NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

Stacey Abrams is running (sort of)

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.

Stacey Abrams in Seattle

Stacey Abrams lis­tens to an audi­ence ques­tion at her April 2019 Seat­tle Town Hall appear­ance (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/Northwest Pro­gres­sive Institute)

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.

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