Stacey Abrams’ run for Georgia’s governor came up short two years ago amid closed polling places, stalled voter registrations and purged voter rolls that disproportionately affected African Americans.
Today, the Yale-educated lawyer is being widely credited with turning that loss into a victory for President-elect Joe Biden, who became the first Democrat to win Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992.
Abrams kept attention on Georgia's potential for Democrats and built a new coalition of Black voters, Asian Americans, Latinos and young white residents, a success that puts her in the spotlight as the state’s two Senate races - which will determine control of the U.S. Senate - head to runoff elections on Jan. 5.
The question is: Will Abrams' knowledge of Georgia, and her ability to get out the vote there, help deliver the Senate to the Democrats?
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In one runoff, a special election, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler will face the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and the senior pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The other pits Republican Sen. David Perdue against challenger Jon Ossoff, a Democratic media executive.
Democrats need both wins if Biden is to be able to get his judicial and cabinet choices approved unhindered by the GOP and to see his agenda through Congress easily. With a 50-50 split in the Senate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would be the tie-breaker.
“We're not fighting against Republicans,” Abrams told NBC Nightly News. “We’re fighting for America. And the way we do that is by pulling together the coalition that we had in November, and making certain that that coalition understands its power heading into January.”
One hurdle could be to keep voters interested in the runoffs after a long, bitter presidential race that President Donald Trump is refusing to concede as he levels baseless charges of fraud. The two Senate races are in runoff territory because in both cases neither candidate got 50 percent of vote.
Abrams said the Democrats must start with "education, letting folks know about this election."
“We're going to run a ground game that reflects the composition of the new Georgia," she said. "And that is a composition that includes all communities, giving them a real reason to not only vote, but to be engaged from day one, and making sure that we elect Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock."
In the past, runoff elections in Georgia have favored Republicans, said Charles S. Bullock II, professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. The last Senate runoff was in 2008 when former Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss was victorious by almost 15 percentage points.
“In none of them has the Democrat prevailed, even if the Democrat were leading going into it,” Bullock said.
He cited a 30-30 rule of thumb in which to prevail in a statewide race, a Democrat must increase Black voter turnout to 30% of the electorate and win at least 30% of the white vote.
Because the voter turnout drop-off for runoff elections has typically been greater among Black voters than white voters, it could help Democrats that Warnock is African American, he said.
“The challenge for all four of these candidates is to get people who voted for them in November to come back to the polls and vote for them again in January,” he said.
Since 2016, Georgia has added 1 million new voters, nearly two-thirds of them people of color, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. White voters, on whom Republicans have relied, make up 53% of the 7.6 million people registered to vote, while Black voters stand at 30%. Those younger than 35 account for 33% of voters; those over 65 are at 18%
Abrams co-founded the New Georgia Project in 2014, a nonpartisan effort that says it has registered 800,000 of those new voters. Georgia’s population, which increased 18% in the last decade, is made up increasingly of of people of color, those 18 to 29 years of age and unmarried women, it notes.
The organization’s CEO, Nse Ufot, told NPR’s Scott Simon last month that the goal was never registration alone.
“It was always about expanding the electorate and building what we call super-voters,” she said. “And these are people who vote in every election in which they're eligible - so tons of voter registration coupled with voter education and, you know, smart, engaging voter mobilization tactics.”
After her run for governor, which she lost by 55,000 votes, Abrams launched a second group, Fair Fight, that focuses on battling suppression of voters of color and young voters. After Election Day, the Democratic party chairman in Wisconsin, Ben Wikler, tweeted that Abrams and her team were pivotal not only in winning Georgia but Wisconsin too.
Abrams, who is not only a politician but also a romance writer and who last year delivered the Democratic response to Trump's State of the Union address, said on Twitter that the victory in Georgia was a result of a decade of “hard work — particularly by women of color.”
Biden won 49.5% of the vote in Georgia, compared to the 41% John Kerry won when he ran in 2004, the website FiveThirtyEight.com noted.
Winning the Senate seats for Democrats is critical, she told NBC Nightly News.
“Because that's how we get access to healthcare, that's how we get access to jobs, that's how we get access to justice,” she said. “And my responsibility is to focus so singularly on that that nothing else matters except for getting this done.”
Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, credited Abrams for building a multi-racial coalition as demographics changed in the South.
“Stacey has worked tirelessly to tear down barriers to the ballot and build power for overlooked communities in both Georgia and across the nation," Gupta said.
"Organizers are going to be doubling down on these efforts for the run offs, given what’s at stake," she said.
Groups such Black Voters Matter, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Georgia Muslim Voter Project and the Leadership Conference advocated for more early voting choices -- among them same-day registration, no excuse absentee voting and multiple ballot return drop boxes.
"The pandemic amplified the urgent need for these reforms and we won't let up fighting for them, especially as the runoff elections approach," Gupta said. "We aren't done. Now more than ever election officials need to take steps to ensure operations run smoothly – no one should have to stand in line for hours to cast a vote.”
The results of a statewide audit by hand affirmed Biden's defeat of Trump by 12,284 votes out of nearly 5 million cast. The Trump campaign requested a recount.
If Democrats appear united, Republicans are turning against each other and sparring publicly. Although Trump is campaigning for the two Senate candidates, he has attacked Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and others for not trying to overturn the election results. Loeffler and Perdue demanded their fellow Republican, Georgia's secretary of state Brad Raffensperger, resign after complaining without evidence of “mismanagement and lack of transparency.”
“The secretary of state has failed to deliver honest and transparent elections," they said in a joint statement. "He has failed the people of Georgia, and he should step down immediately.”
Raffensperger called their allegations laughable, and said that an audit of the voting machines had been completed without uncovering evidence of fraud or tampering. He said Trump cost himself the election in Georgia by baselessly attacking mail-in voting.
“As a Republican, I am concerned about Republicans keeping the U.S. Senate," he said. "I recommend that Senators Loeffler and Perdue start focusing on that.”
The Washington Post reported that on a phone call with Republican donors and strategist Karl Rove, Loeffler and Perdue cautioned about Democratic turnout in January. The senators, both close allies of Trump, are trying to balance public support of the president's claims of fraud while at the same time warning of Democratic dominance in the Senate with Biden's win.
“This is really not about messaging," The Post quoted Perdue as saying. "It’s not about persuasion in my race. It’s more about getting the vote out." He later said, “We have to remind people of what the Democrats will do. It has nothing to do with Kelly or me.”
Rove is leading the fundraising for the GOP along with such top Republicans as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Vice President Dan Quayle.
“It’s vital,” Rove told Fox News’ America’s Newsroom. “Whoever controls the United States Senate will have a big impact on the direction of public policy in the United States over the next two and four years."
Rove in the interview talked about wealthy liberals on both coasts raising money to oust Republicans, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Democrats among them, but on the phone call reported by The Washington Post he addressed the threat posed by Abrams.
“We’re going to have a big issue with mail-in ballots that Stacey Abrams has been working for years," Rove said, according to the Post. "Her apparatus is already geared up."