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The Art of Losing: A Stacey Abrams Story, Part I
How a state legislator found a path to national fame, and the true political history of the state she claimed only she could save.
On May 14, 2020, the Washington Post published an article on a politician. By itself, this statement is hardly extraordinary. National media outlets, especially those in Washington, D.C., write about politicians all the time. It might be their favorite thing to do in the world. And when they write these articles, they have a focus: a story they are trying to tell. Such stories are usually things like a politician’s stances, or their strategies, or even their scandals. But this article was somewhat different. It was, from the start, about power. And just in case this point couldn’t be made clear with words, they chose to take a photo of their subject meant to demonstrate their sheer power.
This politician—shot as a silhouette, on a smoky background, wearing a resplendent white cape—was Georgia’s own Stacey Abrams. And in this long, exclusive article and interview, the Washington Post did not dare say even single a critical word about her. It opened by comparing her political magnetism to Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; it closed by comparing her to temperament and experience to Robert Kennedy. It gushed over her backstory, writing her as the heir to the Civil Rights Movement itself. It made the case as to why she should be the Vice Presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in 2020. And presenting it all to the Washington Post’s readers was a title: “The Power of Stacey Abrams.”
It could be easy to forget when reading this piece that Stacey Abrams had never won a statewide election in her life.
By itself, this is just a single bizarre, hagiographic article. But it is also a perfect representation of her career. No person in the history of American politics has earned so much from losing as Stacey Yvonne Abrams. Where other politicians would have seen the end of their careers, Abrams has managed to leverage constant losses, setbacks, scandals and underperformances into status as a national celebrity. By telling liberals exactly what they wanted to hear, and being exactly what they wanted to see, she reached a status of near-sainthood among in-state and out-of-state Democratic voters and elites that has withstood practically everything. She is both the harbinger and architect of the future of politics. She is an unstoppable juggernaut and a martyr betrayed. She is a myth.
But beyond Abrams the myth has always been Abrams the politician: the candidate on the ballot and the de-facto party leader, tasked with leading tickets, appealing to voters, and executing a game plan that would ultimately lead to Georgia Democrats taking political control. This side of Abrams has never been reviewed in a meaningful way. She is always covered on her own terms. Her strategies, despite being remarkably simplistic, are never critically examined. Her appeal is assumed, rather than examined. When the state party loses, the loss is dismissed or just outright ignored. When it wins, she is always the first to receive credit, even if the success had nothing to do with her.
This is malpractice. The State of Georgia is not a fantasyland. It is not a testing ground where any exciting figure should be provided with a blank check to peruse a strategy if it is inspiring and heartwarming enough. It is a state of 11 million people, with elections that have meaningful, deadly consequences. If a politician fails here, repeatedly, in environments where success is entirely possible, they should not be coddled, or made into poignant symbols, or provided with endless excuses for every mistake. They should be examined ruthlessly.
This is such an examination of Stacey Abrams: the history of her career from her rise to prominence in the mid-2010s to her landslide loss in her second gubernatorial run a month ago, and the history of the party that she claimed she would save. In the final analysis, it is clear: Abrams has not been a constructive figure. She has been a deeply destructive one, leading Georgia Democrats at a statewide level with a flawed strategy that has empowered Georgia’s far-right for potentially decades to come. To understand the full extent of this trail of destruction—how Abrams has failed according to every conceivable metric, even her own—you need to start at the very beginning.
1872-2002: The Rise of the Georgia Republican Party
For as long as the Democrat-vs-Republican two-party system had existed, Georgia was a Democratic stronghold, kept in their column every election for a near-century because of almost unanimous support for the party among Southern white votes. But like in the rest of the South, these voters rejected the leftward drift of the Democratic Party that was solidified under the Kennedy-Johnson administrations of the 1960s. After the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they would abandon the Democratic Party at the national level. As a result, Georgia voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964, George Wallace in 1968, and swung hard for Richard Nixon in 1972. And while hometown hero and former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter would easily win the state in both his 1976 and 1980 campaigns, this proved to be an exception. The second President Carter left the national ticket, Georgia immediately started voting for Republican Presidential candidates again. Even the nomination of two Southern politicians on a centrist platform in 1992 only managed to briefly make Georgia a swing state, and still one that was to the right of the nation.
