Among the many issues currently polarizing American politics—abortion, climate change, health care, immigration, gun control—one of the most consequential tends to be one of the least discussed. The American electorate, across the country, is diversifying ethnically and racially at a rapid rate. Progressives, interpreting the shift to mean that, following traditional paths, the new voters will lean Democratic, see a political landscape that is turning blue. Conservatives apparently see the same thing, because in recent years many of them have supported policies, such as voter-I.D. laws and voter-roll purges, that have disproportionately affected people of color.
The issue has become more pressing with the approach of the 2020 Presidential election. In June, the Supreme Court ruled that federal judges do not have the power to address partisan gerrymandering, even when it creates results that “reasonably seem unjust.” Last month, President Donald Trump was finally forced to abandon his effort to add, in defiance of another Court ruling, a citizenship question to the census—an idea that Thomas B. Hofeller, the late Republican strategist who promoted it, believed would aid the G.O.P. in further redistricting. But, days later, the President was telling four American women of color, all elected members of the House of Representatives, to “go back” to where they came from.
The nation got a preview of the battle for the future of electoral politics last year, in Georgia’s gubernatorial race. The Republican candidate was declared the winner by a margin of less than two percentage points: fifty-five thousand votes out of nearly four million cast—a record-breaking total for a midterm election in the state. Many Georgians, though, still use the terms “won” and “lost” advisedly, not only because the Democrat never technically conceded but also because of the highly irregular nature of the contest. The Republican, Brian Kemp, was Georgia’s secretary of state, and in that role he presided over an election marred by charges of voter suppression; the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, has become the nation’s most prominent critic of that practice.
Although she has only recently come to wide attention, Abrams, a forty-five-year-old tax attorney, romance novelist, and former state representative, has been working on electoral reform—particularly on voter registration—in Georgia for some fifteen years. In that regard, some Georgians view her campaign as a success; she won more votes than any Democrat has ever won for statewide office. Georgia is representative of the nation’s demographic changes. The population is 10.5 million, and, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it was 57.5 per cent white in 2008, fell to 54.2 per cent white in 2018, and will be 53.6 per cent white next year. It will be majority-minority by 2033. Democratic leaders from red states in the South and beyond with shifting populations—they include the Presidential candidates Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana, and former Representative Beto O’Rourke, of El Paso, Texas, as well as the former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who is considering a second run for the U.S. Senate, in Mississippi—have examined Abrams’s campaign to see how they might adopt its strategies. Espy described his discussion with her as “a graduate course in politics.”
Abrams has yet to decide if she will run for office again. For now, she is focussed on addressing the irregularities that her campaign identified. Within days of the election, she formed an organization called Fair Fight Action, which, with Care in Action, a domestic-worker advocacy group, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Kemp had impaired citizens’ ability to vote, and thereby deprived them of rights guaranteed under the First, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. (Abrams is the group’s chair; her former campaign director, Lauren Groh-Wargo, is the C.E.O.) The suit seeks changes to the entire structure of Georgia’s electoral system, from the number of polling stations and the kind of voting machines used to policies on registration. In May, a federal judge for the Northern District of Georgia ruled that the case may proceed.
The clash between Kemp and Abrams drew national attention again in May, as a result of another issue shaping the 2020 race. Kemp campaigned as an antiabortion stalwart, and, for his first major piece of legislation, he signed House Bill 481. A so-called heartbeat bill, H.B. 481 prohibits abortion once “embryonic or fetal cardiac activity” can be detected, which can happen as early as six weeks after conception, before a woman may even know that she is pregnant. Opponents, Abrams among them, call it the “forced-pregnancy bill.” It is scheduled to go into effect in January. Six other states have passed similarly restrictive bills this year. Many opponents say that the laws were designed to push legal challenges to them to the Supreme Court, which, with the appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, many conservatives believe would now be willing to, in effect, reverse Roe v. Wade.
A week after the signing, Abrams warned, in a minute-long video on Twitter, that “right now, across the South, and around the country, a woman’s right to control her body, and a doctor’s ability to give the health care we deserve, is under attack.” Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris, all of whom are running for President, also appeared in the video, urging viewers to support organizations working to protect access to safe, legal abortion.
