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The Art of Losing: A Stacey Abrams Story, Part II
The price Georgians have paid for a politician’s ego.
It would have been one thing if Abrams kept on telling Democrats what they wanted to hear purely to raise money. Georgia Democrats had been undeniably neglected by the national party for no good reason for quite a while, and nothing can help heal those wounds like a prodigious fundraiser. The real problem started when Abrams committed the worst sin a politician can do: she started to believe her own hype. Feel-good promises to out-of-state donors became a campaign strategy, as Abrams explicitly neglected appeals to suburbanites who disapproved of Trump just because they were “habitual voters.” These voters were not necessary in her New Georgia, it seemed, so her campaign put its resources behind activating low-propensity voters who “haven’t been engaged before.”
Quite the noble strategy. Also possibly the least successful one ever attempted by a major party candidate in a competitive race in the modern era. The results speak for themselves. With all the votes counted, Democrats won the national vote in U.S. House elections by 8.6%, meaning that the national partisan environment in 2018 was roughly D+9. This was a huge advantage for every Democrat running everywhere in the country. It would have been enough for Barnes and Carter to both win by large margins, and even enough for Hillary to pull ahead in 2016.
But it wasn’t enough for Abrams.
Where the average Democrat in 2018 did better than Clinton in 2016 by about 7 points, Abrams only improved on her margin by just 3.5 points. It was a striking and very meaningful underperformance, and not one that can be easily explained away by attempted voter suppression. Georgia had and still has some of the strictest voting laws in the country: this is undeniably true. It’s also true that the laws in Texas were possibly even more restrictive than Georgia’s. That didn’t stop several statewide Democratic candidates in Texas from matching, and even outperforming, nationwide swings to the left.
Even one of the more credible specific claims of voter suppression in Georgia—that Kemp “cancelled” the registrations of 53,000 voters—isn’t entirely true. These registrations weren’t removed from the rolls, as Abrams and her allies have implied, but put on hold, meaning that it still would have been entirely possible for those voters to still vote in the 2018 election. According to Charles S. Bullock, chair of political science at the University of Georgia, all that would have been required for those voters to cast a ballot would have been to show up with a photo ID at the polling station. An unnecessary hurdle? Yes. A credible explanation for Abrams’ first-round loss and massive underperformance relative to all other Democrats? Not really.
So, looking at the results themselves, where did it go wrong for Abrams? Practically everywhere. Black turnout had increased compared to 2016—as should be expected in a midterm where Democrats were more energized than Republicans—but the potential gains from that were muted by her performance among Black voters themselves being relatively weak overall. Georgia Democrats also had some of their all-time worst showings in white rural areas, even poorer than Hillary Clinton’s 2016 numbers that are still seen as the absolute floor.
The one place where Abrams managed to make notable gains was in the Atlanta suburbs. Higher numbers there, as well as some of the state’s urban areas, are why she came closer to winning the state than Clinton did. But even those swings paled in comparison to what was occurring in similar areas across the country. All in all, she lost by roughly 50,000 votes: painfully close to taking Kemp to a runoff election under Georgia’s arcane election laws, but a loss at the end of the day. In the process, she ended up losing two Black Belt counties won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Hardly a promising first try for a strategy that was supposed to define the future of politics itself.
But, despite everything, the election cycle was not yet over for Georgia Democrats. That was because one person, on the same ballot as Abrams, managed to overperform her showing and force his race into a runoff. One person managed to overcome her negative force on the Democratic ticket and finish with a result at least somewhat resembling what a competent Democrat should have managed in Georgia in 2018.
That person was former Representative John Barrow, the bane of the Georgia GOP, the last standing Southern Democrat, the man who faced two separate gerrymanders designed to end his career and beat both of them. In 2018, he ran a low-profile race for Secretary of State that, like all of the other races in Georgia, was largely defined by the contest at the top of the ticket. But Barrow held just enough residual appeal in his former district to outperform Abrams and force his race into a runoff.