But unlike other states in the South, Republican strength in Presidential elections never seemed to break through at the state level in Georgia. Following Goldwater’s breakthrough in 1964, Southern states began electing their “first Republican governor since Reconstruction” in droves. For some, this happened as early as the late 1960s. For most, this was in the 1970s. Alabama and Mississippi, both relative stragglers, did not do so until 1986 and 1991 respectively. But throughout it all, Republicans never managed to get over the top in the Peach State.
In fact, they weren’t even coming close. Besides the 1966 election, when the Democratic nominee was a hardline segregationist with no political experience, Democrats continued to win Georgia gubernatorial elections by landslide margins throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In some races, they won more than 70% or even 80% of the vote. By the 1990s, the races would become closer, but Democrats were still winning. Even the nationwide Republican landslide of 1994 wasn’t enough: incumbent Governor Zell Miller still managed to win re-election by 2% against a millionaire opponent. In 1998, Democrats even rebounded, with their nominee, Roy Barnes, scoring a solid 8% win against the same Republican nominee from 1994.
At the end of it all, the Georgia Democratic Party won every single gubernatorial election held in the 20th century. They would enter Governor Barnes’ re-election campaign having held a continuous trifecta since 1872: 130 years of uninterrupted power.
2002 was the election where everything changed. Barnes, widely expected to win re-election, would lose in an upset to Sonny Perdue, a state senator who had switched to the GOP four years prior. This, along with the simultaneous defeat of Senator Max Cleland, made it clear: after decades of defying political gravity, national polarization had finally caught up with Georgia Democrats. Some took this lesson to heart: during the lame duck period between Perdue’s victory and his swearing-in, four Democratic state senators switched parties, handing the GOP a majority in the chamber. The Democratic majority in the state house would fall in 2004, as President George Bush carried the state by a 17 point margin in his re-election. Georgia Republicans gained a statewide trifecta, which they have held to this day.
2002-2014: After the Deluge
In the opposition for the first time in well over a century, Georgia Democrats were in a peculiar situation. It was clear that they were now the minority party in the state, unable to meaningfully compete for any major statewide office for the foreseeable future. They also had a bench of potential candidates more crowded than perhaps any other state party in the country. There was an entire generation of sitting statewide officials, former statewide officials, and the children of both, all of whom had planned to one day hold the positions that Georgia Republicans had so abruptly usurped.
And so, these politicians did the only thing they could think of: run for those offices. In 2006, Georgia Democrats nominated nothing less than the sitting Lieutenant Governor, Mark Taylor, to challenge Governor Perdue. Taylor was a highly credible candidate who had managed to keep his seat in 2002 even while Barnes lost. Against Perdue, in a blue wave year, he lost by 20 points, 58 to 38. In the 2010 election, with an open seat, the party reached even further back, nominating former Governor Barnes himself against Republican Representative Nathan Deal. Barnes did better than Taylor, but still lost by double digits, 53 to 43. In the state’s other elections, things only got worse. Even during Perdue’s landslide victory in 2006, Democrats still managed to win three statewide elected offices in downballot elections. But after one of their officeholders retired and the other two ran for higher positions, Republicans would win those positions, too, pulling off a statewide sweep of all of Georgia’s constitutional offices for the first time in history.
It was undeniably a historic low point for the party. But a closer look at the results shows something interesting. For as staunchly Republican as the state had become by this point, Georgia Democrats were still overperforming compared to their national counterparts, even in some of the worst years for Democrats on record. To see this, one useful metric is relative partisanship: measuring how Republican or Democratic a state or district is by comparing the local margin to the national margin. For instance, in the 2008 election, John McCain won Georgia by roughly 5%. At the same time, Obama won nationally by about 7%. Putting those numbers together, Georgia comes out with a partisanship of R+12, meaning that it was 12 points more Republican than the country in 2008.
