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)

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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