Abrams kicks off U.S. tour while 2022 waiting game continues

Democrat Stacey Abrams kicked off a national tour Monday in San Antonio. No stops are planned yet in Georgia. (ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Democrat Stacey Abrams kicked off a national tour Monday in San Antonio. No stops are planned yet in Georgia. (ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

SAN ANTONIO — When Stacey Abrams was introduced at a performance hall on San Antonio’s River Walk, the local TV personality moderating her sold-out appearance lowered her voice to a whisper as she told the audience they just might be seeing the next president.

The Georgia Democrat smiled as KSAT anchor Ursula Pari joked that she was instructed not to start any “rumors” during their conversation. But Abrams needs little help stoking speculation about her political future as she embarks on a nationwide tour that started in South Texas this week.

Though senior Democrats expect Abrams to enter the race for governor, she’s not acting like a potential candidate for statewide office. Then again, Abrams is anything but a typical Georgia candidate. And the reception she received at the Tobin Center served as a reminder of her status in liberal politics.

Her supporters started lining up outside the venue long before her appearance, some paying $200 for a meet-and-greet. Inside, vendors hawked copies of her books and attendees crowded three floors of balconies for a glimpse of the Georgian as she walked in.

Some, such as Odessa Orise, were drawn to the event in support of a Black woman running for higher office. When Abrams took the stage, Orise joined the standing ovation that erupted to welcome her to Texas.

“She should have been governor,” said Orise, who has lived in San Antonio for decades but has family ties to Atlanta. “Voting is personal for her. She’s standing on the shoulders of other Black women, and with that legacy, she can’t help but stand strong.”

Those looking for clues about her political future would have been disappointed. She avoided mention of her defeat to Republican Brian Kemp in 2018 and said nothing of a political comeback next year. When someone called out that she’ll be governor one day, Abrams swallowed a smile and stayed mum.

Instead, the freewheeling discussion focused on other aspects of Abrams’ life. Her childhood adventures teaching horseback riding. Her unapologetic pursuit of the vice presidential nomination last year. And a political philosophy that she said could help boost candidates in red states such as Texas.

She put her approach on display in the opening moments of Monday’s event, when Pari admitted she didn’t vote because she didn’t want to cross journalistic ethical boundaries — and the crowd responded with jeers. Abrams put her hand up until the audience fell silent.

Stacey Abrams, right, raises a hand to quiet a crowd in San Antonio while making a point about politics.

Credit: John David Scarcliff

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Credit: John David Scarcliff

“It’s Organizing 101,” she said. “If somebody tells you where they stand, and your immediate response is to reject what they believe, you’re rejecting who they are.”

‘We have to stop her’

After spending much of the past decade mobilizing Georgia Democrats, Abrams and her allies relished the victories over then-President Donald Trump in November and the January runoff sweep of GOP incumbents that flipped control of the U.S. Senate. It seemed only a matter of time until Abrams launched a rematch against Kemp.

No campaign announcement has come yet, though she need not rush. No credible Democratic candidate has publicly floated the idea of a run for governor in Abrams’ stead, and her powerful fundraising ability allows her to wait until just before qualifying next year to enter the race if she wants.

Republicans are already running against Abrams even if she’s not yet in campaign mode. Candidates for obscure political offices are targeting her, and a group called Stop Stacey stocked with Kemp campaign strategists aims to keep her in front of a GOP battering ram.

The national tour that takes Abrams to a dozen stops through November — none so far in Georgia — has only fueled more talk about her 2022 strategy.

Supporters see it as a feat of organizing strength that no state Republican, and few national politicians for that matter, could pull off. Her critics see it as another sign that her political celebrity has made her home state an afterthought.

“Selfish Stacey is taking her misinformation campaign on the road for one simple reason: to build out a national donor network of left-wing radicals who will bankroll her next ill-advised run for public office,” said Jeremy Brand of the Stop Stacey group. “Stacey is looking out for Stacey, and that’s why we have to stop her in 2022.”

While speaking to a crowd in San Antonio, Democrat Stacey Abrams avoided mention of her defeat to Republican Brian Kemp in Georgia's 2018 race for governor. ALYSSA POINTER / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Top Democrats acknowledge the state party that Abrams helped revive would be in a mess if she decides against a run. Qualifying is in about six months, and Kemp is certain to wield the powers of incumbency to his advantage.

But there’s little public handwringing among senior Democrats. Unlike the last cycle, when Teresa Tomlinson announced she would run for the U.S. Senate if Abrams demurred, no Democrats are suggesting such a move, ceding the field to her.

Abrams has also made clear she doesn’t have to worry about falling behind in fundraising. The Fair Fight voting rights group she launched in late 2018 — which has raised more than $100 million since its creation — outdid even Kemp in fundraising during the first half of this year.

“She can wait as long as she wants to make her announcement, so long as she runs,” said Chip Lake, a veteran GOP strategist. “Anything less would create chaos for Georgia Democrats who want to be unified in their effort to unseat an incumbent governor.”

Howard Franklin, a veteran Democratic strategist, put it a different way.

“We’re all holding our breath collectively for the same outcome: We’re hoping and expecting that Stacey Abrams is going to run in this race,” he said.

“She’s coming to the 2022 race with a number of enviable assets she didn’t have in 2018. She won’t face any meaningful Democratic challenger. She’s a fundraising power. She’s an icon to Democrats. And she’s coalescing all that. She’s going to be formidable.”

‘In the arena’

The governor has problems beyond Abrams, of course. Trump and his loyalists have vowed revenge after Kemp refused to illegally overturn the November election results, and state Republicans worry about a repeat of the January runoffs when hundreds of thousands of conservatives stayed home.

Trump continues to focus on Georgia. He’s set to appear at a rally this weekend in Perry to highlight a slate of candidates he’s endorsed for top offices. Though Trump hasn’t backed any of Kemp’s long-shot rivals, he hasn’t let up in his attacks against the governor.

Abrams has made little mention of the internal GOP feuding over Trump, content to let warring Republican factions duke it out. But she’s been an outspoken critic of the new obstacles to voting adopted in Georgia, Texas and several other states by pro-Trump legislators invoking falsehoods about widespread election fraud.

Former President Donald Trump is set to hold a rally Saturday in Perry, where he will likely attack Gov. Brian Kemp, who refused to illegally overturn the results of the state's presidential vote in November. Democrat Stacey Abrams has said little about the feud within the Republican Party, although she has attacked new voting laws in Georgia, Texas and other states that were fueled by the false cries of election fraud by Trump and his supporters. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

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Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

At Monday’s rally, Abrams called a new Texas voting law “fundamentally anti-patriotic” and traced a line from its passage to a Georgia statute adopted earlier this year that “makes voting harder and it solves not a single problem.” Republican supporters say the laws bring more confidence to the electoral system.

Abrams’ voting rights stance, in particular, has appeared to galvanize her far-flung supporters. Jo Betsy Booker, a retiree who arrived about an hour early to Abrams’ event in San Antonio, was one of many attendees who said she was drawn to the Georgian by her calls to expand the Democratic electorate.

“She feels that your voice is your power,” said Booker, a retiree who has followed Abrams’ political career. “That’s the only way to change these things that aren’t right. I hope she runs for president one day.”

Though Abrams has frequently talked about her White House ambitions, she steered clear of the topic at the event. Instead, she offered a hint that she would stay in the center of the political swirl in the form of advice to a teenager at the end of the program.

“The world is going to impact us one way or another. I’d rather be in the arena shaping the outcome,” Abrams said. “I’d rather be part of the doing than a part of the done unto.”