Georgia governor is her likely goal, but Abrams keeps options open

You’d be forgiven for thinking the campaign for Georgia governor is actually over. And that’s not just because Stacey Abrams refused to concede that she lost.

Since that November election, the Democrat has traveled the country and the state with no bigger target than Gov. Brian Kemp, who she says abused the powers of his perch as Georgia’s top elections official to cement his narrow victory.

Now that Abrams has passed up a race for the U.S. Senate, she is more likely than ever to prepare for a rematch against Kemp in 2022 — though it’s no sure thing. She hasn’t ruled out a White House bid and could surface as a potential running mate or Cabinet appointee.

Still, though, she’s had her heart set on executive office since she set up a spreadsheet at Spelman College that morphed over time to chart her path to the White House. And that journey, in her mind, has long hinged on a stint in the Governor’s Mansion.

“This isn’t about a moment. These are jobs,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, explaining why she was of forgoing a Senate bid. “You have to look at the daily work — that has to always be the determining factor. It’s not about the title, it’s the work.”

Whether she runs for governor or not, the shadow campaign has begun. Other second-place finishers tend to fade from the political conversation after their defeats. Both Roy Barnes and Jason Carter ceded the spotlight to Gov. Nathan Deal, for one, letting other Democrats take up the party’s standard.

But Abrams has parlayed her narrow loss, and her ensuing refusal to concede, into even greater political prominence. It’s led her to a coveted spot to rebut the State of the Union, political super-celebrity status and sold-out crowds. Her book’s appearances on best-seller lists have helped buoy her finances. Kemp allies joke that she’s far surpassed his public profile.

She probably doesn’t disagree. She often says she won in November even though she doesn’t hold the office. And over the next years, she plans to stay front and center through her network of nonprofits, her unspoken position as the state’s top Democrat and her very vocal role as Kemp’s chief critic.

Already, she's used her platform to pillory the governor in a way that feels like an extension of the 2018 race.

She’s questioned the legitimacy of his victory in nearly every interview, steered her voting rights group to challenge his election policies in court and assailed his agenda before national audiences. President Donald Trump and other Republicans get criticized, too, but Kemp is her favorite punching bag.

The challenge she faces now, when her profile is as high as it has ever been, is how to remain in the national consciousness before her next run without the pulpit of an elected office or the platform of a campaign. Put another way: Could she risk missing her moment if she waits until 2022?

Georgia Democrats were more than willing to clear the way for her to run for the Senate next year — her main potential party rival, Teresa Tomlinson, even said she would only run if Abrams did not. But there’s no guarantee she’ll remain the leader of the state party by 2022. And if Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue holds his seat, she could be blamed for not running.

A rematch holds its own risks. Kemp has largely ignored her since taking office, but his advisers have quietly prepared for round two. This time, he’ll have the perks of incumbency and a record to promote that includes rah-rah items such as a teacher pay raise and more divisive policies such as the anti-abortion “heartbeat” bill.

Few Georgia Democrats know the art — and pitfalls — of the comeback better than Barnes. He lost a gubernatorial primary in 1990 before winning the office eight years later. He took another eight-year sabbatical after his defeat in 2002 before running for governor again, this time losing to Deal.

“It’s important to stay active and to stay an opinion leader,” he said. “But it’s going to be much easier for Stacey than anybody else. She made such a splash on the national scale, she ran so close, and she’s an African-American woman in the Deep South who gained big support from white voters.”

Taking stock of Abrams’ torrid pace, Barnes added: “It’s like the campaign never ended. She knows how to keep herself relevant.”

‘The long game’

The line began forming more than an hour before Abrams arrived at a southwest Atlanta event hall for a stop on her “thank-you” tour.

By the time the event started, the place was packed with Abrams volunteers, college students, supporters — it had the feel of a campaign event, just one six months after the election.

As the crowd noshed on finger foods and drank sweet tea and lemonade, a string of speakers set the tone for Abrams. They trumpeted the record-smashing number of votes she attracted as a Georgia Democrat and her rebuttal to Trump’s State of the Union address. The crowd exploded in applause when Abrams took the mic.

Over the next half-hour or so, Abrams kept her focus aimed at Kemp. She accused him of “rigging an election in a way that hasn’t been seen in decades” and berated legislation he would soon sign to replace the state’s voting machines as one of “the biggest dupes in history.”

