Stacey Abrams speaks Friday to a crowd in Atlanta ahead of her “thank-you” tour that’s set to crisscross the state. The Democrat is considering a run for the U.S. Senate or a potential rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Georgia’s Stacey Abrams takes aim at possible Senate campaign

For Abrams, who jokes that the query is a now-daily occurrence, the answer comes with a well-practiced dodge.

“I am running for office again,” she told the 200 or so people crowding an Albany restaurant, pausing for a half beat. “I don’t know for what.”

Defeated candidates in Georgia, as elsewhere, typically recede into the background in the months after their losses to lick their wounds, tend to their finances and catch up on sleep. Not so for Abrams, who has used her defeat to try to elevate her already sky-high profile in Georgia politics.

In the weeks since Republican Brian Kemp’s narrow victory, she’s launched a well-funded voting rights group to carry her message and challenge GOP policies in court, joined a Washington think tank and commanded attention with a string of public appearances.

Abrams remains the most influential Democrat in Georgia politics, and her endorsement is coveted by the growing number of presidential candidates who see the state as a battleground. And with the start of her tour Monday, she seems to be laying the groundwork for another race.

She has given herself a March deadline to announce whether she will challenge U.S. Sen. David Perdue in 2020 — or, if not, plan for a possible rematch against Kemp two years later or seek another public office.

But she’s under intense pressure from supporters, elected officials and donors to run against Perdue, and the party is clearing her path. She met recently with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to discuss the race; other potential Democratic candidates appear to be deferring to her.

“The key to politics is matching the moment,” said Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor in 2014 and a possible Senate contender.

“Everyone is excited about her,” Carter said. “And in a presidential year with Donald Trump on the ballot, I think she has her very best chance of winning. That’s tough to pass up — particularly when you don’t have any control over what those future ‘moments’ look like, whether its 2022 or any other time.”

The prize is enormous: Republicans have controlled both of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats for most of the past two decades, and Perdue, who ran as an outsider with business savvy, is the only former Fortune 500 chief executive in the chamber. Quickly earning rock-star status in Georgia GOP circles, Perdue easily won his first term in 2014 by 8 percentage points.

Democrats see Perdue as vulnerable because of his close ties to Trump — he’s one of the president’s most dependable legislative allies — and hope to build on their gains last year across Atlanta’s suburbs. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released last week showed Perdue’s favorability ratings at about 45 percent — about 7 percentage points behind Abrams.

And although Abrams has long dreamed of being Georgia’s first black governor — and the first black female governor in U.S. history — the possibility of running against Perdue in a presidential election year with soaring turnout may be too enticing to pass up.

“The window to run for office is shorter than anyone ever imagines,” said Fred Hicks, a veteran Georgia Democratic strategist.

“She came within 1.5 percentage points of defeating a Trump supporter without Trump on the ballot,” he added. “Imagine what would happen in the suburbs, and with minorities, when Trump is actually on it.”

‘Rigged’

At the heart of Abrams’ message, and the reason she refused to formally concede the race to Kemp, is what she sees as a broken electoral process that deters and turns away minority voters.

Kemp and his allies point to record midterm turnout and say his office was enforcing laws passed with bipartisan support to secure elections. She says his refusal to resign as secretary of state cost her countless votes through suppression and mismanagement of the elections.

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

Although that talk energizes Abrams’ liberal base, it also plays into a Republican narrative that casts her as a sore loser.

The Republican National Committee mocked news of her statewide tour by summoning up her defeat — “Sorry to break it to Stacey, but they’re just not that into you” — and state Republicans branded it a naked play to grab a share of the spotlight.

“There is nothing wrong in saying ‘thank you’ to those who helped you seek higher office. There is everything wrong in using those events to launch your next political campaign,” said Carmen Foskey, the Georgia GOP’s executive director. “Sounds like a page direct from the ‘career politician’ playbook.”

As for Perdue, he’s readying plans to take on Abrams if she jumps in the race. He indicated in a recent interview that he’d try to paint her as a liberal funded by out-of-state donors, much like Kemp did.

“I don’t know who’s going to run. But whoever runs on the Democratic side will try to do the same thing they did on the governor’s race. And they’re going to fail,” he said in a recent interview. “Democrats camouflaged their real message, and I’ll fight hard not to let that happen. Do we want billionaires coming out from California and want to change Georgia?”

At the same time, he and his aides recognize that he’ll need to outdo Kemp in metro Atlanta to win re-election. That may be one reason Perdue took part for the first time Monday in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony at Ebenezer Baptist Church, using the pulpit to recount his father’s stand against segregation as a Middle Georgia schools superintendent.

‘Made of steel’

If Abrams is running for the Senate, she didn’t drop many hints at her kickoff event. She never mentioned Perdue’s name, instead focusing her criticism on Kemp.

Still, her allies have said she’s seriously considering a challenge to Perdue, describing her as increasingly vexed by the government’s shutdown. And as her self-imposed deadline nears, she’s checking all the boxes a potential candidate for the Senate would.

She recently joined the board of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Her Fair Fight Action group, which is funding and organizing her statewide tour, is peppering the airwaves with ads on voting and health care issues.

She’s maintained contact with key donors and activists, including holding several recent meetings with top political allies. And she recently gave campaign contributions to every state Democratic legislator.

Her sway in the party is so strong that several of the other potential Senate candidates, including former 6th Congressional District contender Jon Ossoff, are urging her to run. And ex-Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who has long planned a bid for the Senate, is trying to position herself as the party’s front-runner if Abrams declines.

“One of the ways we can honor her is being able to hit the ground running,” said Tomlinson, who is set to emphasize her knowledge of military and rural policies as a two-term mayor if she runs.

“Stacey is a national figure. We need to give her the time and space she needs to make her decision as we continue to do our due diligence,” Tomlinson said, adding that she and Abrams speak regularly. “We’ve both been soldiers in this field for a very long time, and we have a joint objective to win this seat.”

Abrams’ allies hope to build an operation that will let her do as she wishes — and scare off any internal competition that might bubble up. Lauren Groh-Wargo, her former campaign manager, told the crowd of Albany Democrats that Abrams is “made of steel” and set a new standard for candidates in Georgia.

“If anyone is going to run for statewide office,” she told them, “you need to look in their eyes and see if they have the kind of spine that she has.”

That line seemed to go over well with Abrams’ supporters in Albany, the same place where the former state House leader launched her campaign for governor in 2017.

One person in the crowd was Albert Banks, a retired state police officer who made the 45-minute trip from Tifton to meet with other Abrams volunteers, share war stories from the campaign trail — and to urge her to soon run again. The election, he said, “left a bad taste” in his mouth that he’s ready to wash out.

“We just feel like Ms. Abrams got wronged, got cheated,” Banks said. “I want her to run sooner than later. I haven’t seen anyone else who can light a fire quite like Stacey. Everybody is ready to get on board again.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/news/georgia-government/.

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