‘Not over’: Stacey Abrams faces an uphill fight in last week of race

Stacey Abrams remains an elite fundraiser who commands national attention and attracts large crowds. In the span of a week, she campaigned with Oprah Winfrey, Kerry Washington and Latto. She can book appearances on “The View,” MSNBC and even Fox News at the seeming snap of a finger.

But as the Nov. 8 election nears, the Democrat’s campaign is on the defensive against Gov. Brian Kemp. She trails her Republican rival by statistically significant margins in most polls, including an Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey this week that showed him leading 51% to 44%.

Abrams tells supporters to ignore the polls, saying as she did in 2018 that her focus on voters who usually skip midterm elections leads to inaccurate snapshots of the electorate. But the signs of her campaign’s struggle go beyond the latest results.

She alarmed supporters when she recently scaled back her TV advertising spending. Big-money lobbyists are placing financial bets on Kemp’s victory. And a confident Kemp is trying to expand the battleground map while challenging the prized turnout infrastructure Abrams helped build.

It’s unfamiliar ground for Abrams, who was neck-and-neck with Kemp in many polls in 2018. Always an underdog in that contest, she entered this campaign in December with a sense of momentum after the party’s gains in the last election cycle.

“I thought it would be very hard, but not impossible, for Abrams to win against the incumbent governor. I believe the same today,” said former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who invoked her own mayoral bid two decades ago.

“As someone who won my first election in 2001 with barely 50% of the vote, I remain committed to waiting for the last vote to be cast and counted,” she said. “Not one poll predicted a win without a runoff in 2001.”

Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo sounded a similar note.

“The bottom line is Stacey Abrams can win outright. She can win in a runoff. This thing is not over,” she told reporters Monday. “I know many of you in the media have counted us out. We are used to being counted out.”

‘Looking like a middle-of-the-road moderate’

Like Kemp, Abrams had essentially never stopped preparing for another run after her 2018 loss. The Fair Fight Action political organization she launched used staggering fundraising to elevate her priorities, such as promoting voting rights and Medicaid expansion.

When she announced her campaign in early December, Kemp’s fortunes were at a low point.

Former President Donald Trump had made ousting the Republican one of his top goals — he even mused that he’d rather see Abrams elected — and Kemp was booed at GOP gatherings throughout the state. Even some loyalists worried he wouldn’t survive a primary against his one-time ally, ex-U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

But Kemp’s humiliation of Perdue — he defeated the Trump-backed challenger by 52 points — helped unite GOP factions. As Perdue took far-right positions to woo Trump supporters, such as promoting election fraud lies, Kemp benefited by contrast.

“Kemp actually came out of his contested primary stronger, and he came out looking like a middle-of-the-road moderate,” said Rick Dent, a Democratic strategist. “That made him more palatable to key demographic voters,” such as suburban voters he largely ignored in 2018.

Abrams’ image has taken a beating, too, after top Georgia Republicans made her their go-to target for much of the past five years.

About half of likely voters have an unfavorable view of her in the latest AJC poll, while 45% see her in a positive light. By contrast, 51% of voters hold a favorable view of Kemp, and 39% have an unfavorable view of the governor.

The Republican has focused his campaign pitch not on what he would accomplish in a second term, but what he’s done in the first.

“The biggest difference is his record now versus his rhetoric in 2018,” said Fred Hicks, a Democratic strategist. With an impressive fundraising initiative of his own, Kemp has worked to negatively define Abrams and expand his “reach beyond the rural Georgia white base.”

To conservative voters, he can promote fulfilled pledges to roll back gun restrictions and adopt new abortion restrictions that ban the procedure as early as six weeks for many women.

To more moderate audiences, he emphasizes overflowing state coffers — juiced by Democratic-backed federal spending — and an economic policy that in the past year helped land the two biggest projects in state history, massive auto plants from Hyundai and Rivian.

“When a candidate is flailing and falling behind, we often focus on what they did wrong rather than what their opponent has done right,” former Republican state Rep. Ed Lindsey said. “In this year’s governor’s race, Brian Kemp is a known factor who has guided the state through an unprecedented time.”

Dozens of proposals

To shore up support with her party’s base, Abrams has released dozens of policy proposals meant to hone an already sharp contrast between the two rivals.

She has vowed to expand Medicaid, legalize casino gambling to finance new higher education scholarships, dip into the state’s surplus to finance tax rebates and teacher pay raises, and repeal GOP-backed abortion limits and gun expansions.

She’s also leaned into her support for President Joe Biden, whose 37% approval rating in the latest AJC poll has led U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and other Democrats to take a more cautious approach.

While her proposals are designed to appeal to both liberals and moderates, particularly those opposed to the state’s newly enacted abortion limits, her promise of “generational” change has also energized Republicans.

“Stacey’s so over the top with this stuff. It’s almost like Roy Barnes,” Republican state Rep. Alan Powell of Hartwell said of the state’s last Democratic governor, who was defeated in 2002 despite an enormous financial advantage.

“The former governor is one of the smartest guys I know, but when he got to be governor, he wanted to change everything,” Powell said. “We might have been OK with one or two issues, but you can’t do everything. Then you become a social revolutionist in peoples’ minds.”

Students attend a watch party to see the gubernatorial debate between Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, Libertarian challenger Shane Hazel and Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, at Emory University, Atlanta, on Oct. 17, 2022. (Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times)

icon to expand image

Other dynamics are out of her control. Dent, the Democratic strategist, said competing in a political climate with a wobbly economy and an unpopular president set up a situation in which “everything would be easily blamed on Democrats.”

“Running against an incumbent is much harder than running for an open seat, and there is a completely different political environment in 2022,” Dent said. “And in tough economic times, voters tend to believe that Republicans are best on such issues. That’s a tough bias to overcome.”

‘We got this’

Abrams’ supporters say it’s far too early to write her political obituary. More than 1.6 million voters have already cast their ballots, setting a record pace for a midterm, and Abrams’ campaign highlighted a sharp uptick in Black voters when compared with the 2018 contest.

“I can tell you that under the hood of these vote-by-mail numbers we are seeing high rates of infrequent and less frequent voters voting on the Democratic side, really strong performance overall,” Groh-Wargo said.

Hillary Holley, a former Abrams aide now involved in mobilizing left-leaning voters, said the turnout machine has also kicked up its efforts despite concerns “of outsized paid media spending that does not win elections” focused on TV ads over grassroots organizing.

“As of this weekend, over 2 million doors have been knocked, and Georgia’s strong faith organizations are also mobilizing voters of color in areas that will put Stacey Abrams over the edge,” Holley said. “We got this. Organizing always wins.”

Abrams has long urged her supporters to ignore polls she said don’t capture the breadth of her support. She used her final remarks in Sunday’s Channel 2 Action News debate to reinforce that point.

“I want you to know that polls do not see you. But I do,” she said. “And the only poll that matters is the poll at the ballot box.”

Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, former president Barack Obama, and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock campaign at an early voter rally in Atlanta on Oct. 28, 2022.  (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

icon to expand image

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com