How Stacey Abrams and Georgia have changed since her last run for governor
The 2022 Georgia gubernatorial election could be described as a grudge match for supporters of Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, who are still sore about her first loss.
“She got robbed last time,” said Georgia state Sen. Horacena Tate, a Democrat representing western Atlanta. “I believe she should have been governor.”
When Abrams won the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, progressives took it as a sign the South was turning blue. With a personal story that drew headlines and support nationwide, she stood to become the first Black woman governor in a Republican stronghold by focusing on turning out non-voters, not chasing moderates.
But it's what happened after Abrams lost to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp that could shape whether her second run at the Georgia governor's seat is successful.
This time around Abrams is running in a different Georgia and she is a different candidate.
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Georgia is growing more diverse and has undergone a massive voter registration effort. No longer a fresh-faced state lawmaker, Abrams is now a national name in the Democratic Party and is drawing big donors. On the other side, Republicans are engaged in what is expected to be a divisive primary battle in 2022 at the behest of Donald Trump, who turned on Kemp after the former president's 2020 election loss and endorsed his GOP challenger, former Sen. David Perdue.
Abrams' run also comes as Democrats endure setbacks. President Joe Biden's approval ratings have remained low and Democrats suffered losses in Virginia statewide elections in November.
Abrams' supporters and campaign say Georgia has changed dramatically since her 2018 loss, due largely to continued shifting demographics coupled with voter registration drives.
Close allies add how she is a different contender this time around, too, given her raised national profile and how she is the engine responsible for implementing a long-term political vision that helped turn Georgia – once thought to be an impenetrable GOP citadel – into a battleground state.
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“You know, 10 years ago, when Stacey and I were first talking about her strategies, everybody doubted whether Democrats could win decisively in Georgia,” Ben Jealous, a longtime friend who ran for Maryland governor in 2018, told USA TODAY.
"Now she's won statewide three times — for two senators and a sitting president," he said, referring to Biden winning Georgia in 2020 and victories by Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff weeks later. "And now everybody understands the way to make that possible for her."
Republicans see 2022 as not just a chance to defend their governorship in Georgia, but as an opportunity to retake control of the House and Senate in Congress. Typically, midterm elections don't favor the party in power and the GOP is seizing, fanning out to attack Democrats on everything from COVID-19 restrictions, high inflation and teaching race in schools.
But her supporters describe Abrams as a candidate who just might be immune to those midterm blues.
"You talk about the midterms – everybody's frowning. You mention Stacey, everybody starts smiling," Jealous said. "And if Georgia is now in play, what else can we put in play? And when somebody's won it three times, why can't they do it a fourth time?"
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New Georgia, new voters
The Abrams campaign says Georgia is a competitive battleground – and Kemp is one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents – because at the core it is a dramatically different state.
“If you look over the course of the last four years, what you see is a state that in every election is becoming more Democratic, largely because of support among new voters of color, and among new young voters that are part of a changing political landscape in a state that is growing rapidly, and becoming more diverse,” campaign spokesman Seth Bringman said.
Census figures bear this out, showing the state’s population grew by roughly 1 million since 2010 with most settling in the 11-county metro Atlanta area. Racially speaking, many of those new residents are people of color, according to 2020 Census numbers.
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The white population declined by more than 50,000 in the past decade to just under 5.4 million whereas the Black population increased by 367,000 to about 3.3 million in total.
Voting rights activists have worked feverishly to make sure the state's diversity matches its voting rolls, which the Abrams campaign said is beginning to pay dividends.
Data shared with USA TODAY by the Abrams team this week shows almost 1.3 million new voters have registered since she first ran in 2018, including about 244,300 since the 2020 election alone. Georgia has about 7.2 million voters.
Of those new voters, 47% are people of color and 43% are younger than 30, but the campaign said its election modeling is even more encouraging. Bringman said their modeling data indicates Democrats hold a likely 17-point advantage among these new registrants based on their past voting patterns and their zip codes.
"These sort of predictors of who is being added to the electorate shows that with each new day actually, hundreds of Georgians registering for the first time, joining the electorate that the advantage is clearly with the Democrats," he said.
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Georgia has been trending away from Republicans by larger margins since 2012 when President Barack Obama lost the state by about 305,000. Four years later, Donald Trump won the state by roughly 211,000 votes while Biden was able to win it by approximately 11,800 votes.
A few months after Biden's win in November 2020, Democrats won the two Senate run-off elections, where Ossoff won over Perdue by just over 55,000 votes and Warnock defeated Republican Kelly Loeffler by approximately 93,000 votes.
National Democratic campaign officials working closely with the Abrams campaign attribute those trends to a rise in Black voter engagement and turnout, specifically early voting.
