The news ricocheted across the campaign trail with a fervor that rivaled even the excitement that two presidents were visiting Georgia: Oprah Winfrey will be in town Thursday to stump for Democrat Stacey Abrams.
While the headline-grabbing event was timed to energize Abrams’ supporters at a crucial moment — and perhaps to counter Vice President Mike Pence’s string of stops the same day in Georgia — it only underscored a dynamic shift in this election.
A string of celebrities, high-powered politicians and potential 2020 presidential candidates have made Georgia a must visit on the campaign trail.
Some want to lend their voices to Abrams, who has become one of her party’s brightest stars in her bid to be the nation’s first black female governor.
Some Republican figures want to fortify Georgia against the “blue wave” that liberals predict will wash away Republican rule, eager to defend Brian Kemp’s own campaign for governor.
And some want to plant seeds ahead of the next presidential election when, regardless of the outcome of the gubernatorial race, Democrats expect Georgia to be a fertile new battleground.
Like so much of Abrams’ strategy, her embrace of national figures and Hollywood icons breaks from the conventional Democratic approach in Georgia.
Past Democratic candidates for governor were dead set on distancing themselves from national party figures and the wealthy donor class that helps fund high-profile liberal candidates.
And even Jon Ossoff, who raised record amounts from out-of-state donors in last year’s 6th Congressional District race, was so wary of being tied to national party figures loathed in his suburban district that the only politicos he hosted were centrists.
Abrams has taken a decidedly different view, even if it fuels further attacks from Kemp that her campaign is being shaped by liberal activists in California or other locales demonized by his supporters.
Just about every potential challenger to President Donald Trump has arrived in Georgia, a lengthy list that includes former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
“I think we both believe this is a national conversation about our local state. My campaign has always been locally grounded but nationally known,” Abrams said. “If you want to look at who has the most vibrant campaign, look at who’s coming because they know that Georgia matters.”
‘Isn’t my race — but it’s also my race’
On the trail, each of the big-name politicians who journeys to the state is circumspect about his or her future — and enthusiastic about the chances of Georgia Democrats.
On a recent Saturday morning at a Brookhaven home, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick asked himself a rhetorical question he figured was coming from a small clutch of reporters arrayed to cover his visit to support Democrat Lucy McBath’s run for Congress.
“Why on earth would a former governor who has stepped away from political life for the time being from a faraway state have an interest in this race?”
Then came his answer: “There’s this notion of common cause and common destiny — that we belong to each other,” he said. “So yes, this isn’t my neighborhood. But this is my community. This isn’t my race — but it’s also my race. Because we need great people who see not themselves in this moment, in this office — but you.”
And Booker gushed over Abrams a week later at a crowded union hall in downtown Atlanta, calling her a transformational figure who emerged to fend off the “dragon in our midst.”
“I know that whenever there’s a dragon in our midst, God always brings us the dragon slayers,” the New Jersey Democrat said.
“I’ve seen over this last year a light emerging on the horizon from the great state of Georgia,” he added. “Someone who inspires me like nobody ever has. Somebody who is a trailblazer, a history maker, a glass-ceiling breaker. And I’m telling you right now: Ready or not, here she comes.”
Abrams, too, has soaked in a steady stream of star power to boost her bid. Winfrey is among the biggest names, and her arrival will command a surge of attention, partly because she rarely campaigns in person for candidates. The next day, former President Barack Obama will appear with Abrams.
But other celebrities have rallied for Abrams’ campaign, including a spurt of recent visits. Actor Will Ferrell spent Sunday knocking on doors in Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, while actor and rapper Common helped lead a “souls to the polls” march the same day.
And a recent fundraiser that brought a raft of celebrities to producer Will Packer’s Atlanta mansion raised more than $300,000 for Abrams’ campaign.
Stars also power opposition
It’s all welcome news for Kemp, who has used the visits to try to reinforce his case that Abrams is a “radical extremist” who is trying to distract voters from her liberal stance.
While crisscrossing North Georgia on Tuesday, he slipped a line into his stump speech assailing her for appearing on “The View” that morning. And after a Wednesday rally in Forsyth County, he scoffed at the outside attention.
“It’s no surprise that she has celebrities from all over the country that are coming in to campaign with her,” Kemp said, invoking his endorsements from Gov. Nathan Deal and Pence. “We’ll take that any day of the week.”
But Abrams and her allies are quick to point out Kemp has no dearth of big-name support from people outside of Georgia. President Donald Trump will stump in Macon on Sunday, three days after Pence’s statewide appearances.
And Lara Trump revved up crowds in Roswell and Marietta with warnings that Democratic victories could lead to impeachment proceedings targeting her father-in-law.
“This is obviously a very important race. My entire family, it feels like, is out there,” she said in an interview at a Marietta barbecue restaurant. “It’s so important that if you voted for Donald Trump in 2016 you vote for Republicans in 2018.”
For voters, the star-studded visits drive more attention to a race that’s long been a battle over turnout from core supporters rather than a fight to convince moderates.
Just ask Margaret Mason Tate, who was star-struck on Wednesday when she bumped into Abrams during her morning bagel run in east Atlanta. Tate, a consultant, is already a firm Abrams voter: She’s even taking Thursday off to drive voters to the polls.
But to more marginal voters, she predicted, celebrities confer a level of trust that may otherwise be lacking.
“It will influence voters who need influencing, and that’s great,” she said. “Eighteen-year-olds trust Will Ferrell. There’s congruence there.”
Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article from Forsyth.