ATLANTA – Stacey Abrams spent years working to convince political power players that Georgia is a genuine two-party battleground, a Deep South state where the left could compete if it organized Black voters, other sporadic voters and stopped apologizing for being Democrats.
She was right.
President-elect Joe Biden is on track to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in nearly three decades. The state's two U.S. Senate seats are heading to a runoff after Democratic candidates mounted strong challenges to Republican incumbents, and the outcome is likely to determine which party controls the chamber.
Abrams, the onetime candidate for Georgia governor who has become perhaps the nation's leading voice on voting rights, is being credited for paving those inroads. She raised millions of dollars to organize and register hundreds of thousands of voters and used her high profile to keep the party focused on the state.
“There’s a lot of work that’s gone into this, but Stacey really is the architect of what’s been built in Georgia,” said Dubose Porter, the former Georgia Democratic Party chairman and an Abrams mentor.
This week’s election is the culmination of a political shift decades in the making. The GOP’s advantage has slowly eroded as Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs experience explosive population growth.
Abrams said she's seen this moment coming over many election cycles.
“Georgia has had the potential for years,” she said in an interview shortly before the election. “It didn’t just start this cycle. This has been work that’s been ongoing for nearly a decade, and I’m just proud to see it come to fruition and for it to finally receive the level of investment it deserves.”
That success is fueling speculation about her future prospects. Some of her cheerleaders envision her as Democratic National Committee chairwoman or taking a prominent post in the Biden administration. Those close to Abrams suggest her likeliest next move is a rematch with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in 2022.
She ended her 2018 campaign without explicitly conceding defeat to Kemp. She alleged systemic voter suppression by state elections officials, including Kemp, who was then Georgia’s secretary of state overseeing his contest against Abrams.
Kemp steadfastly denied any wrongdoing, but the dispute resulted in a sharper focus on the state’s election system and intensified Democrats’ attention on voter registration, education and turnout. After her loss, Abrams formed Fair Fight to raise money to organize voters.
The 2018 campaign marked a notable shift in Georgia Democrats’ overall approach.
In 2014, when Porter first insisted to the national party that his state should be financed as an emerging battleground, Democrats nominated candidates with centrist identities. Jason Carter, grandson of onetime governor and former President Jimmy Carter, challenged a Republican incumbent governor. Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, was nominated for an open Senate seat.
It was a play for white voters who’d drifted to Republicans in the decades since the elder Carter and elder Nunn were Georgia's dominant political figures. It failed miserably, with Republicans winning by the same wide margins they'd secured previously to take complete control of Georgia's state and federal offices.
Amid the fallout, Abrams asserted herself. Democrats, she said, wouldn’t close a gap measured in the hundreds of thousands by changing the minds of white perennial voters. They’d do it by reshaping the electorate, by exciting the expanding universe of potentially Democratic voters: the youngest native white Georgians; whites from beyond Georgia; Black voters who cast ballots sporadically; Black voters moving to Georgia from other regions; and a growing Latino and Asian-American population.
“Stacey had the vision for getting to new voters, registering them, talking to them -- and then giving them a reason to vote,” Porter said.
Glynda Carr, the president and CEO of Higher Heights, an organization focused on electing Black women, said Democratic success in Georgia is the result of work led by Black women organizers whose efforts have been impactful but largely underfunded previously.
“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” Carr said. “We’re prepared to dig down deeper and invest further in the political possibilities of Black women’s leadership.”
In one sign of Abrams' growing stature, she's becoming a frequent target of Republican attacks.
As GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins battled for a Senate runoff spot, each attacked the other for previous associations with Abrams. And when Republicans gathered Friday at state GOP headquarters to falsely insist Democrats were stealing the election from President Donald Trump, Abrams' name was invoked.
“We’re going to fight,” roared Vernon Jones, a Black state lawmaker who backed the president's re-election. “We’ll take on Antifa, Black Lives Matter, Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams and all of them.”
Trump himself was an accelerating variable in Georgia’s shift, pushing some white suburbanites toward Democrats.
In 2018, even as Abrams lost, Democrat Lucy McBath won an Atlanta-area congressional seat once held by Republican Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker. McBath was re-elected Tuesday. Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux flipped the neighboring suburban congressional district Tuesday after a narrow defeat two years ago.
Notably, whatever damage Trump did to the Republican brand in the suburbs, he maximized GOP turnout beyond urban footprints. It remains to be seen whether that non-metro spike for Republicans or the shift of suburban whites toward Democrats can last beyond Trump.
But Democrats like Atlanta resident Celeste Hackett, a Black, 44-year-old Ohio native, see the rest of their coalition as a new, hardening baseline.
“We’ve been coming on for 10 years now,” Hackett said Saturday, as she joined hundreds of others celebrating Biden’s victory in Atlanta's Freedom Park, near the Carter Presidential Library. “Stacey was the signal that it could happen. Well, it’s happened. And we’re going to make it happen again in January.”
Stafford reported from Detroit.