Stacey Abrams hasn’t said if she’ll run for governor. Republicans aren’t waiting.

12/14/2020 —  Atlanta, Georgia —  Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams speaks to members of Georgia’s Electoral College before they cast their ballot in the Georgia Senate Chambers at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Monday, December 14, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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12/14/2020 — Atlanta, Georgia — Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams speaks to members of Georgia’s Electoral College before they cast their ballot in the Georgia Senate Chambers at the Georgia State Capitol building in Atlanta, Monday, December 14, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

NEWNAN — Midway through a town hall with dozens of antsy conservatives, U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson’s voice took on a grave tone while telling a local voter why he’s wary of legislation that bans companies from requiring vaccines.

“What happens, God forbid, if you get someone like Stacey Abrams in there, and then she tells the corporations other things they can’t do,” Ferguson said, asking the crowd at the Redneck Gourmet to contemplate a future with a Democratic governor of Georgia.

The Abrams fearmongering is no anomaly in state GOP politics. At rowdy rallies and upscale donor gatherings, in TV ads and social media messages, Abrams remains the top target of Georgia Republicans even though she’s not yet running for anything.

Even while Abrams remains mostly silent about a potential rematch next year against Gov. Brian Kemp, Republicans are acting like her candidacy is a sure thing. So are senior Democrats, who expect her to line up against Kemp in the not-so-distant future.

Indeed, Abrams might now easily surpass House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the favorite punching bag of Georgia conservatives. Republicans running for offices from county commissioner to Congress are tearing into Abrams, warning that the Democrat poses a dire threat to GOP control of the Governor’s Mansion.

“The mindset of this movement is you will conform and you will obey — otherwise we will ruin your life and ruin your family. That’s not America. That’s the vision of Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock,” said Latham Saddler, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate who is running against Warnock, not Abrams.

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In 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost the governor's race to Republican Brian Kemp. Since then, her national profile has soared, gaining her some consideration as a running mate for Joe Biden. She also has started a number of influential advocacy groups and grown her media platform, with lucrative book projects in the works. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

In 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost the governor's race to Republican Brian Kemp. Since then, her national profile has soared, gaining her some consideration as a running mate for Joe Biden. She also has started a number of influential advocacy groups and grown her media platform, with lucrative book projects in the works. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Combined ShapeCaption
In 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost the governor's race to Republican Brian Kemp. Since then, her national profile has soared, gaining her some consideration as a running mate for Joe Biden. She also has started a number of influential advocacy groups and grown her media platform, with lucrative book projects in the works. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The most recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed why Abrams is a popular target. Voters were split on Abrams’ favorability rating. But 89% of Republicans gave her an unfavorable rating, compared with just 6% who had a positive view of her. Her numbers among Democrats were the opposite.

State Rep. Al Williams, one of Abrams’ oldest friends, chuckled at the GOP attempts to rattle the Democrat. He’s among the many allies of Abrams’ who expect her to try to avenge her narrow defeat to Kemp next year.

“When I was in school, the folk at the bottom of the class disliked the people at the top. I’m not surprised that anyone running for coroner to Kemp are knocking her,” the Democrat said. “They’re just throwing red meat because they don’t have an agenda for this state — or an agenda for coroner.”

On the cusp?

Abrams certainly hasn’t acted like someone on the cusp of jumping into one of the nation’s premier political races.

She recently announced a nationwide tour of “exciting conversations on politics, leadership and social justice” that will take her from San Antonio to Durham, N.C., from September to November — with no events scheduled yet in Georgia.

And her soaring national profile since her 2018 defeat has afforded her new options. She was considered as a running mate for Joe Biden. She started a constellation of influential advocacy groups. And she’s grown her media platform, with lucrative book projects in the works.

As for revenge, she already got a dose of that with Warnock’s runoff victory in January over the governor’s hand-picked Senate appointment. Winning the governor’s office, some observers speculate, might not be as important to her as it once seemed.