This was a pivotal moment for Abrams. Georgia would not have another gubernatorial election for four years, and since she had already decided privately to never run for Senate, the few weeks immediately after the election were the best chance she was going to have to get attention for quite a while. Especially so since the race had yet to be officially called. But the more attention she received, the less attention Barrow’s race would receive. According to both history and her own theory of politics, this would be fatal for his chances, so Barrow’s race should ideally receive as much attention as possible if he was to win. Georgia, or her career. Which would Abrams choose?
She made her decision quickly. Throughout the month of November, in the crucial weeks leading up to a pivotal race for a powerful office, Stacey Abrams did everything humanly possible to keep the attention on herself. She refused to concede the election, and kept on refusing to do so for weeks. She insisted the race was not yet lost and started a doomed, high-profile fishing expedition for provisional ballots that could supposedly swing the race to her (it was never even a remote possibility). The media covered it with fascination. No candidate had ever done something like this before. By the middle of the month, when counties were officially certifying their results and there was no legal way for Abrams to win, she finally “acknowledged that the race was lost” while pointedly refusing to concede, a final flourish that kept attention focused on her for even longer.
It was a masterstroke for Stacey Abrams. She had turned a very poor electoral performance into martyrdom, making her a truly national figure and the first thing every Democrat in the country thought of when they heard the words “voter suppression.” It also could not have been more horrific for John Barrow. Abrams never even started mentioning his race until well into November, when Georgians were already requesting ballots. By then, it was too late. On December 4th, Barrow lost to Raffensperger by roughly 4%. Raffensperger had received around only 765,000 votes. A month prior, Abrams had received over 1,900,000 votes.
If she managed to get even less than half of her voters out for the runoff, Barrow could have easily won.
It would have been easy for her to do.
But she didn’t.
Her performance, both electorally and as a party leader, was indefensibly bad. But, on paper, she did numerically improve over Clinton. This was enough for Democratic leadership to decide that she was right all along, and that she needed be made the new face of their party, effective immediately. Right after the new Congress was sworn in, Abrams was chosen to give the Democratic response to the Trump’s State of the Union address. Afterwards, Chuck Schumer would relentlessly court her to run for Senate in 2020 against Georgia’s Republican incumbent, David Perdue. At the same time, primary season was beginning, and there was speculation that she could even be a candidate for President. Ultimately, she would pass on both, ostensibly because of because of her immense new responsibilities as the founder of yet another political organization, this time called “Fair Fight.”
The decision not to run for President was actually quite sensible. In making that choice, Abrams at the very least showed much better impulse control than the likes of Beto O’Rourke. Much more puzzling, however, was the choice to pass up on running for Senate. While it made sense that Abrams would have wanted to be Governor more than Senator, passing up a free lane for a statewide nomination, with full party backing, was strangely choosy. It was especially so for a candidate yet to actually win a statewide election. Her reasoning only became clear a year later, when it was revealed that Abrams had her sights on a larger prize the entire time: being the Vice Presidential nominee to whoever won the Democratic nomination.
In defiance of all political convention, Abrams went on cable news channels across the country to openly campaign for her spot on the Democratic ticket in 2020. Just like her refusal to concede in 2018, this was another thing that had simply never been done before and resulted in widespread media attention. If this was the endgame of Abrams’ career, it explains many of her actions up to this moment.
It was also remarkably foolish. At the end of the day, no Presidential nominee, under any circumstances, is going to pick a politician whose highest experience is state house representative as their running mate, no matter how respected they are. Especially so if they didn’t have their back before they won the nomination. Far from a longtime Biden ally, Abrams was officially neutral during the primary. Her one moment of interference in the race was when she went out of her way to defend Michael Bloomberg after he received criticism for blatantly attempting to buy the Democratic Presidential nomination, giving him a timely moment of positive media attention right before Super Tuesday.
Bloomberg, for the record, had given $5 million to Fair Fight in 2019.
In any case, it didn’t come close to working. Biden, a traditionalist likely irked by her relentless self-promotion, shot down her dreams in a remarkably personal manner: he went out of his way to schedule a joint TV appearance with her on MSNBC, only to offer generic praise of her efforts instead of giving her the promotion she was so desperately seeking. After months of anticipation, he would finally offer the slot to Senator Kamala Harris, officially ending Stacey Abrams’ story in the 2020 election. With the election coming closer and closer, she finally receded to the background after over two years in the spotlight.
