‘A gamble’: Abrams bets her appeal can reshape Democratic ticket in runoffs

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC

Turnout in next week’s Democratic runoffs is expected to be so light that statewide candidates are battling apathy as much as they’re feuding with each other. Stacey Abrams hopes her name-brand appeal can tilt the balance in favor of her favorite contenders.

She’s taking a calculated risk by endorsing three Democrats in unpredictable races. None of the trio is seen as a lock in Tuesday’s runoff, and with so little attention devoted to the race, even the slightest fluctuation in voting patterns could be decisive.

But the Democratic candidate for governor and her allies say it’s worth putting her political capital on the line for the three — even if a loss means she’ll share a November ticket with another statewide contender whom she has openly opposed.

The three endorsements — attorney Charlie Bailey for lieutenant governor, state Rep. William Boddie for labor commissioner and state Rep. Bee Nguyen for secretary of state — have helped shape an otherwise sleepy Democratic runoff campaign.

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

The most closely watched is the contest for secretary of state, which oversees Georgia elections. But that race was sapped of some of its urgency when former President Donald Trump’s pick, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, lost the May GOP primary to incumbent Brad Raffensperger.

While Democrats list many concerns with Raffensperger, he drew crossover votes because he refused Trump’s attempt to overturn his loss. Hice, meanwhile, vowed he would have sought to reverse the then-president’s defeat if he were in office in 2020.

Nonetheless, much is at stake on Tuesday as Democrats try to build on their gains in the 2020 election cycle. While the race for governor and the U.S. Senate draw the most energy and enthusiasm, the down-ticket offices are crucial to shaping the state’s policy agenda.

And Abrams has demonstrated she wants to be in the middle of the debate, airing radio ads and dispatching fundraising appeals that outline her support. She said in a recent interview that she has deep connections with each of the contenders.

“I’ve worked closely with them all,” she told WRBL’s Chuck Williams. “I’m proud of who they are, and I’m proud that they reflect Georgia.”

Analysts say Abrams could be the difference-maker in the races. After helping orchestrate the party’s 2020 victories, she’s among the most powerful Democrats in the South and one of the top political fundraisers in the nation.

“Stacey Abrams has a great deal of influence with Democratic voters in Georgia, and it’s clear she wants to support a diverse group of candidates to represent the party in November,” said Tharon Johnson, a veteran Democratic strategist.

“Ultimately,” he said, “I believe the Democratic voters will decide who the nominees will be.”

‘The one I trust’

The Democrat isn’t the only key Georgia figure taking sides. Gov. Brian Kemp, Abrams’ November opponent, took the rare step this week of picking sides in a congressional runoff, backing Mike Collins in the 10th District race over former Democrat Vernon Jones.

But while Collins is widely expected to win, Abrams’ endorsements are seen as more of a gamble — and part of a greater effort to inoculate Democrats from Republican attacks in November.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton / AJC

Credit: Stephen B. Morton / AJC

The endorsements reflect a concern held by senior Democrats that a weak or scandal-plagued candidate down the ballot could harm other contenders — including Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who is running for a full six-year term.

And they signify an effort to cultivate a diverse field of candidates to contrast with the GOP field. Should Bailey win, he would be the only white male on the Democratic ticket. Nguyen would be the only Asian American candidate. Boddie would join several other Black nominees.

Bailey was the runner-up in the 2018 race for attorney general, and he was angling for a rematch against Chris Carr when party leaders persuaded him to switch to a run for lieutenant governor instead.

Finishing with 18% of the vote in the May primary, Bailey lagged far behind Kwanza Hall, a former Atlanta City Council member who was briefly a member of the U.S. House. Hall captured about 30% of the vote.

Senior officials are hopeful that Bailey’s background as a former Fulton County prosecutor who targeted gang crime will help counter GOP attacks that paint Democrats as supporters of the “defund the police” movement.

“He comes to this as the only person who has both worked on the prosecution side and the defense side,” Abrams said of Bailey in the interview. “He understands public safety, and he understands justice. We have to have leaders, especially in our state Capitol, who are willing to push for both.”

Her pick also signals concern about Hall, who skipped the Atlanta Press Club debate and refused to answer queries about his absence. He was represented by an empty podium as Bailey leveled sharp attacks about his finances.

Hall has talked about the “pain of being an elected official” as he has stepped up his campaign appearances ahead of the vote.

“You show up when you can, and you’re participating in the process and you allow yourself to be vulnerable on a regular basis,” he said. “I’ve done that as an elected official, I’ve done that as a community leader, and I want to do that as a lieutenant governor.”

He’s also picked up institutional support, including the blessing of several metro Atlanta legislators and the scion of a famous political brand.

Bryan Miller, the grandson of former Gov. Zell Miller and a former candidate for lieutenant governor, called Hall the “most qualified candidate in this race and the one I trust the most.”

‘This is a gamble’

The secretary of state’s race is muddled as well. Nguyen entered the contest as a front-runner with a national profile and a deep fundraising base. The state legislator occupies the Atlanta-based House seat Abrams once held, and she’s built a reputation as a voting rights advocate.

But her opponent, former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, had a strong showing in the primary and is centering her appeal on Black voters who serve as the cornerstone of the party’s base. Both are battling voter confusion in a contest featuring candidates with rhyming first names.

At a Thursday forum hosted by Oconee County Democrats, Nguyen pointed to her debunking of a data analyst’s claims of illegal voting during a live-streamed hearing after the 2020 election to illustrate how she’s been at the “center of the storm” fighting election fraud lies.

“I recognize there’s nothing more pressing than protecting our democracy,” she said, “and I’m prepared to take Brad on in November because he’s not our friend.”

Dawkins-Haigler presented herself as an experienced champion for Black voters she said have been threatened with disenfranchisement by GOP policies.

“I’m ready to serve on day one because this position is so important,” she said. “Talking points aren’t going to get us through.”

Abrams’ third endorsement benefited Boddie, a three-term state legislator from East Point who faces entrepreneur Nicole Horn. Like the other contests, there’s no clear favorite in the race to face Republican Bruce Thompson, who easily won the GOP nod.

“Clearly this is a gamble that Stacey has vetted and hopes will pay off,” said Johnson, the Democratic strategist. “But either way, Democrats will be united around the nominees who are selected in the runoff.”