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Raphael Warnock bumps elbows with Stacey Abrams during a campaign rally in December. Warnock's victory in January's U.S. Senate runoff over Gov. Brian Kemp's hand-picked candidate, GOP incumbent Kelly Loeffler, may have provided a dose of revenge for Abrams after her narrow loss to Kemp in 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Raphael Warnock bumps elbows with Stacey Abrams during a campaign rally in December. Warnock's victory in January's U.S. Senate runoff over Gov. Brian Kemp's hand-picked candidate, GOP incumbent Kelly Loeffler, may have provided a dose of revenge for Abrams after her narrow loss to Kemp in 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Raphael Warnock bumps elbows with Stacey Abrams during a campaign rally in December. Warnock's victory in January's U.S. Senate runoff over Gov. Brian Kemp's hand-picked candidate, GOP incumbent Kelly Loeffler, may have provided a dose of revenge for Abrams after her narrow loss to Kemp in 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Leading Democrats aren’t taking that prospect seriously. While Republicans have grown tired of waiting on Herschel Walker to make up his mind on a U.S. Senate bid, no viable Democrat has entered the race for governor.

Not only has Abrams frozen the field, she recently offered a reminder why she need not rush. The Fair Fight voting rights group she launched has raised more than $100 million since she lost the 2018 vote — and outraised Kemp during the first half of the year.

“She has also raised her profile to the degree that Georgians will see Abrams as a serious contender,” said Adrienne Jones, a Morehouse College political scientist. “She already provides well-respected leadership in the state.”

In short, her allies say, she’s got the financial power, name recognition and party support to bide her time.

‘Unifying power’

Republicans get that sense, too, which is why she’s front and center. At a Republican rally in Rome, talk was full of Abrams, from candidates for labor commissioner up to higher levels. State Sen. Burt Jones launched his campaign for lieutenant governor at that event — and days later aired a debut commercial that featured Abrams.

“If there wasn’t any cheating and fraud in the 2020 election, why every time we call for a full investigation does Stacey Abrams and the Democrats respond like this?” Jones said in the ad, which cuts to a montage of ear-splitting screams.

Mike Collins is one of a number of Republicans running to represent a deeply conservative U.S. House district in northeast Georgia, and he frequently invokes Abrams’ name. During a stop in rural Glascock County, he made a point to rib Abrams’ for mispronouncing the county’s name during her last campaign.

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Brian Kemp, who narrowly avoided a runoff against Stacey Abrams in the 2018 governor's race, mentions her frequently in public appearances. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Brian Kemp, who narrowly avoided a runoff against Stacey Abrams in the 2018 governor's race, mentions her frequently in public appearances. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Brian Kemp, who narrowly avoided a runoff against Stacey Abrams in the 2018 governor's race, mentions her frequently in public appearances. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

No one, of course, mentions Abrams as often as Kemp, who essentially never stopped running against her after he narrowly avoided being forced into a runoff. As Abrams criticizes his refusal to institute masking requirements, he’s quick to invoke his decision to reopen the economy.

“Do you remember the national outrage? Do you remember the headlines? It was going to be a death experiment and I was an idiot,” the first-term Republican said at a recent event.

“You had Stacey Abrams saying he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He should keep the economy closed,” Kemp said. “Well make no mistake, I will always work hard to support our small business owners.”

Williams, the Democratic legislator, predicted Abrams would counter that message with a call for a more aggressive coronavirus strategy and a promise to expand Medicaid, an issue that Republicans have long opposed as too costly in the long run.

“I really do expect her to run. Georgia needs her. We’re in crisis after crisis. We’re here now dealing with the delta variant and we’re not doing the logical things that help, like expanding Medicaid,” Williams said. “We’re driven by naysayers and not driven by science.”

Many Republicans welcome the expected matchup. Stephen Lawson, a veteran Republican strategist, said swing voters’ reaction to Abrams’ “leftward lurch,” along with backlash to the Biden administration, will determine how 2022 unfolds.

Said Lawson, “Never underestimate the unifying power Stacey Abrams can bring to Republicans in Georgia.”