Now, first the first time in years, there was a new person who would determine the Democratic approach in Georgia, along with the rest of the country: Joe Biden. And within internal Democratic debates over strategy, the former Vice President sat in a peculiar position. He was as much as a centrist establishmentarian as anybody in politics, and had invested his whole career within the party. But his understanding of the 2016 election, both before and after the race, did meaningfully differ from his ideological counterparts. As early as January 2016, when the primary was in full swing, Biden was skeptical of Clinton’s ability to be a credible messenger for the party, giving credit to Bernie Sanders for being able to address the needs of voters in ways she was unable to.
After Clinton ultimately lost, Biden never spent time trying to make excuses for her or assign blame to the electorate. In fact, he did just the opposite: just two months into Trump’s Presidency, he was already declaring that, if he were the nominee in 2016, he would have won. An amusingly blunt declaration. More importantly, recognition that the defeat in 2016 was not inevitable. None of this was a revelatory observation from Biden, but it meant that, at the absolute minimum, Biden understood that Democrats made mistakes before, and had to try for a different approach in 2020.
This is generally what Biden did as a candidate: campaigning heavily in the states Clinton ignored, and focusing his campaign on a few specific themes and policies rather than attacking Trump near-exclusively. And while he did ultimately improve over Clinton, the results weren’t spectacular. Biden won, but also significantly underperformed both the polls and the expectations of both parties. Democrats unexpectedly lost seats in the House and failed to win many of their Senate targets. And, in yet another blow to the ascendent coalition theory, they failed to expand the map in almost any of the states that were supposed to be the future of the party. Florida moved decisively to the right. Texas remained stubbornly and convincingly red. Even North Carolina was stayed stagnant. Besides Arizona, all they were able to win back was just the boring old rust belt.
But, once again, Georgia was the exception. The extra modicum of effort applied by the Biden campaign seemed to have made all the difference in the Peach State. Georgia moved left while the rest of the country moved right: it was the only state in the country where Democrats did better in 2020 than they had done in 2018. And it happened despite Black turnout being the lowest it had been in over a decade
After a week of counting, it was official: Joe Biden was the first Democrat to win any statewide race in Georgia in 16 years. And he it with a coalition that was the precise opposite of the kind that Stacey Abrams promised was the only way to win the state. He did not ride a surge of turnout and support from low-propensity minorities: the Black share of the electorate was smaller, and less supportive of Democrats, than elections before. What won Biden the state was a surge in support from college-educated white voters. His massive gains in this demographic boosted him to levels of support in Atlanta’s historically Republican suburbs that were absolutely unprecedented for a Democratic candidates—much higher than Abrams had managed in those areas in 2018. There were several very large counties around Atlanta that had voted solidly for Romney in 2012 and would back Biden by equal or larger margins in 2020. The Republican coalition in the state was shattered, abandoned by the voters who had been its most reliable supporters for half a century.
Up to this point, there were several convincing arguments you could make in favor of Abrams’ being a strong politician. Biden’s performance shattered nearly all of them. Abrams had promised for the better part of a decade that she could swamp Republicans with a flood of new, Democratic-leaning minority voters. But after all of her efforts and tens of millions of dollars spent, the electorate was less Black than before, and Asian and Hispanic voters still had poor turnout. Her inability to substantially improve on Clinton’s performance in 2018 was written off at the time as just a function of Georgia’s political rigidity. Now, with the state having had moved to the left in a much less Democratic year, it suddenly looked much more malleable. The only case you could make in her favor was brutishly simple: she had said Democrats could win Georgia, and they ended up winning Georgia.
This last interpretation is what quickly became the media consensus. Despite not having been on the ballot and having had failed at all of her stated aims, Abrams received near-singular credit for Biden’s win. Papers of record were reporting it as fact that she had engineered a win she, in reality, had almost nothing to do with. They were telling the exact story she wanted, based on no empirical evidence whatsoever.