Compare that to the Georgia gubernatorial race just two years later. In his race, Roy Barnes lost by about twice as much as Obama did: roughly 10%. But in 2010, the national environment was far more than just 5 points more Republican than 2008. Going by the overall results for the House of Representatives, 2010 was an R+7 year: a full 14 points more Republican than 2008. Adding the R+7 to Georgia’s R+12 2008 baseline implies that a generic Democrat would have lost Georgia by around 19 points in 2010. Barnes’ losing margin was only half of that. With all the votes counted, the partisanship of his race was only R+3 (a 10 point loss minus a 7 point national Republican lean). Beneath the wreckage of a national Republican landslide, the old state party appeal to voters still came through. If Barnes was fortunate enough to have run in a year less punishing than one of the most sweeping Republican landslide elections in history, he very well could have won his race.
And Barnes was far from the only candidate in Georgia to demonstrate this strength. Several Democrats still managed to win statewide office during the 2000s, including the aforementioned Thurbert Baker (2002 and 2006) and Michael Taylor (2002), but also Secretary of State Cathy Cox (2002), Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond (2002 and 2006) and Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin (2002 and 2006). Reps. Jim Marshall and John Barrow managed to keep their white districts in the state’s rural south throughout the 2000s, despite an unprecedented mid-decade gerrymander by state Republicans meant to draw them out of their seats. Barrow is particularly notable: he managed to not only survive the 2010 Republican sweep, but even a second gerrymander that followed it, winning his district in 2012 even as Obama lost it by a large margin. An ad from his 2012 re-election campaign in many ways encapsulates this old species of Georgia Democrat: how they were able appeal to rural whites, maintain the approval and support of their Black base, and ultimately win in even the most punishing environments.
2014-2015: Dreams of a New Georgia
If post-2002 Georgia Democrats seemed to have a tendency of nominating rural white throwbacks, 2014 is the year they truly outdid themselves. Governor Deal, a popular but not undefeatable incumbent, was up for re-election, and a Senate seat was open following the retirement of incumbent Senator Saxby Chambliss (yes, that is his real name). To make the most of this opportunity, the state party decided it was not enough to reach back into the 1990s, as they did with Barnes. Instead, they reached all the way back to the 1970s, selecting members from their most esteemed political dynasties. To face Deal was State Senator Jason Carter, grandson of President Carter himself. For the Senate seat was Michelle Nunn, nonprofit executive and daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, who when he was a Senator would regularly win around 80% of the vote in the re-election campaigns Republicans bothered to contest. Both ran familiar approaches: winning primaries as consensus candidates with Black support, and running moderate campaigns aimed at winning over rural whites.
One supporter of this approach was a State Representative from Atlanta named Stacey Abrams. Following the nomination of Carter and Nunn in the spring of 2014, Slate wrote a profile of the race, mostly asking how two white, moderate scions of political dynasties were supposed to energize Black turnout enough to win. When asked whenever Carter’s support for a controversial gun bill would depress Democratic turnout, Abrams tentatively stood by their strategy, saying, “They’re unhappy about it, but they’ve been unhappy about lots of things. People are disappointed, but they’re not willing to sacrifice Jason to Gov. Deal.”
Her analysis was correct. Black voters did turn out for Carter and Nunn, just as they always had for Democratic nominees. While the exact data for the final election is hard to find, the final numbers for early voting in 2014 had the Black share of the vote at 32.8%, indicative of a roughly 30% final share: precisely the benchmark Democrats need to meet in order to win races in the state. And the two Democratic nominees continued the statewide tradition of (relative) overperformances: in a R+7 electorate, Carter lost to Deal, an incumbent governor, by 8%. In terms of partisan lean, Carter managed to do even better than Barnes, moving Georgia only down to R+1. He very well could have toppled Deal if the national environment was just neutral. In comparison, Georgia had been R+11 in the 2012 Presidential election. Everything considered, the party was holding its ground remarkably well, just one good year away from coming back to power.
