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Democrats look to Stacey Abrams as they try to make Georgia a 2020 swing state

Posted November 20, 2019 11:28 a.m. EST

— Republicans have held dominion over Georgia's political landscape for decades, dominating state government while, every four years, comfortably collecting its presidential electoral votes.

No Democratic presidential nominee has won a general election here since Bill Clinton did it in 1992. He lost the state during his successful reelection bid in 1996 and Republicans, even as Hillary Clinton narrowed the margin in 2016, haven't felt serious pressure since.

Until now.

For the first time in a generation, Democrats have reason to believe that Georgia could be a true swing state in the coming presidential contest. Many of the 2020 candidates, who are in Atlanta this week for Wednesday's debate, either visited the state last year or are making the most of the Democratic National Committee's decision to bring the primary down south -- with a handful either turning up early or sticking around late to immerse themselves in the local politics. On Thursday, at least three will join Stacey Abrams at Ebenezer Baptist Church to text and call voters slated to be scrubbed from the state's rolls.

Georgia's emergence on the 2020 Democrats' electoral maps has been powered in large part by a backlash to President Donald Trump, particularly in the suburbs. His time in office has also spurred a nationwide renaissance among the liberal grassroots, which, in their despair at Trump's election, got busy organizing and demanding the party engage in places the conventional wisdom had long dismissed as unwinnable. The Georgia GOP has also played its role in the Democratic resurgence. The state has so far refused to expand Medicaid under Obamacare and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp this year signed a so-called "heartbeat bill," one of the country's most restrictive abortion laws -- another move likely to alienate moderate suburban voters.

The fruits of Democrats' post-2016 efforts, and anger over what's happened since, has already begun to ripen. Stacey Abrams in 2018 fell just short of becoming the first African American woman elected governor of Georgia. At the same time, Democrat Lucy McBath ousted the incumbent Republican Rep. Karen Handel in the suburban 6th congressional district, claiming a seat that had previously been held by high profile GOP lawmakers like Newt Gingrich, Johnny Isakson and Tom Price.

Abrams' 2018 election strategy, which focused in large part on mobilizing Democrats who had been written off as unlikely voters, got her to within about 55,000 votes of victory -- a narrow margin her campaign and civil rights groups have argued was the corrupt product of a system put in place by Kemp, who served before and during the race as secretary of state.

Despite falling short last year, Abrams has emerged as one of the Democratic party's foremost political stars. Her decision not to run for president -- instead launching a voting rights organization, Fair Fight -- only strengthened her standing. Former President Barack Obama aside, hers is one of the most desired endorsements in the 2020 primary.

"Next year, Georgia will be the premier battleground state in the country," Abrams declared in a September memo, titled "The Abrams Playbook," issued through Fair Fight. "Our 16 electoral votes are in play, and we are the only state in the country set to have two U.S. Senate races. Also up for grabs will be two hotly-contested suburban congressional seats and control of the state house. Georgia faces historic electoral opportunities, and Democrats cannot achieve success nationally without competing and winning in Georgia."

The stakes are undeniable. But the question remains: After so many false dawns, can Democrats finally make inroads into the Deep South?

'We can win'

Sarah Riggs Amico, who is running in a contested primary for a shot at unseating Republican Sen. David Perdue in 2020, was the party's nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018. Combined with Abrams -- though they both lost -- she helped dramatically increase Democratic turnout in the state.

"I sat in an awful lot of living rooms (during the last campaign) and I can tell you, nobody's happy about having 79 counties without an OB-GYN or 64 without a pediatrician, or the highest maternal mortality rate in America," Amico said of the state, arguing that Democrats have an opportunity, if they drill down on those difficult issues, to win over people who have either voted Republican or not at all. "If we do those things, we can win. Look what we did last year and there was an awful lot of shenanigans at the ballot box that probably prevented Stacey from being governor."

Abrams' eventual defeat, in a campaign that Kemp, as secretary of state, administered and was marked by his controversial past purging of voter rolls, faulty voting machines and the rejection of absentee ballots, only bolstered her standing with Democrats.

And so, Abrams' power in Georgia -- in addition to her national profile -- have grown apace. Whether she is campaigning here for the eventual Democratic nominee, or on the ticket herself as a vice presidential candidate, her influence should be estimable. Her endorsement could also shake up the primary.

"I think the default option for black voters right now is Joe Biden," University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said. "But if Abrams were to come out and endorse someone else, I think that would result in a number of black voters taking a serious second look at whoever it was she threw her support behind."

The fate of the party in Georgia next year, Bullock added, could ride on her appeal.

"Part of this comes down to how much can Abrams translate or transfer her popularity to whoever the Democrats have nominated," he said.

A lot of that will, of course, be dependent on the name at the top of the ticket. But Democrats like Abrams' 2018 campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo, who has since become the CEO of Abram's Fair Fight Action, are also looking at demographics -- and liking what they see.

"The fact that Georgia's population is changing and growing are related but distinct trends," Groh-Wargo wrote in the Fair Fight memo that was introduced by Abrams. "Voters of all races who had lived in Georgia for less than 10 years voted for Stacey Abrams by a whopping 30-point margin, 65% to 35%, according to a CNN exit poll. Each person who moves to Georgia and votes is almost twice as likely to vote Democratic than Republican."

Potential hurdles

Democrats may be gaining in confidence, but here as in the rest of the country, there is some anxiety over the shape and tone of a national primary campaign that has yet to produce a clear frontrunner amid fiery intra-party ideological battles.

Quentin James, the founder and executive director of Collective PAC, a national organization that recruits and trains African American candidates, warned that Georgia Democrats face the same potential hurdles as their colleagues around the country.

"Right now, nationally, you see this conversation around liberal versus moderate. It's really hard to talk about the dichotomy of those two things in Georgia, because you look at Stacey Abrams, who people will say is a progressive, but that may mean something different in Georgia than Massachusetts," James said.

Abrams bridged that gap, such as it exists in Georgia, during her gubernatorial run. In the general, Kemp and Republicans tried to frame her as a radical leftist, a caricature that mostly fell flat for the simple reason it was demonstrably false -- having served as state House minority leader, Abrams had a record to prove it. On a national stage, in this presidential primary, she would have likely fit more closely with the moderates.

For James, who expressed qualified concerns over all the leading campaigns, the Abrams appeal is one that all Democrats should strive to replicate -- if they want to win in a state like Georgia.

"She spoke to Georgia voters in a way that was inspiring and the reason that she is being talked about as a possible VP nominee is because, in doing so and talking to Georgia voters, in no way did she sell her soul to motivate voters," James said. "In no way did she capitulate on progressive issues to get out rural voters. There's a way you can talk about health care that doesn't alienate folks who either want to keep it or don't have it. There is a middle ground here and middle ground is not a bad word."

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