in red Georgia was growing less firm.

Like Fair Fight, the group also drew attacks from partisan critics. The secretary of state at the time, Kemp, opened an investigation into the New Georgia Project regarding alleged registration fraud — launching a battle of bitter and public accusations between Kemp and Abrams that would endure through their matchup in the governor’s race last year.

Kemp’s investigation found no wrongdoing by the group but referred about 50 registration applications to the state attorney general for possible forgery. No charges have resulted so far.

Nse Ufot, the current head of the New Georgia Project, said that because the group was required to turn in all applications it collected to the secretary of state, those that had missing information or questionable signatures ended up being submitted.

Separately, the New Georgia Project has been dogged by questions about its impact.

Although Abrams had pledged to register 120,000 new voters that first year, ultimately, the group claimed to have registered 86,000, with only 49,000 showing up on the rolls, according to officials with the group.

The organization has declined to show evidence of its registration work. Overall voter participation actually declined in Georgia between 2010 and 2014, but Groh-Wargo, who worked at the New Georgia Project with Abrams in 2014, said that their work coincided with a purge of the voter rolls that masked the organization’s impact.

Groh-Wargo said one of the New Georgia Project’s biggest successes was its discovery of the state’s “exact match” policy, which had led to voter registration applications being disqualified. After a federal court threw out the policy, GOP lawmakers passed legislation reinstating the practice.

“It was transformational, in that we learned how flawed the registration system was in Georgia,” Groh-Wargo said.

Staying close to former aides

In addition to Fair Fight, Abrams leads a nonprofit called Fair Count, which she established this year to advocate for a thorough count of all Georgia residents in next year’s census.

Former campaign aides hold key positions in both organizations.

Groh-Wargo started with Abrams at the New Georgia Project, became her campaign manager last year and is now the CEO of Fair Fight Action. In addition, Abrams’s spokeswoman from last year’s campaign, Caitlin Highland, works for Fair Fight. So does Seth Bringman, who served last year as a spokesman for the Georgia Democratic Party.

Rebecca DeHart, the past executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party, is Fair Count’s CEO. Abrams’s sister, Jeanine Abrams McLean, a longtime population researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the group’s program director.

Fair Count began in 1998 under another name: Third Sector Development, the group Abrams formed to provide technical assistance to community organizations in Southern states.

Fair Fight Action also got its start as a different organization, Voter Access Institute, that Abrams founded years ago. When Abrams changed the name in December, she also adjusted the group’s articles of incorporation to allow it to participate in political activity.

Abrams’s closest aides say they do not know what she will do next. But the pressure to run for office — and the rumors about which office she might seek — has been high in recent weeks. That pressure includes Schumer’s plea that she run for the Senate and a report that former vice president Joe Biden was eyeing Abrams as a possible running mate should he win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Abrams seemed to suggest something other than an immediate run for office in the video she posted this week announcing her decision not to run for the Senate. “Over the coming weeks, you’ll be hearing more from me and my team about groundbreaking initiatives to protect the right to vote and to increase the participation of Americans in setting the course for Georgia and the future of our country.”

Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report