What’s changed about Abrams?
Abrams wasn’t known to most outside the Georgia statehouse in 2018, but now she is a national Democratic figure attracting donors, and her name has become synonymous with the progressive push to expand voting rights.
In February 2018, a Mason-Dixon poll found 47% of Georgia Democratic voters didn't recognize Abrams' name when asked if they had a favorable or unfavorable view of the former legislator, who was Georgia's state House minority leader.
Three years later, a University of Georgia survey found a mere 7% of state voters, including just 6% of Georgia Democrats, didn't know who she was.
“Abrams’ stature has certainly been raised, and that's certainly going to put her into a position to be able to attract the resources she needs to be able to run this campaign,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.
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Abrams' rise didn't stall after after losing the governor's race. In February 2019, she was selected by congressional Democrats to deliver the response to the State of the Union address, which was the first time a Black woman and non-office holder delivered that speech.
In 2020, she was rumored to be on the short list of Biden's potential running mates and she stiff-armed attempts by the national party to recruit her to run for U.S. Senate, citing her renewed passion to oppose voter suppression.
Instead, Abrams expanded her influence nationally by founding Fair Fight Action, a group that in 2020 turned into a powerhouse to assist Democrats financially and protecting voting rights.
Abrams blamed "deliberate and intentional" voter suppression tactics for her 2018 loss. Tate, the Georgia state senator, said a combination of poll closures, voter roll purges and "exact match" registration rules leading up to the election helped Republicans keep Abrams out of the governor's mansion.
In 2020, Fair Fight Action was a fundraising juggernaut, raking in nearly $90 million and doling out more than $66 million, according to federal campaign finance records.Abrams raised $27.7 million to Kemp’s $22.3 million during their last match.
The Abrams campaign declined to provide fundraising totals to USA TODAY.
In 2018, the Georgia governor's race cost more than $100 million, including spending from outside groups.
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Political observers say Abrams' heightened profile will result in an even more expensive race.
"One of the things that I expect across the board between the Democratic and the Republican candidates is that Georgia is going to be awash in money... because Stacey Abrams has the profile to be able to attract that kind of money," Gillespie said.
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Georgia Republican leaders and activists acknowledge that a Perdue and Kemp primary fight isn't the best scenario, but many are saying voters should remain calm even as national conservative voices are biting their nails.
The match-up pits two sides of the Republican Party against each other. Perdue has Trump's backing while Kemp has been the subject of Trump's wrath ever since he refused to help him overturn Biden's victory in Georgia in 2020.
Marci McCarthy, chairwoman of the DeKalb County Republican Party, said no matter who the GOP nominee is next year, Abrams is the type of Democratic opponent who will unite all stripes of conservatives come next November.
McCarthy said many who knew Abrams and worked with her during her time as state House minority leader believe she has drifted too far to the left.
"Overall, she's a lot more radical than she was in 2018, there's a lot of mistrust with Stacey Abrams," McCarthy said.
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But outside of Georgia, conservative voices have said the Perdue-Kemp primary cannot be viewed as a good sign for the state GOP.
"A Kemp-Perdue primary will help nobody more than Stacey Abrams," a Dec. 7 op-ed by the Wall Street Journal editorial board bemoaned.
Erick Erickson, a conservative political commentator, who hails from Georgia, said Perdue joining the race "gives Abrams clear sailing" and stalls any of Kemp's momentum.
"Abrams is the only winner in this move and it makes Abrams more likely to win even as the headwinds blow against the left," he said.
Trump, who is expected to campaign for Perdue, who entered the race Monday, had encouraged the former senator to enter the race, which Democrats believe is a good sign for them in 2022.
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"While Democrats are unifying, Trump might as well have a dart board with Kemp’s face on it at Mar-a-Lago, and whoever survives the GOP primary will be stuck to harmful positions and with an extremely divided party," Democratic Governor's Association spokesman Sam Newton said.
But political activist Peter Korman, of Roswell, Georgia, said he believes a contested Republican primary will be better in that it will activate the conservative base when compared to a "lackluster" anointment on the Democratic side.
As far as how Republicans will reconcile post-primary, Korman said the two men will easily patch things up. The bigger concern, he said, is that the GOP contest could drag into a June run-off and further drain either candidates' campaign resources. Korman said he remains optimistic Trump and his political operation will get behind the GOP nominee – even if it is Kemp.
"Stacey Abrams is incredibly uniting to the Republican base and a lot of independents," Korman said. "She unites many of us – disgusts many of us – because she wasn't like this in the House."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stacey Abrams and Georgia have changed. Will that help her in 2022?