But that’s not how the national media saw it. In the aftermath of Obama’s solid presidential election victories and crushing midterm losses, a simple framework was adopted to understand the Democratic Party as a whole: they had an ascendent coalition with turnout problems. You can see this in how the Slate article framed the races in Georgia. Democratic strength in national elections was assumed to be the result of Obama’s ability to activate low propensity voters: the “Obama Coalition” of the youth, minorities, and other voter groups assumed to be broadly supportive of liberal priorities. The weakness of his party in midterm elections was because those voters were, well, low propensity: they didn’t often vote in lower profile elections in general, and especially wouldn’t vote in low profile elections where candidates tried to moderate away from Obama’s positions. It was the oldest and most comforting lie in politics: that everyone agrees with you already, and the best path always lies in just saying what you already think, however you want to.
Within this theory, Georgia held a special position: it was a “new Virginia.” Based on the perceived political trajectory of the titular state, new Virginias were seen as the most important aspect of the Obama coalition: its future. Virginia, once a solidly red state, had voted for Obama twice and only seemed to becoming even more solidly Democratic as the years went on. For those bullish about the coming 1000-year reign of American Liberalism with Obama Characteristics, this was inevitable: the result of unstoppable demographic changes, changes that would inexorably come to Georgia. Never mind the fact that Georgia was already substantially less white than Virginia, that its Black voters never really had turnout problems, and that the state was moving to the left at a snail’s pace at a national level. The future was coming: all Georgia Democrats needed to do was sit tight, wait, and stop polluting the narrative with their locally-focused candidate recruitment and moderate campaigns.
And for one State House Minority Leader in Atlanta, it must have been impossible to ignore how perfectly she could fit within such a narrative. In late 2013, one year after Obama’s re-election, Abrams founded her first flagship organization: the so-called “New Georgia Project.” From its name on down, the New Georgia Project was seeped in a kind of Obama-era, demographics-as-destiny approach that was new to Georgia Democratic politics. Its aim was simple enough: at the time of the group’s founding, Georgia had 1.5 million unregistered potential voters, and it was estimated that 900,000 of them were minorities. The goal was to register these voters, who would then create a “New Georgia” by overwhelming the stagnant Republican base. Putting aside the fact that that minority turnout was never really the issue for the party (if it was, they would have carried the state in 2008 and 2012, when Black turnout reached historic highs), it wasn’t a fundamentally awful idea. More voters are always helpful. And the upcoming 2014 election, Abrams set a quota for herself: at least 120,000 voters registered by election day.
It started paying dividends for Abrams before she had even registered a single voter. Just the story she was selling was enough to massively boost her profile. Nobody could ignore the contrast between Abrams’ forward-reaching vision of a “New Georgia” and the uninspiring, centrist dynasts the party was actually running. National liberal organizations certainly couldn’t. In 2014, even though her organization had been operating for less than one year, she was awarded the “Rising Star Award” by Emily’s List and was named Person of the Year by Governing. Telling out-of-state liberals what they wanted to hear was proving to serve her quite well. She didn’t even actually have to do anything.
And that’s essentially what Abrams did: nothing. While she managed to raise $3 million for the NGP in the 2014 cycle, Abrams’ organization only registered 46,000 people: just barely over a third of the bare minimum that she had promised. Not only that, but she had faced an investigation from the Secretary of State’s office over alleged voter fraud. Abrams fired back by suing the Secretary of State himself, an obscure former appointee named Brian Kemp, alleging voter suppression of NGP voter registration applications. At the time, it may have looked like a shrewd deflection. But when a Fulton County Superior Court judge tossed out her case after little consideration, she was left without a credible excuse as to why she only managed to register so few applicants.
No Democrats believed any of the allegations made against Abrams, especially from someone like Kemp. The party’s leaders rallied around her: the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, a man named Raphael Warnock, even went as far to compare Kemp to the Klu Klux Klan. But beyond the dispute, many were wary of her competence, and even her intentions, after such a failure to live up to expectations. The Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, disavowed her efforts, saying to the Atlanta Journal Constitution that “I don’t believe nor did I believe that the New Georgia Project is the model [for voter registration].” State Senator Vincent Fort, also from Atlanta, lambasted Abrams to Atlanta Magazine, telling them that “She hasn’t been open and transparent. Her funders don’t know where her money went. More importantly, the public doesn’t know where the money went.”