And the party was far from over for Abrams. Because of the way the races shook out in Georgia and across the country, control of the U.S. Senate was set to be decided by a pair of runoff elections for both of Georgia’s seat. The eyes of the world would be on the state as it alone decided the course of American governance for the next two years. And Stacey Abrams, propped up by a relentlessly positive media narrative, was right at the center of it.
Her star kept rising higher and higher. Fair Fight would raise nearly $35 million just in November alone, matching all that it had raised since it was founded. This had the potential to be a boon for the party’s chances in the two races. However, newly released tax records show that the bulk of the money likely was spent as part of the $38 million total that the group paid in legal fees from 2019 to 2021. This was despite Fair Fight having been plaintiffs in only a single case, which they lost, and only cost the State of Georgia $6 million to defend. And of these expenses, roughly one third went to a boutique law firm led by one of Abrams’ personal friends and former campaign chairwoman. An additional $20 million raised during that period was left in “reserves.” In comparison, I could find roughly $3 million recorded as having been spent by Fair Fight on grants to on-the-ground groups to engage voters.
In retrospect, it might have not been the most efficient use of the donations. But along with her help, or lack thereof, the now-dual ticket of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock still had two huge elections to win. And during the two-month long campaign period, both candidates stuck strongly to a single theme: support for solidly liberal priorities, expanded pandemic aid chief among them, that was wrapped in relentlessly moderate messaging. It was a markedly different than the approach from Abrams’ 2018 campaign, which emphasized centrist policy (one of her most often repeated lines in her ads was a claim that she had stopped the “largest tax increase in Georgia history”) with a staunchly partisan persona. And it was working. Both candidates rose to take the lead in the polls, and as early voting began in mid-December, the numbers being released by the state began to reveal an electorate decisively more Democratic than the one in November.
Then, on Tuesday, January 5th, 2021, they did it. In deeply ironic fashion, Democrats benefitted markedly from a lower turnout electorate that included a higher shares of their best demographics than the one in November. This, coupled with decent numbers among college-educated whites, was enough for Democrats to win both races, toppling two incumbent Senators at once. After a decade, the Democratic Party once again controlled a trifecta in Washington.
And Stacey Abrams ascended to political sainthood.
2021-2022: The President of a United Earth
After 2014, she was intriguing. After 2018, she was a martyr. After 2020 and 2021, there are few words that exist in the political vocabulary that can properly describe how Stacey Abrams was viewed by America’s liberals. It would be impossible to describe all the laudations she received even in a very lengthy article, but I’ve always felt there was one particularly representative—and absurd—moment from this period. It came in an episode of Season 4 of Star Trek: Discovery that was first aired in March 2022, but filmed well before that. In it, the failed gubernatorial candidate herself made a cameo.
Her role: nothing less than the President of United Earth. At this point, it’s hard to blame your average liberal for having this kind of impression of her. They had been told by everyone—from the politicians they voted for, to the image graphics they saw on Facebook, to the legacy news outlets they subscribed to after Trump won—that she was their hero, a solid winner for a party forever scarred by a traumatizing loss. This narrative continued to pay ever-increasing dividends for Abrams, even after election season was over. By the end of the fiscal year of 2021, Fair Fight had raised a total of $92 million since its founding after Abrams’ 2018 loss. $61 million of that total came from 2019 and 2020, meaning that the organization had received over $30 million in donations in 2021, a staggering total for an off-year.
And at least this time, she needed the resources she could get. Abrams was in a much weaker position for her highly anticipated rematch with Governor Kemp than she was in 2018. Factors that had once been tailwinds were now headwinds. Before, she was running for an open seat against an opponent strongly associated with Trump: now, she was facing a relatively popular incumbent who had just been through a high-profile breakup with the former President. Back then, there was a Republican President in office whose poor approvals gave an edge to Democrats nationwide: now, the unpopular sitting President was a Democrat. And after her very visible campaign to be named Biden’s running mate, she faced the new task of convincing Georgia voters that she was actually prioritizing them above a prospective career in national politics.
