Former Georgia State Representative and 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams raised eyebrows this week when she decided not to run for the United States Senate in 2020, despite encouragement from both grassroots supporters in her state and Democratic congressional leaders.
Her decision has poured gasoline onto a bonfire of speculation that Abrams is preparing to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Indeed, Abrams herself seems to be one of the speculators – earlier this year, she said that 2028 would be the earliest that she would consider a White House run, but later tweeted that, “life comes at you fast…2020 is definitely on the table.”
Abrams rocketed to national prominence in 2018, when she ran one of the most fiercely contested races in the country, attempting to become America’s first black female governor. The race epitomized the struggle that Democratic candidates face in almost every Republican-controlled state – rampant voter suppression.
Abrams’ opponent was Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who made a name for himself supporting some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation. As the campaign went on, Kemp’s efforts to suppress the vote became more and more apparent. Over a million voters had been struck of the lists during his time in office, tens of thousands of (mostly black) voters had their registrations held up by Kemp’s office until after the election.
Most reprehensibly of all, Kemp refused to stand down from the post of Secretary of State until after Election Day, meaning that he supervised his own election. Unsurprisingly, Kemp won. What was surprising was that despite Kemp’s abuses of power, Abrams came within 55,000 votes of him (about the number of applications that Kemp’s office delayed until after the polls closed, which is the kind of coincidence voter-suppression often produces).
Abrams refused to accept the results of such a clearly rigged election – she started a group called Fair Fight Action that is currently involved in a lawsuit that aims to overhaul the state’s electoral system.
Since then, Abrams has stayed in the national spotlight. She has written a book, Lead from the Outside, and become a regular feature on both late-night TV and morning news shows. Democratic politicians, activists and pundits alike recognize that Abrams has become a symbol of the Party’s direction – a woman, who is relatively young, non-white and unapologetically progressive on many issues.
Former Vice President Joe Biden was one of those who recognized Abrams’ star-power, and until recently his staff were circulating rumors that she might join the Biden campaign from the start as his vice-presidential pick.
However, Abrams herself shot that idea down in late March, saying, “you don’t run for second place.” Her political allies further drove the knife in, describing Biden’s efforts to use Abrams as “exploitative” and “entitled.”
Abrams’ decision to pass on running for the Senate is just the latest sign that she has big plans for 2020, but it is the most significant one. Democratic strategists believe there is a strong chance that they can win Richard Purdue’s seat next year, and attribute it largely to the work of Abrams’ campaign in 2018.
Senior Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, had been trying for months to persuade Abrams to run for the Senate.
There are no Democrats in Georgia with Stacey Abrams’ name recognition or popularity among the grassroots and the question of who will contend for Purdue’s seat has suddenly been thrown in the air.
Although it is becoming apparent that Abrams has her eye on the presidency, her plan of action has many scratching their heads. Modern election cycles start absurdly early (Jon Stewart famously welcomed the New Year of 2015 and the election cycle of 2016 at the same time), and already one candidate – Joe Biden – has been criticized for waiting too long to get into the race. Abrams, however, has said that she believes, “based on [her] understanding of the contours of how to run a presidential race, September is actually an appropriate date.”
It seems that Abrams’ understanding of the contours of a presidential campaign is significantly different to most other people’s understanding. Starting in September would not just put Abrams would put her at several disadvantages.
Firstly, she would have to cobble together a campaign staff from whoever is left over once the other candidates have had their pick of the best political talent. Good campaign managers are hard to come by, and the people best suited to run the kind of campaign that Abrams would flourish in are already being snapped up by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke.
Fundraising will also be a problem for Abrams so late in the game.
Campaigns pursue donations, whether it be from big donors (Joe Biden and other establishment figures dedicate a lot of time to courting the wealthy and politically active at fundraising events) or small (candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke send out flurries of emails trying to persuade thousands of small-dollar donors to support them).
Regardless of the size of the donations sought, there are limitations.
If Abrams waits until September, the people most likely to make donations to her will have already committed funds to another candidate.
Starting a campaign in September would also mean missing the first two televised presidential primary debates, ceding two massive opportunities to explain to the electorate why she – and not any of the candidates on the debate stage – is the person to take on Donald Trump.
Abrams has the opportunity to appeal to a lot of corners of the Democratic coalition simultaneously. She has credibility with party leaders, since she came within a hair’s breadth of flipping Georgia, she is beloved with black women, who are among the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters, and her populist style could appeal to progressive activists who want to unrig the system.
However, staying out of the race allows her rivals to snap up he support of those segments of the Democratic Party and cement their loyalty – Booker and Harris can appeal to non-white voters, Sanders is overwhelmingly popular on the Left, while Biden is bringing Party loyalists into his fold.
By waiting so long to get into the primaries, Abrams seems to be willing to risk looking to voters like just another ambitious politician who isn’t bringing anything new to an already diverse field (both racially and ideologically).
Abrams’ recent moves and declarations are open to a lot of different interpretations. Is she getting really bad advice? Is she going with her gut against advice? Does she know something the rest of us (and “us” includes political heavyweights across the spectrum like Biden and Sanders) don’t? Is she just trolling the media, as other candidates have been known to do?
Maybe the answers to these questions will be revealed in September and the following months. Equally likely, we may never work out Stacey Abrams’ strategy. Either way, Abrams is likely to spend a lot more time in the media spotlight, making the Democratic candidates who have decided to run nervous.