In the audience, heads bobbed in agreement. Marissa Autumn, a Democratic activist, said she prefers to “organize amongst ourselves and not rely on leaders.” But Abrams, she said, is the type of leader who “realizes that no one is going to come save us — that we have to be our own heroes.”

After the speechifying, Abrams walked into a side room to address reporters. That’s when she wondered aloud why corporate leaders were staying silent about the anti-abortion “heartbeat” bill — soon triggering threats of boycotts and petitions from Democratic activists asking the same question.

The governor may not let it show — he’s rarely brought her up since taking the oath of office — but his allies are infuriated each time she accuses him of manipulating the system to suppress votes.

The other day, his campaign spokesman, Ryan Mahoney, gleefully tweeted an article showing that while Kemp was secretary of state, Georgia became a leader in automatic voter registration. Other Georgia Republicans have branded her a "sore loser" or "sour grapes Stacey."

Kemp’s silence, though, is by design. His aides say speaking about her confers more legitimacy to her arguments. And they say their internal polling tracks with a recent AJC survey conducted by the University of Georgia that shows her approval ratings dropping and unfavorable reviews rising.

They’re also circling some of the stances she’s made in recent weeks that were sidestepped during the campaign but could be thrown against her in 2022.

For instance, Abrams steered clear of the topic of reparations when it surfaced last year shortly before the primary. But in a recent round of interviews, she said payments to the descendants of African-American slaves and Native Americans forced from their land should be "part of the conversation."

“Since losing to Governor Kemp and not conceding, it seems like Stacey is spending more time outside of Georgia talking to liberal, progressive donors and not real Georgians,” said state Rep. Trey Kelley, a GOP House leader. “It was obvious to us in 2018 that she cared more about impressing those people instead of earning votes in our great state.”

None of her critics, however, are writing her off. Todd Rehm, a veteran Republican strategist, said he’s learned a valuable lesson about the Democrat over the years.

“Don’t underestimate Stacey Abrams. She doesn’t think of time the way most of us in professional politics do — which is always about the next campaign,” Rehm said. “She’s working on a six- to eight-year time frame. She plays the long game better than anyone else I know.”

‘Got to do it’

Ask Abrams what she’s doing next, and she demurs. She told the AJC she hasn’t figured that out yet but “Georgia will always be at the center of my plans.” She said in a video she’d soon announce “groundbreaking initiatives” to protect the right to vote and boost turnout.

Ask anyone around her what she’ll do next, and they’ll tell you governor is the most likely conclusion but not the only one.

"She's in the catbird's seat. The fly-by-nighters have to do something immediately or be forgotten. She doesn't have to do anything," said state Rep. Al Williams, a longtime Abrams confidante.

“She truly gets to decide her destiny. I don’t know what she’ll do next, but she ran for governor because she wants to be governor. And I can truly say, Al Williams wants to see her run again.”

Said Barnes, from the perspective of a veteran gubernatorial campaigner: “I think she’ll run for governor. When you come that close, you just about got to do it.”

One way Abrams will try to remain a force in politics while on the sidelines is through a pair of nonprofits.

She touts Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group she relaunched after ending her campaign for governor, every chance she gets. It now houses several of her campaign aides and loyalists, and language from its charter banning it from promoting a candidate was recently removed.

In March she started a second group, Fair Count, that seeks to ensure that hard-to-count populations are tallied during next year's U.S. census. The former executive director of the state Democratic Party heads the group, and Abrams' sister, an evolutionary biologist, is its program director.

As both groups rise in prominence, so too does the scrutiny.

A Republican-aligned group targeted Fair Fight with an Internal Revenue Service complaint questioning whether the group is promoting her political ambitions by financing about $100,000 worth of digital ads featuring Abrams and paying for some travel for her statewide tour.

And the new head of the state ethics commission said in his introductory press conference that he planned to issue subpoenas for financial records for Abrams and the political action committees that backed her 2018 bid.

Abrams and her team have assembled a small army of lawyers to guide the groups and vet their decisions. Abrams’ attorney wrote state officials offering to cooperate, adding that the Democrat has “nothing to hide.”

All this has Abrams in a sort of political purgatory, but one that she’s comfortable with. Politicians, she said, aren’t supposed to be fungible creatures who can bend and adapt to any office just because it’s open. And the Senate just “wasn’t part of my calculus.”

The governor’s office? Well that’s a different story.

“In the end,” she said, “we’re responsible for doing the work we’re best suited for.”

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