Abrams responded by doubling down. The $3 million she received was not nearly enough, she claimed. For the 2016 elections, she would need more than $10 million to reach her goals. Fort was livid, declaring to the Atlanta Journal Constitution that “With all the money New Georgia Project spent, voter registration in Georgia was no more or even less than the previous cycle.” Then he pushed further: “And if the goal was to increase registration and turnout, it was a failure. At this point, why would you double-down on them?”
A hard question for Abrams to answer, especially within a party that had for so long prioritized success above all else. Fortunately for her, however, changes were happening hundreds of miles away from Georgia that would give the State Representative a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move far beyond petty complaints about results.
2016-2018: Preaching to the Choir
You don’t need me to tell you the story of the 2016 election again. The way you remember it is pretty much the way it happened. No analysis of relative partisanship or anything else changes the story. Democrats, led by Hillary Clinton, were blindsided, upset, and routed by Donald J. Trump, of all people. Perhaps no defeat in American political history as been as stunning and upsetting to the party defeated. Liberals were supposed to rule for a generation on the strength of an undefeatable and ever-rising coalition. Instead, it was torn apart at the seams by someone who didn’t seem to even know what he was doing.
There were two main interpretations of the defeat. One was that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely unpopular candidate who simply failed, on her end, to win the trust of voters who were otherwise be entirely winnable for Democrats. This posited that she, and the Democrats, made mistakes, and that in order to win again they had to make an effort to fix them. It was the favored interpretation of the party’s left, who had always wanted to focus on things like progressive economic messaging and never liked the Clintons to begin with.
The other interpretation was that Hillary did nothing wrong and that the result was simply the unavoidable and inevitable backlash of white voters against the election of the first Black President (which they seemingly forgot to do when he was actually on the ballot). It posited that Democrats were basically already perfect, that the electorate should only be more grateful towards them, and that things would only be fixed when the electorate fixed itself. Because, after all, this temporary setback should never distract from the fact that the nation’s dynamic, fast-growing, and diversifying states were still on track to give Democrats their permanent majority.
This understanding was most favored by those with the most invested in the Democratic Party as it was constructed: sitting politicians in deep blue states, rich donors, and loyal partisans. In other words, the kinds of people who would have been most appreciative of a story that told them they had done nothing wrong. But when trying to find proof of the ascendant voters who would save them, there were few standouts. Florida, gigantic and super-diverse, had always been seen as the launchpad for the party’s future majority: it shifted to the right, voting for Trump despite massive investment in the state by the Clinton campaign. North Carolina going blue in 2008 was a hopeful precursor for an upcoming liberal stronghold: it also moved to the right, voting for Trump by more than it voted for Romney in 2012. Virginia and Colorado had already been voting for them before. Arizona had promising trends, but represented very little symbolically for a party that was already regularly winning states in the Southwest.
Georgia, however, was the exception. It was a quintessentially Southern state (thus making it exotic and interesting), the birthplace of Martin Luther King (making it symbolic), and one of the few places in the country where the party saw clearly positive trends in 2016. The state had received mild attention before the election as a potential long-shot flip for Democrats, and when the results came in, the line of reasoning behind that was at least somewhat vindicated. Georgia was among a small class of states that shifted clearly to the left from 2012 and wasn’t either too blue to matter or too red to take seriously. Where Obama had lost the state by 7 points in 2012, Hillary only lost it by 5 points in 2016. What’s more, this happened while the national environment was moving rightward, from D+4 to D+2. The state’s relative partisanship in national elections had moved from R+11 to R+7, a very quick rate of movement leftward over a short period of time. Add in the most high-profile special election in political history right at the start of the Trump presidency, and you ended up with a state transformed into a symbol unto itself.
