ATLANTA — Stacey Abrams will make another run at the Georgia governor’s mansion in 2022, potentially setting the stage for a fiery rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp and testing how much Georgia’s political winds have truly shifted since her narrow loss in 2018.
In an announcement video posted Wednesday to Abrams’ social media, she touted the voting rights and civic work she accomplished since 2018 and pledged to work for the economic equality of all Georgians.
“Opportunity and success in Georgia shouldn’t be determined by your ZIP code, background or access to power,” Abrams said in the video, which featured subtitles in English and Spanish. “But if our Georgia is going to move to its next and greatest chapter, we are going to need leadership. Leadership that knows how to do the job. Leadership that doesn’t take credit without also taking responsibility. Leadership that works hard. Leadership that measures progress not by stats but by our ability for everyone to move up and thrive. Leadership that understands the true pain folks are feeling and has real plans. That’s the job of governor. To fight for One Georgia. Our Georgia. And now, we need to get the job done.”
The only real surprise in Abrams’ announcement was its timing — no other Democrat has waded into the race, largely because Abrams was expected to enter.
If she wins, she will be Georgia’s first black and first female governor as well as the first Democrat to hold the office since Roy Barnes’ defeat nearly 20 years ago.
Abrams lost to Kemp by about 55,000 votes out of nearly 4 million. She famously accepted Kemp as the winner but refused to concede the race, claiming Kemp, who was then secretary of state, inappropriately removed Georgians from voting rolls. Her defiance won her scorn from Republicans, who have painted Democrats as hypocrites for mocking their concerns about the 2020 presidential election while supporting Abrams’ complaints about 2018.
Putting aside the merits of charges by the two sides, the claims are likely to have different effects on turnout, University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said.
“What we saw happening last year, earlier this year, is the Republican message that the political system is not to be trusted depressed Republican turnout, which may have cost them two Senate seats or certainly went a ways toward doing that,” he said. “The Abrams message will be that Republicans are trying to keep you from voting. And that will have a mobilizing effect that will encourage some people who maybe weren’t sure they’re gonna vote — once they’re told somebody’s trying to keep you from doing that, that’ll spur them to say, ‘Nobody’s going to keep me from voting,’ and they’ll go vote.
“So these two messages may have very different kinds of consequences. If the Republican message reduces Republican turnout and the Democratic message increases Democratic turnout, that could be the ball game.”
Abrams’ voting rights activism following her loss would propel her to the national spotlight. Her Fair Fight organization has registered hundreds of thousands of new voters, and Democrats would call her efforts instrumental in helping President Biden win Georgia as well as in electing Democratic U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
Shortly before the 2020 election, then-candidate Kamala Harris gave Abrams a shout-out from a Gwinnett County rally.
“I’m so thankful to her for the work that she has been doing for years to fight for Georgians and the right to vote, what she has been doing for years to fight that good fight, often with just thankless energy, but she keeps giving, and all that we are looking to now in terms of Georgia and the prospects of what we might accomplish in this state, in large part, we have to say thank you, Stacey Abrams, for the work you have done,” Harris said.
Down-ballot Democrats are likely thanking their lucky stars for the confirmation that Abrams will be on the ballot and hoping she will encourage more Democratic-leaning voters to turn out to the polls, said Amy Steigerwalt, political science professor at Georgia State University.
“Of course, 2022 is a mid-term election, so it’s not totally an off-year election like the mayoral race that we just had, but it’s not a presidential year, so in that sense, her being on the ballot is going to have a greater effect there,” Steigerwalt said. “And I think actually her being on the ballot along with Sen. Warnock, I think the two of them in particular, kind of in tandem, will help with a lot of the turnout on the Democratic side. On the Republican side, that’s probably going to be aided by whoever is the senatorial candidate, likely Herschel Walker, and Gov. Kemp. But on the Democratic side, definitely. I think she will help a lot with turnout.”
Abrams’ work since 2018 has greatly expanded her profile outside of Georgia as well — a July Hill-HarrisX poll found 15% of Democratic voters said they would consider voting for Abrams in a hypothetical 2024 Democratic presidential primary.
In an announcement email, Abrams’ campaign said Georgia Democrats are “riding a wave of momentum into the gubernatorial race,” citing statewide wins in Tuesday’s local elections. But if Abrams does wind up moving into the governor’s mansion, getting there won’t be a cakewalk.
A November poll from Redfield & Wilton Strategies gave a narrow edge to Kemp, with 47% of the vote to Abrams’ 44% and 4% of respondents saying they don’t know.
What’s more, a year out from the election, the president’s popularity is waning in Georgia, with his net favorability at minus four in October, down from a positive 11 in April, according to Morning Consult.
If top Republicans were scared of Abrams, they didn’t show it.
“The RNC is excited to have another opportunity to deliver a crushing blow to Stacey’s political aspirations by, yet again, denying her the keys to the governor’s mansion come November 2022,” Garrison Douglas, Georgia press secretary for the Republican National Committee, said.
Republican talking points are likely to be repeated over the next 11 months, but they are not terribly surprising, said Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie.
“Some of this terrain is certainly new, but what’s not new is the idea that she was portrayed as an out-of-touch leftist in 2018,” Gillespie said. “(Kemp) is hewing to more national themes, not surprising, as our politics have become more nationalized, even in the state of Georgia. What I suspect, what he has to prepare for, in terms of his own weak points, especially if omicron flares and we’re still really in the throes of COVID by next fall, might be the ways that Abrams would try to take Kemp to task for his laissez-faire kind of attitude toward COVID. So both candidates will have fodder to attack their opponents.”
Kemp may have honed his attacks over the past three years, but he would still be wise not to underestimate his former rival, Bullock said.
“She has name recognition equal to that of the governor, and that certainly helps her,” he said. “If she were some state legislator jumping into this, she’d have to spend millions of dollars getting name recognition. She doesn’t have to spend a nickel getting name recognition. She’s not converting any Republicans, but she will mobilize Democrats better than anybody else.”
Republicans have suggested Abrams also will mobilize conservative voters to try and stop her, but Steigerwalt said that effect may be exaggerated.
“Certainly, there’s been a big group that wants to stop her, but I think she also activates Democrats in an equally strong way, if not an even stronger way, and so that works to her favor at the end of the day,” she said. “What matters most is for her is whether she can get her people to turn out, and I think that she has shown that she’s terrifically successful at that.”
And before Kemp can technically be in the fight against Stacey Abrams, he’ll need to secure the Republican nomination. His only competition at the moment is former state Rep. Vernon Jones, a longtime Democrat who now touts 2020 election conspiracy theories and is considered by many to be a fringe candidate.
But former Sen. David Perdue could potentially put up more of a fight in a GOP primary, especially with the support of former President Trump, who soured on the governor after the 2020 election and Kemp’s perceived failure to change the results.
A survey paid for by the former president’s Save America PAC found a Trump-endorsed Perdue would defeat Kemp in a primary race, according to Politico.
“That’s the next big wildcard that we have to consider,” Gillespie said. “Now all eyes will turn to whether or not David Perdue was serious in his potential challenge to Brian Kemp for the nomination.”