Maybe no candidate, no matter how skilled, could have overcome all of these simultaneous factors. But, once again, Abrams hardly tried. She bought into her own hype even harder than before. She was free for all of 2021, out of office and perfectly capable of using her spare time to travel the state and work on preventing another underperformance. Rather than doing that, she spent the crucial months before the announcement of her second campaign touring the country, meeting with liberal luminaries at expensive dinners to promote her new book. Not a single stop of this tour was in Georgia. When she did meet with the media, she would talk about a future career in national politics, such as her plan to run for President at some point in the near future. In fact, she declared that she would be the President of the United States by 2040.
It was about as extreme of a disconnect as you could get for someone planning to run a gubernatorial campaign the next year. And by the time the primaries were completed (Abrams ran unopposed), the damage was immediately clear. There were two high-profile races regularly being polled in Georgia: Abrams’ rematch against Kemp, and now-Senator Warnock’s bid for a full term against Republican nominee Herschel Walker. The latter race was highly competitive from the start. The former race was never even close. Throughout the campaign, Abrams ran significantly behind Warnock’s numbers, facing a gap that only widened as election day became closer. Abrams struggled to poll even within the margin of error against Kemp. Her deficit consistently ranged from between six and eight points in polling averages.
As election day came closer and her numbers failed to improve, it was clear that Abrams was running out of hope for a potential comeback. But even as her position worsened, her national star power still allowed her to be a blockbuster fundraiser. Throughout the cycle, Abrams managed to raise over $100 million for her campaign and leadership committee. This was a full $20 million more than Kemp, a well-positioned incumbent in a large state, managed to raise. This money wouldn’t be enough to for Abrams to win, not with her deficit in the polls the way it was. But it was still a massive warchest that her campaign could leverage to help out other Georgia Democrats, one embattled Senator in particular.
They would do nothing of the sort. Despite Abrams’ reputation as a shrewd manager, her campaign would spend money seemingly without discretion. Among her many expenses was a high-end Piedmont Park home rented out as a “hype house” for TikTok videos. It went to be largely unused, and is currently on the market to rent for $12,500 a month. Also on payroll was a “swag truck,” assigned to dispense free merchandise to young voters. Even the campaign’s own staffers would complain about its cost and lack of strategic purpose. There expenditures, and others like them, would add up to a baffling amount. By the end of the campaign, Abrams faced a cash crunch that led to cuts in TV airtime right before the election, reductions in employee benefits, and significant debts to vendors that the campaign has still yet to pay off.
The mistakes made by her campaign during the final months of the election didn’t stop there. Even though her poor standing in the polls was the result of poor numbers among all types of voters, for some reason, her team decided it was the fault of one group in particular: Black men. At the end of September and throughout the month of October, media outlets suddenly began publishing articles about how this demographic could be the deciding factor in her race, as if she was down by one point in the polls and not ten.
Concern then gave way to indignation. On the week of election day, Abrams called onto the show of Rashad Richey, a popular Atlanta radio host. Richey had always supported Abrams, but now, the two-time gubernatorial candidate seemed to find his loyalty insufficient. She lambasted him for comments he had made earlier about her campaign, in his opinion, not doing enough to reach out to Black voters. Richey was mostly stunned that she had called in to confront her with this now when she had ignored previous invitations to come on his show. After a few minutes of arguing, live on air, the candidate hung up.
Four days later, she would lose to Brian Kemp by 300,000 votes.
It was a cataclysmic performance in every possible regard. There’s the sheer, gaping chasm between her and Warnock: 10.3 points, nearly 400,000 total votes, in a state where ticket splitting is usually in the decimals. There’s the fact that she underperformed both the overall congressional vote and several candidates for row offices. There are her declines among broad demographic groups: significantly worse numbers with Black voters, splits with college-educated white voters down to pre-2017 levels, Kemp in the mid-40s with Hispanic voters, possibly the worst rural numbers ever posted by any Democratic candidate in Georgia, period. And there are the specific county numbers. Margins in Cobb and Gwinnett closer to 2016 than anything Democrats have achieved since then. Kemp putting up Romney-level percentages in Fulton. The Black Belt even further dissolved into a rural red abyss.
