Abrams, the first African American woman to give the official rebuttal, cast the recent government shutdown as a “stunt” by Trump. She dismissed the critique by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of a proposed voting overhaul from Democrats. And she accused the GOP of disregarding or failing to understand average Americans.
“America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants, not walls,” Abrams said, referring to Trump’s determination to build a wall on the border with Mexico.
During a roughly 11-minute speech, Abrams sought to sharpen the distinctions Democrats are seeking to draw with Trump and the GOP ahead of the next election, as well as introduce herself to a broad audience ahead of a possible Senate run here in Georgia, a potential 2020 battleground.
In Abrams, a former state legislative leader, Democratic leaders selected someone they felt presented an appealing snapshot of what the party is offering as it gears up for the next election — and someone who provides a strong contrast with Trump.
The speech was risky in a sense, since the record of recent responses to the annual address has been spotty. While some recent turns drew ridicule and others left no lasting impact, Abrams spoke without any obvious missteps for opponents to seize on.
Abrams wrote her speech and did not watch Trump’s address, according to her team. She wore a white brooch honoring suffragists.
Trump’s address mixed bipartisan notes with polarizing themes, such as his renewed pitch for a wall. Abrams also infused her speech with nods to unity, noting that she had worked with GOP leaders in the Georgia state legislature.
The excitement surrounding Abrams’s speech, which she delivered from an electrical workers union hall in Atlanta, was hard to miss in recent days. Abrams, 45, has become a marquee figure in her party after nearly being elected the nation’s first black female governor in Georgia in November.
She lives in a state that has leaned conservative but is changing demographically and becoming more competitive in statewide races.
As Democrats seek to elevate fresh faces, women and minorities, Abrams is a woman of color who has never held federal office and does not currently hold an elected position.
She took aim at the recent government shutdown, which polls suggest was unpopular with the public.
“The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people — but our values,” Abrams said.
The partial shutdown was the longest in U.S. history, spanning 35 days. Trump demanded money for a border wall, refusing to sign legislation to reopen the government before changing course under pressure from both parties.
A new shutdown deadline looms on Feb. 15.
Abrams joined a list of other promising politicians tapped to offer a response to a president of the opposing party. For some, things did not turn out as well as they had hoped.
In 2013, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) gave a speech remembered most for his awkward attempts to swig from a water bottle without breaking eye contact with the camera.
Four years before Rubio, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) responded to President Barack Obama’s first address to a joint session of Congress. Jindal’s address was widely panned by his own party.
Abrams is one of a trio of Democrats who became stars within the party by performing well in the midterms — albeit losing — in states not traditionally friendly to Democrats. The others are former Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke of Texas and former Florida gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Gillum.
Abrams has long stressed voting rights and registration, an issue increasingly important to Democrats, who have made the case nationally that GOP officials are placing obstacles in the paths of minority and other voters.
In her speech, Abrams addressed the recent comment by McConnell that a Democratic proposal to make Election Day a federal holiday, along with other voting overhaul measures, amounts to a “power grab.”
“We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a ‘power grab,’ ” Abrams said.
As she did in her campaign for governor, Abrams aimed for a personal touch, talking about how her family “went back and forth between lower middle class and working class” when she was growing up.
Abrams challenged Republicans to embrace stronger gun safety measures, saying, “This White House responds timidly while first-graders practice active-shooter drills.”
When it comes to racist words and actions, “we must hold everyone from the very highest offices to our own families accountable,” Abrams said. Her comment came days after the revelation of a racist photo in a medical school yearbook entry for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
Abrams used the occasion of her speech to promote her new political group, Fair Fight Action, which is seeking to call attention to concerns about Georgia’s election system and has filed a lawsuit alleging that officials “grossly mismanaged” the 2018 contest in violation of Georgians’ rights.
Fair Fight Action hosted watch parties in Georgia and elsewhere across the country. During one such gathering at Noni’s, a restaurant and bar in Edgewood, a gentrifying neighborhood here, a young and racially diverse crowd gathered to watch Trump and Abrams speak. A burst of boos erupted when Trump first appeared on-screen. They repeatedly called out “liar!” as he spoke.
The crowd cheered when Abrams was up. Her speech prompted hugs, some tears and chants of “Sta-cey! Sta-cey!”
In 2018, Trump backed Republican Brian Kemp, who narrowly defeated Abrams. Trump said last week that he respected Abrams and hoped she would do “a good job” in her address.
Many Washington Democrats are hoping Abrams will challenge Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) in 2020. Abrams met with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, last month, according to a Democrat familiar with the conversations.
Cynthia Huffman, who attended the party in Edgewood, said she is ready to volunteer if Abrams runs for the Senate. Huffman said the speech was “great, very uplifting.”
Sullivan reported from Washington.