This past September at a Congressional Black Caucus party, I caught up with one of the main players of the “Stacey Abrams for Governor” campaign. I’d been covering the Georgia election from day one so I had a pretty honest relationship with most of the team. At that point, Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp had been tied in the polls for about a month and the race was starting to get national attention.
“Jason, you’re a bit of a cynic…What do you think of our chances ?” They asked.
“I can see a scenario where you [the campaign] actually earn more votes than Brian Kemp…But somehow he still ends up being governor.”
A month after the election, looking at all of the evidence, the lawsuits and the polling data, it’s clear that I was right. Stacey Abrams was robbed in the governor’s race in Georgia and Brian Kemp is an illegitimate fraud barely qualified to be deputy dog-catcher in an unincorporated armpit county let alone governor of Georgia. While national attention has moved on and 2020 speculation swirls around Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke, we can’t forget what happened in Georgia. Despite being stolen, that race still holds the most important lessons from the 2018 election.
You know how in every ’80s romantic comedy, the main guy takes a bet to go on a date with the “nerdy” girl but “surprise!” somehow falls in love with her by the third act and learns a valuable lesson about himself when he chooses the nerd (after her makeover, of course) over the cheerleader right before prom? That was me and the Stacey Abrams campaign in the 2018 election. Everybody in media said to cover the “hotter” races—Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Andrew Gillum in Florida, the Arizona Senate race—and that following the Stacey Abrams race was a gamble because it wasn’t “competitive.”
Yet I was always drawn back to Georgia. Not just because I used to live there but because there was something about the liberal, nerdy, plus-sized, natural-haired, single black female lawyer, who so many people thought was “unelectable,” charging through the red state of Georgia to make history. Yes I, like Issa Rae, was rooting for everybody black but I was rooting extra hard for the Abrams campaign.
After reading one of my Georgia campaign articles, my friend Kristi sent me this text:
I want a man that goes as hard for me as you go for Stacey Abrams LOL
I laughed but it was true. This Georgia governor’s race was important and there was a lot of garbage news coverage that needed to be put in check. During the campaign, I had phones hung up on me, two little boy-band “progressives” at The Intercept tried to get access to my emails, and I was threatened with libel. But it was all worth it. In the Abrams campaign I saw Tishaura Jones’ campaign in St. Louis, and Donna Edwards in Maryland and Yvette Simpson in Cincinnati—black women who had to fight against Democrats, white people and sometimes even black men just to compete for offices they were uniquely qualified for.
It is galling to see how much attention the press is giving to Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rourke as 2020 contenders while Abrams is mostly ignored. Gillum and O’Rourke are fantastic candidates and future leaders, but the cold, hard truth is they both lost their races, while the Georgia race was stolen. The press may lie, campaign spokespeople lie, but numbers don’t.
Yes, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is annoying and a hypocrite and nobody likes him, but he’s not stupid nor corrupt and he was runner-up to be the Republican nominee for president just two years ago. Charming as he is, Beto was never tied with Cruz let alone held a lead. Andrew Gillum is a transcendent political talent but talk to Florida insiders and they’ll tell you; his campaign lacked infrastructure. Plus, he got hit with the Obama Effect. Once those “independent” white voters in Florida realized that electing a 39-year-old black man with a national profile to the governor’s mansion meant Obama 2.o, they flipped in the voting booth. Gillum was a victim of his own talent. Now the Abrams campaign? Totally different story.
Her campaign literally started on a dollar and a dream. Abrams only had $13,000 in the Minority Caucus budget in 2011 and in seven years parlayed that into the most successful Democratic campaign in the history of the state of Georgia. Stacey Abrams earned more votes than Democrat Jason Carter’s governor campaign in 2014 and more than Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns. Her turnout game was turnt up. She got more blackvotes in 2018 than the entire vote total that Jason Carter earned as a candidate in 2014. As for that elusive white voter that Bernie Sanders and the DNC have been obsessed about since 2016? Take a look at the white vote that Stacey Abrams earned vs. Carter’s 2014 totals in metro Atlanta counties like Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett, as well as her success in rural counties like Chatham and Forsyth (according to internal data from the Abrams campaign).
54% White votes in 2014
69% White votes in 2018
17% White votes in 2014
33% White votes in 2018
23% White voters in 2014
36% White voters in 2018
27% White votes in 2014
35% White votes in 2018
14% White votes in 2014
23% Whites votes in 2018
These are Taylor Swift numbers. These are pumpkin-spice-latte-with-avocado toast-and-raisins numbers. These are the kind of white vote totals most Democrats only dream about. Let’s be honest, if Stacey Abrams were a white woman, or a man, or a black man with these numbers, she’d be one the tip of everyone’s tongue as a 2020 presidential contender or at least a VP pick. So the question remains—how did she lose? Brian Kemp stole the election, of course.
In the months leading into the Georgia election, national attention had finally been focused on Brian Kemp’s almost cartoon-villain level of voter suppressionas secretary of state while still running for governor of Georgia. Hidden voting machines. Criminal erasure of voter data and so many voter purges they’re thinking of filming the next movie in the secretary of state’s office. The lawsuit brought against the Secretary of State’s Office by Fair Fight Action (a spinoff from the Abrams campaign) reads like CSI: Elections Unit. Thousands being denied ballots, voting locations moved at the last minute or opening hours late, voter purges of mostly black and young voters by Kemp’s office only in those election years when he was running for office. Who knows how many votes were just destroyed, how many people were illegally turned away, how many machines switched votes all strangely in Kemp’s favor? In a fair fight, Stacey Abrams would be governor of Georgia right now.
Fortunately, the fight is not over; like the ’80s rom-com trope that had me fall in love with this race, the Abrams team is walking away from this campaign singing “Don’t You (Forget about Me).” They’re fighting for voting rights and going after the illegitimate Kemp administration like the Robert Muellers of Cobb County. Nationally, Stacey Abrams’ campaign is a template for how Democrats should attack the South, approach turnout and fight voter suppression. Whether the Democratic nominee in 2020 is Biden or Beto, Gillum or Gillibrand, they can’t win if they don’t bring a Stacey to the table as well. I’ll be there to make sure they don’t forget.