But there are two numbers in particular that I think sum up this race, and what it says Abrams’ time in politics overall. The first is the culmination of her supposed life’s work: the racial composition of the electorate in Georgia. 2022 was supposed to be the payoff for all of the resources and authority Abrams’ had been given: the hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and grants, along with the near-decade of her essentially running the state party. What was the result?
The gap between white turnout and nonwhite turnout was higher than at any point in the previous decade. Black turnout was lower than it had been in 2020. Asian and Hispanic shares of the overall electorate were even worse: barely more than half of what they had been even in 2020. The white share of the electorate was the highest it had been since Abrams began contesting elections. Nothing improved. There was never an “Abrams machine” of any kind. The state was nowhere close to a “New Georgia”. Demographically, the numbers were arguably worse than what Democrats had started out with before Abrams.
(As an aside, that Warnock not only managed to force a runoff but win a plurality with this kind of electorate is utterly astounding. Even more so in a state with no real modern tradition of ticket splitting. And with Abrams providing such a downward force on the Democratic ticket as a whole. If I think about it for too long it has the same effect on my brain that staring directly into the sun would have on my eyes.)
The second number is much simpler. Abrams lost to Kemp in 2022 by 7.5%. In 2014, Jason Carter lost to Nathan Deal by 7.8%.
An improvement of 0.3%. After eight years and hundreds of millions of dollars, that was the entire sum total of all of the efforts of the supposed savoir of democracy in America.
If the 2020 results shattered much of Abrams’ case for being a strong politician, the 2022 results buried the rest of it in a shallow grave. First and foremost, they decisively disproved what was possibly her last, and most compelling, argument, which justified her performance in 2018 through a specific understanding of the Georgia electorate. Even I myself agreed with this reasoning, at least until the ultimate shape of the race in 2022 became clear over the summer. It was the idea that it was useless to judge politicians in Georgia by comparing their results in a given election with the trends and status of the national electorate.
The logic was that, unlike other states with more ‘elastic’ voters who respond to national trends, Georgia’s electorate was extremely ‘inelastic’, polarized primarily around race and other aspects of voter identity. Within this reasoning, Georgia’s politics were basically static. It was a state out of time, where electoral strength only moved when the identity of the voters themselves moved. National trends were nothing more than irrelevant, outside bickering with faced with the iron laws of demography.
This may sound overly simplistic, and it pretty much was. But before the election last November, it was the only way to rationalize political trends in Georgia without questioning the competency of Stacey Abrams. It explained why Georgia only slowly moved to the left in 2018 when the rest of of the nation sprinted, and why the state continued to move to the left in 2020 when the rest of the nation moved to the right. In retrospect, there were always glaring flaws to this line of reasoning. Most blatantly, it outright assumed that Georgia was seeing a more diverse electorate in each successive year when that was just not happening. But, once again, it was the most comforting story for liberals and the most bullish case for Stacey Abrams, so it became the consensus.
The election proved it all to be emphatically wrong. If it was correct, Abrams and Warnock would have generally similar results. But they did not, even after accounting for everything from incumbency advantage to relative candidate quality to fundraising. Plain and simple, there is just no such thing as a state where politics are polarized entirely around demographics and there is also a double digit gap of support between a Senate candidate and a gubernatorial candidate.
By comparing their two performances, the truth of the state’s politics is revealed. While politics here is still heavily polarized around race, as it always has been and will likely continue to be for the rest of our lives, Georgia voters are not automatons. North or south, east or west, urban or rural, white or Black, they are perfectly capable of splitting their ticket based on how they perceive the candidates themselves. The largest concentration of these voters are in Atlanta’s suburbs, which are filled with moderate, ancestrally Republican voters who have been splitting with their party ever since Trump was nominated. The road to victory in Georgia, for both parties, lies not in changing the composition of the electorate, but in winning over these voters. They are where Warnock won both his races and where Stacey Abrams lost both of hers.
