09/10/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Medical students cheer as Georgia Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is introduced to speak about her healthcare plan for Georgia outside of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Monday, September 10, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

The question for Georgia Democrats in 2019: WWAD?

Twenty-six days into next year, members of the Democratic Party of Georgia will cram themselves into an Atlanta union hall to elect new leadership, from chairman on down.

The gathering is likely to give us a first glimpse of the rebounding party’s prospects in the upcoming 2020 U.S. Senate race and the next contest for governor — only four short years away.

Second-tier candidates for both offices are sure to be plentiful, but we haven’t been able to confirm the rampant rumor that all will bear identical bracelets with the same message: WWAD?

As in, “What Will Abrams Do?”

Since Nov. 6, when Stacey Abrams came within 54,724 votes of defeating Republican Brian Kemp and reclaiming the Governor’s Mansion for Democrats, the 2019 world of Georgia politics has become her oyster.

Candidates eager to challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., whose greatest strength and greatest weakness will be his close ties to President Donald Trump, have put their ambitions on hold, awaiting a signal from Abrams.

Social media fans of the former candidate for governor have loudly expressed disappointment that some lists of 2020 presidential prospects include Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Andrew Gillum of Florida, two other statewide Democrats with surprisingly strong performances last November, but snub the African-American woman from Georgia.

Several days ago, Rolling Stone magazine offered up a list of presidential candidates worth betting on that began with U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California. Abrams made it to No. 5, behind O’Rourke but ahead of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Via Twitter, Abrams’ former campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, chastised the magazine: “@RollingStone is confused, @staceyabrams is #1 (if she wants it)….”

“If she wants it” is, in fact, the key to figuring out WWAD. We are assured that Abrams — for the moment — is keeping all her options open, whether presidential, senatorial or gubernatorial.

Let us examine them one at a time, using publicly available tea leaves.

First, presidential nominations aren’t bestowed. They are aggressively chased down and clinched. Ten days after his defeat in Texas, O’Rourke made a pilgrimage to the offices of former President Barack Obama — an overt statement of intent.

We’ve seen no similar signal from Abrams. She developed an unprecedented national funding network to support her campaign for governor, but thus far she has taken no publicized steps indicating that she intends to repurpose those contacts.

Also, keep in mind that in 2018, Abrams made a virtue out of a sizable handicap — a challenging personal finance history that included a $54,000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service.

Without a family fortune behind her, Abrams may be in need of a few steady paychecks — a concern that might also apply to a 2020 challenge to Perdue.

Make no mistake: The 2020 Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate is hers for the asking, and the temptation could grow with any increase in Trump’s toxicity among women and independent voters. But win or lose, a Senate race would also divert Abrams from the gauntlet she threw down after her November defeat in the contest for governor.

Stereotypes abound in Georgia politics, but one of the truer ones is that ambition comes in two distinct flavors: One puts you on a path bound for Washington, the other for West Paces Ferry Road.

In her public statements since Nov. 6, Abrams has thrown out two major hints that she hasn’t given up on her plans to become the first African-American woman to be elected governor. And oust Kemp as governor in the process.

Days after Thanksgiving, under the auspices of her new group, Fair Fight Georgia, Abrams launched a 66-page federal lawsuit alleging mismanagement and malfeasance at nearly every level of Georgia’s electoral process.

Abrams is not the attorney of record. She won’t be responsible for day-to-day management of this massive legal effort to pry details out of a Republican-controlled state voting operation. 

But the lawsuit does show us a Georgia-specific mindset. One voting law expert we talked to described the Fair Fight Georgia suit as something close to a legislative agenda. Shortly after those legal papers were filed, after an event in California, Abrams gave an interview to a Politico.com reporter that amplified this sentiment.

“Georgia is my state,” she told the reporter. “And the changes I talked about in this campaign remain changes I believe are necessary for our state to continue to progress, to serve the entirety of our state, and that the issues that I raised remain urgent and important.”

Forgoing both a presidential and senatorial run wouldn’t make Abrams irrelevant. King-making — or maybe, queen-making? — is a popular pastime among politicians awaiting their next shot. There’s the January race for chairmanship of the state Democratic Party, being given up by DuBose Porter of Dublin. State Sen. Nikema Williams of Atlanta, an Abrams ally, is considered the favorite to replace him.

And about that U.S. Senate race. Among those interested are Jason Carter, the 2014 candidate for governor; state Rep. Scott Holcomb of Atlanta, a military veteran with cachet in the state Capitol; and Jon Ossoff, whose 2017 Sixth District congressional campaign against Republican Karen Handel established the documentary journalist as a prolific fundraiser.

However, in 2020 Georgia it may be as hard for a male candidate to win a statewide Democratic primary as it is for a woman to win a statewide GOP primary. Not impossible, but difficult. This could even apply to Ossoff, whose 2017 effort became the kernel for a full-scale 2018 revolt of female voters in north metro Atlanta.

Teresa Tomlinson, the soon-to-be former mayor of Columbus, is positioned for a possible Senate run. So is Sarah Riggs Amico, who just finished an unsuccessful but strong bid for lieutenant governor.

We would throw one more name into the Senate mix: Michelle Nunn, who lost to Perdue in 2014 and has since served as president and CEO of Atlanta-based CARE USA, the international aid group.

The name of Nunn, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, has bubbled up in the past week or so, as worry over Trump’s foreign policy has grown. Michelle Nunn also has strong ties to the Bush family — the late President George H.W. Bush, in particular — and so might prove attractive to Trump-weary Republicans who hanker for the good old days of comity and compromise.

You’ll recall that Abrams was a paid consultant in Nunn’s Senate campaign. The two are said to be close. If one runs, you won’t see the other in the same contest.

It is entirely possible, even probable, that Abrams herself hasn’t found the answer to “WWAD?” But even if she doesn’t run for president or the U.S. Senate in 2020, there is still work to be done — obligations to be created and alliances to be forged.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.
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