‘Stacey led the parade’: Many praise Abrams for Dems’ resurgence in Georgia

Ground game, years in the making, pays off
Former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams drew widespread praise for the party's performance in the state during this week's election. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams drew widespread praise for the party's performance in the state during this week's election. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

The election results in Georgia are not final, but for the first time in nearly 30 years, a Democratic nominee for president edged ahead in the vote count when former Vice President Joe Biden moved past President Donald Trump in the state early Friday morning.

Two Republican U.S. senators in the state have been forced into a runoff, and suburban seats on county commissions, school boards and the General Assembly are leaning toward the Democrats for the first time in a generation.

Republicans still control all statewide offices and the lion’s share of county posts. But if there is a single person who deserves the credit for Georgia’s potential move to blue, at least at the top of the ticket in 2020, many fellow Democrats believe it is Stacey Abrams.

“Stacey led the parade,” former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said Friday as she waited for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff to address supporters about his apparent runoff Jan. 5. against Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue. “She provided the kind of leadership that reached out to every county in the state, that understood that every Georgian needed to understand the value of politics and public policy. And she’s been doing that for five, six, seven, eight years. Prior to her own election.”

Nikema Williams, the congresswoman-elect for the 5th Congressional District and first black chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, agreed.

“There had been civil rights organizations registering voters year after year, but Stacey brought the game to scale," Williams said. "She raised money across the country and sold the belief system in Georgia that if we register voters, if we build it, they’ll come. If we build it, the state will flip.”

Georgia has not “flipped,” but it has become significantly more competitive for Democrats after nearly 20 years of single-party rule by Republicans.

On Friday, The Associated Press declared Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux the winner in the 7th Congressional District, the second new seat in Congress that state Democrats have won in as many years.

While demographic trends have been pushing modest gains for Democrats since 2012, Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University, said that Abrams has accelerated the change.

“It was Democrats being led by Stacey Abrams, learning how to organize a state and learning how to target, register and mobilize voters," Gillespie said. "If they had just gone with their status quo inertia, you would have seen the tightening, but it would have taken a longer time.”

‘A new playbook’

Abrams was first elected to the Georgia House in 2006 and served 10 years in the chamber, including six as House minority leader. She rocketed to national prominence in 2018 as the Democratic nominee for governor, losing by 1.4 percentages points to Brian Kemp.

But it has been her less visible work — focusing on the unglamorous nuts and bolts of voter registration in Georgia and across the country — that has led to her outsized impact today.

In 2013, she founded the New Georgia Project to create a vast infrastructure to find, register and turn out Democratic voters in the state, especially those in minority communities who had long been overlooked by Democratic Party leaders.

After the 2018 race, she launched Fair Fight and Fair Fight Action, which made the effort national and became fundraising juggernauts, raising more than $32 million in the 2020 election cycle, with millions going to state Democratic parties to register and turn out voters in November.

Along with focusing on voter turnout, Abrams also urged Democrats to abandon the habit of soft-pedaling their message.

That was a change Williams called “a new playbook.”

“I think Stacey showed us that it’s OK to be bold and unapologetic about who you are and stand strongly in your belief system," she said.

Imara Canady, who worked under three Atlanta mayors, first met Abrams when she was a student at Spelman College and has followed her career.

“That is what Stacey has done for all people, particularly our young people, particularly for people of color, particularly for women, particularly for our immigrant community,” Canady said. “She simply said, ‘I see you, I hear you and you matter.’ ”

Friday morning

As Georgia vote counts began to show Biden winning Georgia early Friday morning, everyone from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr singled out Abrams for the credit on social media.

But Abrams took to Twitter and named the other organizations and organizers she’s shared the work with over the past 10 years, including former Democratic Party Chair DuBose Porter and the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis. “My heart is full," she wrote

To Abrams' point, no movement, and most especially the voting rights movement, is built or executed by a single person.

When MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms how much credit Abrams deserves for Biden’s showing in Georgia. “I think Stacey, I think a combination of groups," Bottoms said, adding, “At the end of the day, all of the credit for this win will go to Joe Biden and the Biden team. They believed in Georgia.”

Grassroots growing

As much as Abrams has been praised by celebrities, Georgia voters brought her up frequently on the campaign trail in 2020.

While Marilee Dunn waited for Ossoff to speak at a rally earlier this month, she said she believed Georgia had become competitive in 2020 because of Abrams.

“I think like Stacey said, we’re not a red state," she said. “We’re just blue and confused.”

On Election Day, Reggie Gaultney, 38, said he wasn’t especially excited about either Trump or Biden, but he said he felt “robbed” in 2018 when Abrams ran against Kemp and lost. 2020 was his do-over.

He voted for Biden.