Abrams says she will ‘likely run again.’ That doesn’t excite some Democrats

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks to voters in November in Decatur during her 2022 bid for governor. Whether she should make another bid for Georgia's top office in the future is now sparking debates within her party. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks to voters in November in Decatur during her 2022 bid for governor. Whether she should make another bid for Georgia's top office in the future is now sparking debates within her party. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

The audience at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts erupted into prolonged applause when one of the nation’s best-known Democrats entered the room.

It wasn’t for Vice President Kamala Harris, who would arrive a few minutes later. Instead, the packed crowd gave Stacey Abrams a standing ovation as she made one of her first public appearances since she lost her rematch with Gov. Brian Kemp in November.

Since then, she’s promoted her new books, joined an advocacy group promoting electrification, and traveled to Nigeria to serve as an international election observer. In a handful of interviews, she’s suggested her next step is uncertain but that she’ll “likely run again.”

Abrams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she will continue to run organizations that “address critical needs and achieve long-term change.”

“Political office is simply one tool for the issues I am committed to tackling,” she said, “and I will engage all sectors to serve.”

Whether that means a third run for governor or another office is anyone’s guess. But interviews with more than three dozen Democratic officials, party leaders and activists suggest she may not have the same unified support she enjoyed after her first defeat to Kemp in 2018.

Her loss in that race catapulted her to greater prominence. She delivered the Democratic response to the State of the Union in 2019, flirted with a presidential bid and was courted to run for the U.S. Senate before she waged a rematch for governor. Now, many Democrats are ready to move on.

“I do believe there might be another charismatic Democrat that can take us all the way in 2026,” said Yvonne Stuart, the chair of Monroe County’s Democratic Party. “There was major talent on our ticket all the way down the ticket in 2022.”

Like many other Democrats, Stuart praised Abrams’ work mobilizing voters and laying the groundwork for the party’s 2020 gains. But she said she worried that Abrams lost partly because “she fell into the trap of becoming too much of a celebrity” in between her campaigns.

Some cited frustration with Abrams’ second campaign for office, which ended in a nearly 8-point defeat to Kemp. Weeks after that loss, Abrams’ longtime aide Lauren Groh-Wargo issued a 52-part social media post that said it was “nearly impossible” for her candidate to win.

Others expressed concern about the cash crunch that left Abrams’ campaign without enough money to air TV ads in the final weeks of her bid despite a record-breaking haul of more than $100 million.

And several said it was time for Abrams to make way for up-and-coming Democrats, just as others made way for her to emerge five years ago when her primary victory made her the first Black woman in the nation to become a major party’s nominee for governor.

In Georgia's 2018 race for governor, Democrat Stacey Abrams came within 1.4 percentage points of beating Republican Brian Kemp. The margin wasn't nearly as close in her bid last year to unseat Kemp. (Alyssa Pointer/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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David Ellis-Mendoza, the chair of the Bartow County Democrats, said while he’s grateful for Abrams’ leadership and vision, her team “repeatedly” passed on the opportunity to build ties with rural and exurban counties.

“I believe that there are opportunities for others to step up to the plate and run for governor,” said Ellis-Mendoza, who stressed the need for a candidate who can reach more independent voters in Kemp’s mold.

Still, party leaders acknowledged Abrams could be an unstoppable force in a Democratic primary thanks to her name recognition, fundraising ability, voter mobilization efforts and deep connection with the party’s base.

“Far be it from me to tell her what to do or what not to do,” said Pete Fuller, chair of the Jackson County Democrats. “Georgia Democrats owe her a huge debt of gratitude for the work done over the last decade-plus to make this state competitive, and she will have support in another run.”

An open race

Just who would step up to run in 2026 if Abrams stands aside is up in the air — a far different scenario than Democrats faced last year when the party unified behind her second run against Kemp.

Not long ago, the party was desperate to recruit statewide contenders. But the rapid rise of U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, buoyed by the get-out-the-vote infrastructure Abrams helped build, has opened new doorways for the party’s candidates.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, former President Barack Obama, center, and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock campaign together in October in Atlanta. While Warnock is ascending as a star in the party, some Democrats say it's time for Abrams to move aside to let others run. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

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Among the potential contenders are U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath; former state Sen. Jen Jordan, who lost to Attorney General Chris Carr in 2022; and Jason Carter, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2014. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and his predecessor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, could also mount statewide campaigns.

The Republican field will be wide open, too, with Kemp blocked from running for a third term. Carr, Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are all potential candidates.

That could play into Abrams’ favor, said Ingrid Landis-Davis, the chair emerita of the Douglas County Democratic Party, who wants to see Abrams wage another comeback attempt.

“I think she would fare better in an open race. She still has a strong support base among women, at least, from my perspective as a constituent outreach organizer. We learn new lessons with each campaign,” Landis-Davis said. “Her supportive organizations are still intact.”

‘Next Guy Millner?’

Others say a third run would be doomed from the start. Bobby Kahn, the former head of the Democratic Party of Georgia, is among the Democrats pressing Abrams to move on.

“The party needs to move forward. And going 0-3 isn’t a way to go forward. Does she really want to be the next Guy Millner?” Kahn said, a reference to the wealthy Republican executive who lost three statewide races between 1994 and 1998.

“She can’t just chalk it up to running against an incumbent,” Kahn said. “She raised a record amount of money. And Democrats in 49 other states thought she would win.

Wealthy Republican Guy Millner ran for statewide office three times in the 1990s and lost each contest. Some Georgia Democrats warn that Stacey Abrams could match his record if she made another bid for the governorship.

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“She will still be hard to beat in a primary. You have to hope she comes to this conclusion herself. There are a lot of rising leaders in the party ready to step in.”

Melissa Clink, the 6th District Democratic chair, said she “selfishly” wants to see Abrams return to the state Legislature. But she said it’s just as important to revive her voter mobilization operation in local and state races.

“You cannot deny her leadership, intelligence and tenacity, and I look forward to seeing where she decides to focus her attention next,” Clink said.

That message was echoed by Cathi Frederiksen, the Democratic chair for the 12th Congressional District, who said the party must focus on “training and developing a strong bench” rather than dwelling on Abrams’ future.

For her part, Abrams has been mum about her future. At the Georgia Tech event, she pointed to Georgia’s role as one of a handful of competitive states on the party’s roadmap to keeping the White House in 2024.

“We know that Georgia is a battleground state, and that means we’re always fighting to move forward,” she said. “And we’re excited about the work.”

Read Abrams’ full statement on her future:

“I have consistently leveraged my leadership skills to run nonprofit, corporate and public organizations to address critical needs and achieve long-term change. I will continue to grow my portfolio as a writer and producer. I will also apply my skills to advocate for expanded electric energy usage for low and moderate income families as well as heavy industry, train a new generation of policymakers and political thinkers, secure capital for small businesses and strengthen democracy and voting rights. Political office is simply one tool for the issues I am committed to tackling, and I will engage all sectors to serve.”