Pro-choice activists called for an economic boycott of Georgia, like the one directed at North Carolina in 2016, after it passed a law prohibiting transgender people from using the public bathroom of their preference. (That law was partly repealed, in 2017.) A number of television and movie production companies have shot on location in Georgia in recent years. But Abrams, who describes herself as a “pragmatic progressive,” discouraged any boycott by those companies, out of concern for workers who would suffer as a result. “I think the superior opportunity for Georgia,” she told the Los Angeles Times, is to “use the entertainment industry’s energy to support and fund the work that we need to do on the ground, because Georgia is on the cusp of being able to transform our political system.” Jordan Peele and J. J. Abrams, the producers of the HBO horror series “Lovecraft Country,” which was scheduled to shoot in the state, announced that they would continue production but donate “100% of our respective episodic fees” to the A.C.L.U. of Georgia and to Fair Fight Action. They added that they wanted to “stand with Stacey Abrams and the hardworking people of Georgia.” (In June, the A.C.L.U. of Georgia, with the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood, brought a suit against the state, alleging that the abortion law was unconstitutional. Last month, the groups sought a court injunction to stop it from taking effect.)
I spoke to Abrams about H.B. 481 when it was still making its way through the legislature, and she framed it as part of a larger set of reproductive-health issues. Georgia has “one of the highest maternal-mortality rates in the nation,” she said, adding that half the counties lack an ob-gyn practice and that, over all, the quality of reproductive care is poor. So she saw an obligation to think about “abortion as one of the tools in the medical tool kit to address reproductive health.” I spoke with her again after Kemp signed the bill, and she made a direct connection between reproductive rights and civil rights. The law is not only radical, she said; it also carries no more legitimacy than the election that gave Kemp the authority to sign it. “This is a perfect example of what the consequences of not having free and fair elections can have,” she said.
In another conversation this spring, Abrams told me, “I live my life with an assumption that I have the right to do the things I think I should do, and that my gender and my race should not be limitations.” Two black United States senators are currently running for President; the Congress is the most diverse ever seated; and an African-American woman, Maxine Waters, serves as the chair of the powerful House Financial Services Committee. In the Presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, black women had the highest voter-participation rate of any demographic group. Yet they are among the least likely to hold elected office. (Women of color constitute just four per cent of statewide elective executives.) Abrams is the first black woman to be nominated for the governorship of Georgia—if she had won, she would have been the first black female governor in the country.
In the spring, she reissued a political memoir, “Lead from the Outside.” The protocols of mainstream American politics generally frown on the word “power.” Abrams sees that as precisely the issue. “Minorities rarely come of age explicitly thinking about what we want and how to get it,” she writes. By contrast, “people already in power almost never have to think about whether they belong in the room.” Abrams is characteristically direct, but such statements are also an attempt to upend the presumptions of what leadership in this society is expected to look like. She goes on, “For most people from the outside, every story you read, every narrative you’re told, except for a couple months out of the year, is about how you’re not supposed to be one of these people.” The net effect, she writes, is that people view themselves as “ancillary, not essential” to the decision-making processes.
Dalton, Georgia, is a city of some thirty thousand people in Whitfield County, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near the Tennessee border. It’s a place earnest enough that it claims Marla Maples, Donald Trump’s second wife, as a famous daughter—even though, technically, she is from nearby Cohutta. The county is overwhelmingly white, though the Latino population, in particular, is growing. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost there to Trump by forty-five points; in 2018, a non-Presidential election year, Abrams lost it to Kemp by a similar margin, though the Latino turnout increased. Conventional wisdom would hold that time spent by a Democratic politician in Whitfield County is a seed tossed onto arid soil. Abrams would say that, according to that kind of thinking, she never should have run for governor in the first place. Last year, she campaigned in every county; now that she is no longer a candidate, she wants to keep every county engaged with her electoral-reform campaign.
