As she ponders Senate run, Abrams keeps focus on Kemp

Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Albany – Stacey Abrams is publicly weighing a bid for the U.S. Senate, but at the kickoff of her statewide "thank you" tour on Monday the Democrat kept her focus squarely on her rival in last year's race for governor.

She didn’t mention U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s name as she addressed a crowd of more than 200 supporters in a downtown Albany restaurant, instead aiming her criticism at Gov. Brian Kemp, who narrowly defeated Abrams in November.

Abrams criticized Kemp for refusing to expand the Medicaid program, blasted him for not pushing new criminal justice reforms and challenged the crowd to demand that he follow through on his pivot to more conciliatory language and centrist policies.

And she drew applause as she slammed Kemp for refusing to resign as secretary of state before the vote, which she has said allowed him to use the state’s election laws to suppress and intimidate her supporters.

“The system is rigged, but now we know what they’re doing, and we will get it undone,” she said. “And that will only happen if they don’t believe we are going to go home and sit still.”

Abrams has been under intense pressure from donors, elected officials and supporters to challenge Perdue in 2020 after she won more votes than any other Democratic candidate in Georgia history. She has set a late March deadline to make up her mind.

‘I am running’

It may not be an easy sell. She has long wanted to run for state office, and during the campaign mostly skirted the federal debates – or much talk of President Donald Trump – that would play a central role in any run for Senate.

And her appearance Monday, on behalf of the Fair Fight Action voting rights group she launched after her defeat, evoked her stump speeches in the governor’s race. She talked of building broad electoral coalitions, energizing voters who often skip elections and holding Kemp accountable.

Still, Abrams advised reporters not to “read any tea leaves” into her state-focused speech. She said she delivered it with Fair Fight Action’s mission in mind, and hoped to highlight coming debates in the Georgia Legislature on new voting machines and Medicaid waivers.

Her allies have said she's seriously considering a challenge to Perdue - some describe her as increasingly vexed by the government shutdown - and were buoyed by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll that showed her favorability ratings higher than his. The field is essentially frozen until she decides; no other prominent politicians want to challenge her in a primary.

“I am running for office again,” she told the crowd. “I don’t know for what.”

‘Living hell’ 

At the event, she drew a line between the NFL referees who missed a blatant case of pass interference in Sunday's NFC title game and Kemp's refusal to step down as the state's top elections official during his bid.

“If you saw yesterday’s playoff game between the Rams and the Saints, there was a call that should have been made and folks are righteously indignant,” she said. “There was a call that should have been made a long time ago in Georgia – you don’t get to be the referee and the player.”

Kemp has said he didn’t step down because he wanted to fulfill his obligation to voters who elected him in 2014, and that he was following laws – in some cases passed by Democrats – to block illegal voters from casting ballots.

The focus on Kemp wasn’t limited to Abrams. Her former campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, is now the executive director of the Fair Fight group, and she encouraged the crowd to sign letters to Kemp’s office demanding changes to electoral laws.

“We are going to give Brian Kemp living hell,” she said. “Because I got news: Georgians want to know their votes count.”