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Georgia Republicans have wasted no time making Stacey Abrams’ 2022 gubernatorial bid all about 2018.
In ads, speeches and op-eds, the GOP is hearkening back to Abrams’ first campaign for governor, emphasizing her final speech, which she said was not one of concession.
The message is simple: On respecting the will of the voters, Democrats are being hypocrites.
To drive that message home, they’re arguing that Abrams’ last campaign speech, a critique of Georgia’s election system in 2018, is no different from former President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 election results in the state.
“Democrats attack Trump and Republicans for believing these conspiracies, believing what they call the ‘Big Lie.’ But the original Big Lie proponent was Stacey Abrams,” said Brian Robinson, a Georgia-based Republican strategist. “She was ahead of her time, as she is on so many things.”
How well their message takes hold is likely to shape a major theme of Georgia’s gubernatorial election in 2022, when election integrity and voting rights will remain major issues.
And it will be a potent political test for Abrams, an influential figure in the Democratic Party who made history as the first female Black nominee from a major party to run for governor — and who is eager for a rematch against Republican Brian Kemp.
So far, Abrams is not backing down from the nuanced position she staked out at the end of a contentious campaign against Kemp, who was then secretary of state.
Abrams did not recognize him as the victor until more than a week after Election Day, as her campaign maintained they would wait for all of the votes to be counted before weighing in. Though she lost by some 55,000 votes, Kemp finished with 50.2 percent of the vote — fewer than 10,000 votes above the majority runoff threshold that could’ve forced a second election.
In her final speech 10 days later and at speaking engagements over the following months, Abrams maintained that she was not conceding the race.
“Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede,” Abrams said to supporters in 2018. “But my assessment is that the law currently allows no further viable remedy.”
She was indicting the system that got Kemp elected — alleging that voter suppression tactics paved the way for his win — and was also implicating Kemp, as he was then officially in charge the state’s elections.
In an interview with CNN earlier this month, she reupped her view that the election was “rigged” — echoing language often invoked by Trump.
Abrams said Kemp “won under the rules of the game at the time, but the game was rigged against the voters of Georgia.”
“I, on November 16, 2018, acknowledged at the top of my speech that Brian Kemp is the governor of Georgia and I even wished him well at the end of the speech,” Abrams said. “And in the middle, I talked about the fact we had a system that he managed, that he manipulated, hurt Georgia voters and the responsibility of leaders is to challenge systems that are not serving the people.”
According to a lawsuit filed by Fair Fight Action, a group Abrams founded after the 2018 election, the election was marred by a range of issues. The suit — which is due to go to trial in February — cites among other items Georgia’s exact-match law, claiming that it disproportionately targeted first-time minority voters. In addition, it alleges that elections officials were not properly trained to cancel absentee ballots, barring access to the ballot for scores of voters who opted to vote in person.
While Abrams’ claims are not nearly as confrontational as Trump’s, they have given the GOP an opportunity to use her words to undercut her reputation as a champion of free and fair elections.
David Perdue, the former senator now running against Kemp in the GOP gubernatorial primary, said his decision to do so was driven in large part by Abrams’ entry to the race and his belief that Kemp would not be a strong enough candidate to defeat her.
In his election launch video, Perdue presented Abrams as a threat to the state’s elections, saying “over my dead body will we ever give Stacey Abrams control” of them. Around the same time, the Republican Governors Association issued a press release highlighting Abrams’ 2018 speech, saying she is a candidate who “cannot be trusted.”
And in March, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wrote that Abrams’ refusal to concede the 2018 election undermined voters’ faith in the system. At public gatherings, he has alleged that both she and the former president are spreading misinformation about their races through Trump’s allegations of election fraud and Abrams’ of voter suppression.
Yet while both Trump and Abrams refused to concede their elections, the similarities between the two stop there.
Trump not only refused to concede the presidential election but made false claims about its results, alleging that missing or fraudulent votes contributed to his loss.
The statements were unsubstantiated: Neither Georgia’s Bureau of Investigation nor the FBI found evidence of fraud during the 2020 election. Multiple ballot recounts found Joe Biden as the election winner in the state. And since then, state courts have dismissed the multiple lawsuits filed by the former president, his allies and supporters seeking to reverse the results of the election.
Seth Bringman, a spokesperson for Abrams, underscored her stance on the race.
“After Election Day in 2018, the Abrams campaign went to federal court, multiple judges agreed with our claims and more Georgians' votes were counted,” said Bringman. “She acknowledged the result of the election but refused to accept that it was fair to the voters — and she worked to change Georgia's voting system for elections moving forward.”
However, that lawsuit was pared down by a judge in April, shortly after Kemp signed legislation that imposed new state restrictions on voting by mail and gave the GOP-controlled legislature more control over elections.
As the fight over Georgia’s election system rages on, Republicans are reveling in the idea of being able to use Abrams’ own words against her.
“We've seen so many TV ads, so many digital ads, where candidates are stretching the truth. And I think the electorate realizes that. They know that not everything they see or hear now is fact checked or is valid,” said Ryan Mahoney, a senior adviser to Brian Kemp’s 2018 election. “And so when it's Stacey Abrams in her own words, it's a lot more believable, it goes a lot further and it's a lot harder for Abrams and her camp to dispute. And thankfully, for Republicans in Georgia, Stacey Abrams has spent a lot of time on TV since losing [the 2018] race.”
Democrats have been quick to call out the GOP’s tactics, saying that while election integrity may be front of mind for both Democratic and Republican voters, pushing the belief that Abrams is on an even level with Trump will not get the GOP far in the messaging wars.
“I think this will land, probably, with [Republican] voters. But obviously, it's not going to work with the Democratic base,” said Nabilah Islam, a Georgia-based Democratic strategist and former congressional candidate. “For them to try to equate it to what Trump said is absolutely egregious.”
And in her first interview after declaring her candidacy earlier this month, Abrams clarified her position on the 2018 election.
“On the 16th of November when I acknowledged that I would not become the governor, that [Kemp] had won the election, I did not challenge the results of the election, unlike some recent folks did,” Abrams told Rachel Maddow the night she launched her campaign. “What I said was that the system was not fair. And leaders challenge systems; leaders say, ‘We can do better.’ And that’s what I declared.”