Stacey Abrams had found herself in the middle of a perfect storm. Her arguments were already very intriguing to out-of-state politicians and donors even before 2016. Now, she was saying precisely the thing they desperately wanted to hear—over and over and over again. Her story gave them hope: hope that the beliefs that had comforted them so during the Obama years were still alive, that they were still heading an ascendant coalition, that the right people were on their side, and, most importantly, they could still win without really trying.
It was all fake, of course. For starters, Georgia’s electorate in 2016 wasn’t even more diverse than it was in 2012. This sounds blatantly obvious when put on paper—of course Hillary Clinton failed to inspire higher minority turnout than Barack Obama—but surprisingly few people realized this, seemingly mistaking changes in the overall population, and a leftward shift in the overall result, as inevitably corresponding with a more diverse electorate as well. The actual reason for its leftward shift is also not a mystery. Georgia moved to the left between 2012 and 2016 because Hillary Clinton did better than Barack Obama among white voters. To the extent she made gains over him, it was because she gained enough with whites to offset declines in Black turnout. Full stop. It’s obvious when just looking at a map of the two races.
The counties Clinton flipped were suburbs around Atlanta filled with rich white people: places like Cobb county and Gwinnett county, so wealthy and Republican that they did not even back Jimmy Carter in 1980. The places Trump flipped were counties in the state’s Black Belt, a rural and ancestrally Democratic stretch of counties in the middle of the state with large percentages of Black voters. In no world could anyone familiar with Georgia politics look at this map and see it as indicative of a show of force by the state’s minority voters. Most realistically, it could be seen as a potential sign for a winning statewide coalition consisting of Black and college-educated white voters. But such a coalition would not appear by itself. It would have to be created, and such a task would require active effort from both the national party and statewide candidates.
But that was the beauty of Abrams’ message: it promised that none of that effort would be needed to win. Also aiding her was that voter registration in Georgia was shooting up, seemingly out of nowhere. Of course, this had nothing to do with Abrams or the New Georgia Project. It was almost entirely a consequence of a new semi-automatic voter registration law passed by the Georgia Legislature in 2016. This law, which automatically added voters to the rolls when they obtained drivers licenses at the DMV, proved to be incredibly effective, essentially doing Abrams’ job for her. She still receives credit for these registrations to this day.
This was the backdrop upon with Abrams launched her campaign for Governor in 2018. By this point, the once-crowded Democratic bench of the mid-2000s was spent: the party’s former statewide officials had all tried and failed already. As such, Abrams faced opposition from only one contender, fellow former state representative Stacey Evans. Evans seemed credible at first, receiving endorsements from figures including Roy Barnes and Max Cleland, but ran a bizarre campaign in which she superimposed the face of Martin Luther King Jr. on herself in an ad. Evans, for the record, is a white woman. She never received much traction following that, and would ultimately lose to Abrams in the primary by over 50 points.
After her primary win, Abrams received even more attention. Liberal donors, both large and small, were spending generously in 2018. For the woman who was telling them everything they wanted to hear, they were willing to give everything they had. Throughout the campaign, she would raise a total of $28 million, several millions more than the Republican nominee, Brian Kemp. Just as in 2014, it was once again paying for Stacey Abrams to preach to the choir.
As the election came closer, the news became even better for Abrams. It was becoming increasingly clear that 2018 was going to be a far better election for Democrats than anything that had been experienced in decades. It wasn’t just going to be the kind of tied environment that Carter could have won in back in 2014. It wasn’t even going to just be the slightly Dem-leaning environment Barnes could have won with in 2010. It was on track to be an outright blue wave. Democrats were ahead in the generic ballot by eight, nine, sometimes even ten or more points.
And after 2016, Georgia was only a R+7 state at the national level. If the polls were even close to right, Democrats didn’t need someone with the crossover appeal of a Barnes or a Carter in order to win the Georgia governorship. They didn’t need any additional appeal at all. They just needed someone capable of matching national trends.
This was the bar Abrams needed to climb in November. All she needed to do to move to the Governor’s mansion, to become the first Democratic Governor of Georgia in 16 years, to become the first Black woman governor in U.S. history, was to put in a baseline level performance. It was her race to lose.
She put in what was possibly the most atrocious performance of the entire election.