As a final aside, national results in 2022 cast massive doubt on one of the final defenses of Abrams’ record: that no matter what she did, she was always fighting an uphill battle as a Black woman, making it unfair to compare her results to those of white men, white women, and Black men to judge her political competency. And, of course, there is no doubt that things are harder for Black women in politics than they are for possibly any other group.
But the suggestion that this necessarily translates into a poorer overall performance is highly dubious. Stacey Abrams was hardly the only Black woman nominated for office in 2022. There were many others in races of equally high profile, and many of them put in standout results. In neighboring North Carolina, there was former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and 2022 Democratic nominee for Senate, Cheri Beasley. A Black woman, Beasley has been contesting elections at the state level in North Carolina since 2008. She won her first for the state Court of Appeals race by a landslide in 2008 and managed to win a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court in the red wave year of 2014, a result that, among others, led North Carolina Republicans to add party affiliation labels to court elections. During her re-election campaign to the court in 2020, she managed to outperform Biden in a state Trump won, only losing her seat by an excruciatingly small 400 vote margin. In last year’s Senate race, she once again performed above the partisan baseline in an even more Republican year, coming within 3% of flipping a Republican-held seat in a Trump state. In summary, a thoroughly impressive electoral history that shows an ability to not only reach, but exceed, the North Carolina partisan baseline, year in and year out. If Abrams was able to perform even close to as well as Beasley has, she would be celebrating her second term as Governor of Georgia right now.
Beasley is also far from the only Black woman in politics capable of these kind of strong performance. In what was a very bad year for Democrats in New York, the state’s Attorney General, Letitia James, still managed to solidly outperform the party’s gubernatorial nominee, even after a campaign dominated by the issue of crime. During Abrams’ first race in 2018, two of the party’s marquee suburban flips, Lauren Underwood in Illinois and Lucy McBath in Georgia, were pulled off by Black women. Both managed to hold onto their seats in 2020 and, while aided by redistricting, held their spots in Congress in 2022. In Pennsylvania, Summer Lee managed to defeat a very well-resourced opponent for the nomination in the state’s 12th Congressional district. In Los Angeles, Karen Bass won the mayoral election against a billionaire opponent.
Across the board, this is not a slate of candidates doomed by fate to be unable to perform at an adequate level, but a class of competent politicians that include some of the party’s best. Stacey Abrams, with her perennial and massive underperformances, is the outlier. But it is true that she is by far the most well-known nationally. If her allies wish to use her race to say that it is impossible for Black women to win elections because of an immovably biased electorate, they are well-positioned to do so. But they should be mindful of what getting what they wish for may entail. Democratic primary voters are very pragmatic. Just like the how excuses that blamed Hillary’s loss on sexism were followed up a 2020 presidential primary where no female candidate managed to win a single state, saying that Abrams’ loss proves that Black women can never win elections might lead Democratic voters to simply stop nominating Black women for office. It would be quite a shameful thing to happen, especially since it would be based on a lie.
The story of Abrams’ career—and, perhaps more importantly, the popular perception of it—is long and complex, a kaleidoscope of intervening narratives and interpretations that come together to show how the political press spent years insisting that black was white, the sky was green, and one plus one equaled three. But the lesson from it is an extremely simple one: you can’t win unless you try. The successful figures in this story, from John Barrow to Raphael Warnock, have little, if anything, in common in personal background or political stances. But they both realized one basic truth. Voters won’t just come to you. They have to be won. The way you win over these voters can be bragging about how your grandfather’s rifle stopped a lynching, or an ad where you walk a puppy around a suburban neighborhood in a sweater vest. But you have to at least try something. Otherwise you will fall to the partisan baseline, then below it, and then you will lose, year in and year out.
And the beauty of the last few years of Georgia politics is that they have revealed that the bar for this effort is, at least currently, incredibly low. Before Trump, when the median voter was white, rural and conservative, converting enough swing voters to win in Georgia required actual concessions on real issues of public policy, from gun control to abortion to LGBT rights. But now, with the decisive voters concentrated Atlanta’s suburbs and exurbs, all that’s really required to win is just looking moderate. No concessions on policy are needed, not even on paper. The perception is all that matters, making the laundering of left-liberal politicians through a moderate-to-conservative electorate easier than ever before.
