OPINION: In Stacey Abrams’ shadow, the Democratic bench got walloped

Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams listens as she is introduced to supporters at a restaurant in historic College Park during the “Let’s Get It Done” bus tour, Thursday, October 20, 2022, in College Park, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams listens as she is introduced to supporters at a restaurant in historic College Park during the “Let’s Get It Done” bus tour, Thursday, October 20, 2022, in College Park, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

The 2022 midterms did not go according to plan for Democrats in Georgia. Not only did Stacey Abrams lose to Gov. Brian Kemp by eight points, but every statewide Democrat except U.S. Raphael Warnock went down in defeat Tuesday, too.

Included in the wreckage were some of the Democrats’ best and brightest hopes for the future. State Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta attorney whose Senate speech against Georgia’s abortion bill went viral in 2019, was the nominee for attorney general. State Rep. Bee Nguyen, the secretary of state nominee, had been named the national rising star of the year by EMILY’s List.

Sorting out what went wrong for the party will take time and something close to a forensic analysis. Was it the message or the messenger? The policies or the plans? Democrats’ failures or Republican success?

For now, Democrats in the state are trying to regroup and figure out what happens next. But as one Democrat told me candidly, “If the governor nominee runs eight points back, you’re not going to outrun that.”

I caught up with Jordan Thursday after she’d had her first good night’s sleep in months and a chance to look back. Like nearly all Democrats I talked to, she said that Kemp and Brad Raffensperger’s battles with former President Donald Trump had managed to neutralize the Trump factor in Georgia in a way that helped nearly all Republicans.

“I think that Kemp and Raffensperger and (Attorney General Chris) Carr got credit for not bowing to Trump,” she said. “So if the democracy thing is your main motivator, which it was for a lot of moderates and independents I talked to, that starts to add up.”

Jordan posted big numbers for a down-ballot contest. She raised $3.6 million and, as her statement after the election specifically noted, finished with more votes than any other statewide Democrat except Warnock. But that was still far short of victory.

She still believes Georgia is a battleground state, but that the party needs a year-round plan to win before elections come around.

“We’ve got to listen to voters more, and really try to tell them what we’re going to do based on that listening instead of based on some assumptions,” she said.

Charlie Bailey, the nominee for lieutenant governor, lost to GOP state Sen. Burt Jones. Like Jordan, he raised a huge amount of money — more than $3 million — and also finished about five points behind.

But he’s not second-guessing his race. “In truth, there’s not a decision I would have made differently,” he said. Bailey hammered Jones for months over his role as a fake elector for Trump in 2020. It narrowed his margin with Jones, but still didn’t get the job done.

“It is important that the people of Georgia have some sort of memory about how close (election lies) can get to home and the potential consequences if it goes the wrong way,” he said.

Bailey is getting married in April and going back to his law practice full-time. And if there’s another chance to run for office that makes sense, “I’ll certainly consider it.”

Another down-ballot casualty of 2022 was state Rep. Erick Allen, who was already running for lieutenant governor when Abrams suggested that Bailey get into the race, too. He said the “tinkering of the ticket” definitely didn’t help him, but that he thinks Abrams had run a reasonably good campaign otherwise.

Like Jordan, he said Kemp’s feud against Trump seemed to help the governor in a way that lifted the entire GOP ticket. He also saw Kemp’s primary race against former Sen. David Perdue create energy for the governor’s campaign that Abrams couldn’t match when she eventually began campaigning in June.

Allen is back to his day job in the private sector , for now, and launching a podcast called “Policy Matters. ”I think there will be a lot of talent outside of the Capitol. But I don’t think that anyone’s going to be a shrinking violet,” he said. “I do believe you will find all of us back on a ballot. I know for sure I’m not done.”

It wasn’t all bad news Tuesday night for Democrats. They picked up at least two seats in the state House and one seat in the state Senate, even after Republicans redrew the lines. The fresh faces will increase Democrats’ margins in the General Assembly and repopulate the chambers with the kind of members likely to run for higher office in the future.

Sarah Riggs Amico knows the drill. She was the lieutenant governor nominee in 2018 when Abrams came within 55,000 votes of beating Kemp.

If she could have changed something in the Democrats’ playbook in 2022, it was their economic message.

“I think we need to sharpen our economic message. Inflation is not just a Georgia problem, it is not a Joe Biden problem, and it’s sure as hell not a Stacey Abrams problem,” she said. “It’s a global phenomenon.”

She also didn’t hear enough Democrats like Abrams defending Biden or his role in managing the economy.

Far from blaming Abrams for the down-ballot losses, Amico said Abrams should get the credit for making Georgia competitive in the first place.

“She built this infrastructure,” Amico said. “Nobody believed Georgia was winnable for Democrats, including Georgia Democrats.”

The next task for Democrats is getting Raphael Warnock reelected to the U.S. Senate, a job made easier, Amico said, by the money that’s poured into the state since 2018 after Abrams nearly won.

But after that, they’re going to need to do some soul-searching. The biggest star among them failed to deliver on Tuesday, miserably. The next eight in line are out of the game altogether.

If they aren’t honest with themselves about why it happened, they won’t win another statewide race any time soon.