Analysis: Stacey Abrams snaps ‘curse of State of Union response’

At a dress rehearsal for her State of the Union response, Stacey Abrams made one thing clear to organizers: I don’t need lip balm, she told them, and hold the water.

It was a joke, but it also underscored a truth: She told supporters she was "terrified" of squandering the chance to rebut Donald Trump's address, like so many from both parties had done before, with a miscue that ruins the opportunity.

What followed was a 10-minute speech Tuesday that combined tales of her upbringing in Mississippi, the merits of bipartisanship in Georgia and biting criticism of Trump and Republican policies.

She blamed the GOP for the record-breaking shutdown – something Trump didn't mention - called for a host of progressive policies and put voting rights at the center of her remarks.

And she steered clear of the gaffes or awkwardness that tripped up so many of her predecessors -- like Marco Rubio’s gulping of water, or Joe Kennedy’s too-glistening lips -- and kept the focus instead on her competing political vision.

That assured that her rebuttal will be remembered more for the substance of her message, which Democrats celebrated and Republicans excoriated, than the optics around it.

‘Alternate reality’

The Republican pushback began long before her speech, with emails branding the defeated gubernatorial candidate "Sore Loser Stacey" and a 30-second video featuring snippets of her campaign-trail remarks that infuriated conservatives.

After the address came critiques of her progressive agenda, with GOP groups and officials lamenting her platform as another sign of the leftward tilt of the Democratic agenda.

Julianne Thompson, who chairs the state Women for Trump chapter, accused Abrams of presenting an "alternate reality" with dire talk of a bleak economy that contrasts with improving economic indicators.  

And Brian Robinson, a veteran Georgia Republican strategist, said her strong stage presence should come as no surprise to voters who pay attention to local politics.

“But we’ve heard it all before here,” he said. “She successfully deepened and inflamed the crush that the American Left has on her, but she didn’t win new admirers in Georgia. The dozens and dozens of declared Democratic candidates for president are probably very jealous of the stage she got tonight.”

Democrats were overjoyed. Her supporters packed more than a dozen watch parties around the nation and took to social media to urge her to run for higher office. Pundits praised her – "I liked that one better," Anderson Cooper said of Abrams' speech – and party leaders gushed.

“She’s certainly no Bobby Jindal or Marco Rubio. That’s for sure,” said Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson, mentioning two of the recent Republicans who flubbed their rebuttals. “She did a great job. It was a solid performance and she brought us back to reality.”

Abrams aimed to capitalize on the publicity. Her Fair Fight Action voting rights group sent out several fundraising pitches to supporters and touted its work on social media.

And she announced three more stops on a “thank you” tour that kicked off last month in Albany. On Thursday she’ll greet supporters in Savannah, followed by a trip next week to Gwinnett. She’s planning an Atlanta event in March.

A SOTU scramble

Putting together an event that allowed Abrams to feed off the energy and enthusiasm in the room while keeping the details a closely-held secret was no easy task.

Past speakers struggled when delivering their response in a staid room, particularly in contrast to the ornate U.S. House chamber where the president gives his address.

And finding the right venue for a live audience was even more difficult because there was no date set for the State of the Union when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer first asked her to take the marquee speaking role about a month ago.

Vague emails were sent to different event spaces with questions about availability before the IBEW union hall in downtown Atlanta – next to the Democratic Party of Georgia’s headquarters – was picked.

A scramble to find crews to build the stage and man the lights for a speech set for two days after the Super Bowl soon followed, and organizers carefully selected a group of diverse supporters to fill the hall.

The final edits to the 10-minute speech were completed shortly before she took the stage, and the draft was sent to reporters as Trump was nearing the end of his address. She didn’t watch his speech, intent on preparing for hers.

Rubio had summed up his advice to Abrams in six words - "hydration is a very good idea" - and she took it to heart. Her podium was specially designed with space for a water bottle just in case. She wouldn't need it.

‘Maintain momentum’

The prime-time moment served up a preview of Abrams' message if she decides to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a prospect seen as increasingly likely by her supporters.

She stuck to familiar Democratic themes, blasting a “rigged” economic system while urging lawmakers to protect the Affordable Care Act and combat climate change.

But she put a paramount focus on expanding voting rights, calling the fight over ballot access the “next battle for our democracy.”

And she introduced herself to millions of Americans, elevating a national profile that was already high after her narrow defeat in one of the nation’s premier midterm elections.

“She certainly didn’t lose any political capital from this speech, and I think there’s a really strong case to make that she gained political capital,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist.

“This helps to maintain her momentum as she decides which office she wants to pursue.”