Warnock has done this masterfully. The Senator has a track record and history of governing well to the left of Abrams, which he wears unabashedly and proudly. He also makes active efforts to present a moderate persona to voters. He came into his re-election campaign with one of the most liberal track records in the Senate, but with just a few ads that emphasized popular bills he helped pass, talked about issues relevant to rural areas, and played up his work with Republican Senators, he managed to come into election day with an approval rating among the highest of all politicians in the state. Even in mid-October, during the heat of the campaign, polls showed that voters saw Warnock as honest by 54-40, as a good leader by 57-38, and as someone who cared about Georgians by 57-39.
Incumbency advantage, poor opponent quality, and a generally neutral environment all helped, but Warnock’s massive overperformance over Abrams is inseparable from the personal reputation he has cultivated: a sense among voters that, all else equal, he is sincerely focused on Georgia and cares about their problems. Abrams keeps losing because voters don’t feel this way about her. This because she not only has never really tried to make them feel that way, but also because her actions since her first loss have done nothing but create the impression that she has her eyes on seemingly greater things far beyond Georgia. And the reason why she has acted this way, never doing the things needed to win an actual election in Georgia, is simple.
The incentive structure of liberal politics means that she does not have to do so in order to be personally successful. This has been the one common theme throughout her career. It was true in 2014, when she was showered in national awards for just saying she was going to register voters. It was true after 2016, when she rose to take the gubernatorial nomination, and effective control over the state party, just by telling a story about the electorate that people wanted to hear. It was true after 2018, when she was lifted into the national spotlight after losing a race she should have won. It was true after 2020, when she was given full credit for Democratic wins in her home state, even though she was off the ballot and the winning coalition looked nothing like her model.
Throughout all of this, Abrams has proven herself masterful, even savant-like, at one thing: relentless credit-taking. And her number one assistant has always been the media, both partisan and mainstream. They have always taken her side, always repeated her narratives, always given her credit, always picked the fun story over the accurate one. Small donors and interest groups may have been the ones to actually give her the money, but they never would have done so if she never had an unearned reputation as a winner.
The results for Georgia Democrats have been disastrous. There could not have been a worse time for an underperformance than 2018. That election was not merely a prime opportunity for the party given the national environment. It was a redistricting race, the contest that decided control over the governorship during the drawing of Georgia’s congressional and state legislative maps in 2021. It essentially decided the partisan control of the state of Georgia for the entirety of the 2020s. If a Democrat won, they would have had veto power during the process, forcing the passage of fair maps where Democrats would have shots at winning a state legislative majority and several more congressional seats. But a Republican won, so they were able to draw extremely gerrymandered maps at both levels, drawing themselves back a seat in the House and locking in nigh-impenetrable majorities in the state legislature for the rest of the decade.
Even if a Democrat wins the governorship in 2026, they will never be able to govern. The next opportunity for fair maps in Georgia will not be until 2030.
These are the bitter wages George Democrats have earned for allowing one woman to use the party as a vehicle for her personal ambitions for two straight elections. It will take years and years of work to recover from the damage that would have never occurred if Abrams did not lose a race she should have won. Maybe Stacey Abrams laments this, or privately holds regrets over her role in causing it. But the actions of her career do not indicate so. Time and time and time again, she has chosen the even the mere possibility of career advancement over the well-being of her party and her state. And it’s worked about as well as you could ever hope for, at least for a politician who has never won a statewide election.
Abrams seems likely to stay involved in politics. In the weeks after her crushing loss to Kemp, she has already taken credit for Warnock’s win—and talked about running for the Georgia governorship a third straight time in 2026. I don’t expect her to be successful. I also don’t blame her.
Why would I? It is impossible for her to fail. And just so long as nobody questions the story she tells about Georgia, the party will never end. Triumph and defeat, helping and hindering: all of these are concepts she moved far beyond a long time ago. She has mastered the art of losing.
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