Updates: Stacey Abrams launches national expansion of voting rights group

Abrams also rules out 2020 White House bid
Georgia Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams makes remarks during a press conference at her campaign headquarters on November 16. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Georgia Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams makes remarks during a press conference at her campaign headquarters on November 16. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Las Vegas – Before a convention hall packed with left-leaning union members, Stacey Abrams unveiled a plan Tuesday to expand her Georgia-based voting rights group across the nation by training staffers in 20 competitive states to protect against threats of voter suppression.

The program, Fair Fight 2020, is a multimillion-dollar effort to set up “voter protection” programs in a group of mostly battleground states. Abrams told the cheering audience that she will use her “very, very loud voice” through next year to promote the venture.

“My mission is to make sure that no one has to go through in 2020 what we had to go through in 2018,” she told an audience of hundreds at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades convention at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

The launch offers more evidence that the Georgia Democrat is preparing for a rematch in 2022 against Brian Kemp after she came within about 55,000 votes of defeating the Republican in last year's race for governor.

Abrams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview that she would not join the two dozen other Democrats running for the White House, the first time she has publicly ruled out a 2020 bid. She did not, however, shut down the possibility of being selected as a running mate.

“My best value add in the primaries will be doing the work of fighting voter suppression. I will not be running,” Abrams said, adding: “We have to make certain that every eligible American can cast a ballot in 2020 – and that work has to start now.”

She plans to follow up with an event this weekend at an elementary school in Gwinnett County where technical issues triggered hours-long lines in November. Abrams has frequently cited the lengthy wait as an example of voter suppression.

A new ‘voice’

The new initiative will be run as an offshoot of the Fair Fight voting rights group that Abrams rebranded shortly after her narrow loss to Kemp. She ended that race without formally conceding defeat, and she blasted Kemp’s decision not to resign as the state’s top elections official during his run.

Her aides said the program will help Democrats in the 20 states hire staff and set up operations, such as voter hotlines and publicity campaigns, either through direct investments or by helping groups raise the funds themselves. It’s expected to spend at least $4 million through next year.

The program will give Abrams a platform in the nation’s swing states, mostly in the Midwest and South, where she’ll travel to focus on voting rights. It will also afford Abrams, once the top Democrat in Georgia’s House, another opportunity to elevate her national brand.

Her political profile has soared despite her failed bid to become the nation's first black female governor and her decision not to run for the U.S. Senate, which disappointed national Democrats who see Georgia as a must-win state if they're to flip control of the chamber in 2020.

Since the midterm, she's nabbed the coveted assignment to rebut the State of the Union, landed prestigious speaking engagements before sold-out crowds and sold a spate of books that helped her repay debts.

But she has centered most of her work on voting rights, a priority of hers doing her time as Georgia’s House minority leader and as a candidate for governor.

Abrams has steered Fair Fight to file a far-ranging lawsuit challenging Georgia's election policies, testified twice before Congress on the need for new electoral policies and cast Kemp as the architect of voter suppression -- a charge she repeated at Tuesday's event to rousing applause.

“I am here to tell you I’m also not the governor of the state of Georgia. Because you can fight hard, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the victory in the end,” said Abrams, whose remarks were interrupted by several ovations. “My job is to be the voice of those who don’t think they are heard.”

She specifically criticized the uneven standards for counting provisional and absentee ballots, the cancellations of thousands of voter registrations of Georgians who didn't participate in recent elections and waits at some polling places that stretched for hours.

Kemp has said he merely followed state laws designed to ensure that only eligible Georgia voters could cast ballots, and he and his allies have frequently pointed to last year’s record turnout as evidence there was no voter suppression.

He and other Republicans also backed a new law that replaces outdated voting machines and seeks to fix other flaws that surfaced last year. Democrats criticized the changes as half-measures that do little to promote ballot access.

While she has become a punchline to some Republicans who mock "Governor Abrams," Kemp has mostly ignored the criticism the Democrat has lobbed his way over his opposition to a broad expansion of Medicaid and his support for stiff anti-abortion restrictions.

“Most people figured out by now that the things I’ve campaigned for – I’m going to do them,” Kemp said this month at a conservative conference. “I’m a firm believer that if you run on something and actually do it, people will reward you for it.”

Gwinnett launch

For Abrams, who has made it no secret she plans to again run for higher office, the new Fair Fight program settles a question that has trailed her since the defeat: What will she do next year to remain politically relevant during a crowded presidential race?

So far, that hasn't been a problem. This week alone, she's featured in lengthy profiles in Vogue and The New Yorker. Her Fair Fight group raised nearly $4 million during the first six months of the year, a remarkable figure for a Democrat who doesn't hold elected office.

Still, her growing national brand risks alienating voters in Georgia.

An April poll conducted by the University of Georgia for the AJC showed 45% of voters had positive views of her – down about 7 percentage points from January. Her unfavorable rating grew from 40% to 45% over that three-month period.

The Fair Fight 2020 initiative will target Georgia and other politically competitive states, along with Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. Those three states, which Donald Trump won with wide margins in 2016, were picked because they hold gubernatorial votes this year.

The group's Georgia launch event is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at Snellville's Annistown Elementary School, where malfunctioning voting machines last year led to lengthy lines that Abrams cited as an example of voter suppression.

“In Georgia in 2018, we didn’t have a fair fight. And while Georgia is a singular example, we’re not the only one,” she told the audience. “The closer we get to victory, the harder they’re going to try to rig the game.”