So, on a chilly afternoon on the last day of March, Abrams, who lives in a gentrifying section of Atlanta’s east side, made the ninety-minute drive to Dalton, as part of a tour that she has been conducting around the state. She was ebullient, even though the Dalton appearance would be her second event of the day. She had risen early to speak at the Antioch A.M.E. Church in Stone Mountain, a middle-class suburb of Atlanta. “I’m not a glad-hander,” she told me. “I’m a good responder, but I’m also very comfortable sitting in silence.” Abrams is, nevertheless, an effective speaker. Her speeches are short on grand metaphors, long on blunt, declarative sentences. “Voters aren’t dumb,” she said. “They can tell if you mean what you say.” Cynicism “comes about because people don’t tell you the truth.”
The Dalton Convention Center is a sprawling complex just off Interstate 75, near the site where, a historical marker notes, Confederate forces temporarily repelled William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops as they marched on Atlanta. About a hundred and fifty people had shown up for Abrams’s event, which had been organized by Fair Fight Action. Many of them were older white people, and some had volunteered for her campaign.
Abrams was wearing a navy-blue sheath dress and a braided strand of pearls, and her hair was in her signature twists. When she took the stage, she looked like an attorney about to make an opening argument. She began by thanking the volunteers, the Georgia Democratic Party, and its L.G.B.T.Q. caucus; her campaign actively courted gay and lesbian voters—a month before the election, she became the first nominee of a major party to march in the Atlanta Pride Parade. Then she repeated a line that she uses often, to the irritation of Georgia’s Republican leadership. She said, “I’m gonna tell you what I’ve told folks across this state, and this is not a partisan statement, it’s a true statement: We won.”
She added, “In this election, we tripled Latino turnout, we tripled the Asian-Pacific Islander turnout.” Between 2014 and 2018, according to Fair Fight Action, African-American participation also rose, by forty per cent. (The organization says that its voter figures are more accurate than census data, which show smaller, though still significant, increases.) For Abrams, the point of continuing to try to organize in places like Whitfield County is to create a cross-racial coalition that can make the state more competitive for Democrats. In that sense, her efforts look less like a Hail Mary than like a pass hurled downfield toward a specific receiver whom no one else has noticed.
Abrams may be a symbol of the new Georgia, but she was born in 1973 in Madison, Wisconsin—where her mother, Carolyn, was earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Wisconsin—and she grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi. Carolyn met Abrams’s father, Robert, in their home town of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, when they were in high school, and in the late sixties they enrolled in Tougaloo College, which had been a center of the student civil-rights movement. Politics has always been a part of the family’s life. In the eighties, Carolyn told me, when she worked as a librarian and Robert had a job as a dockworker, the family picketed a Shell Oil gas station for the company’s refusal to divest from South Africa.
Stacey is the second of six children. Each of the three oldest children was assigned responsibility for one of the three youngest. She was paired with her brother Richard, who is now a social worker in Atlanta. Her older sister, Andrea, has a doctorate in anthropology; Jeanine has a doctorate in biology. Leslie is a federal judge for the Middle District of Georgia. Walter, who attended Morehouse College, has struggled with bipolar disorder and addiction, and has served time in jail. Earlier this year, at the 92nd Street Y, Abrams spoke about his difficulties, as she has done in the past, with his permission, to raise awareness about addiction and mental-health issues. “If our leaders are ashamed to tell real stories, how can we trust them to have real answers?” she said.
In her junior year of high school, the family moved to Atlanta, where both of her parents enrolled in the master-of-divinity program at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. (They are now retired elders of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church.) In 1991, Abrams began attending Spelman College, a historically black women’s institution, founded in Atlanta in 1881. (I taught history there from 2001 to 2011.) Johnnetta Cole, an anthropologist who was the first black female president of the college (and later became the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art), met Abrams and her parents at the start of her freshman year. Cole remembers that Robert told her, “I want you to know that I am leaving my baby girl Stacey here, but, if anything happens, I’m coming to find you.” She said, “I took a deep breath, and told the Right Reverend that it was my responsibility to make sure that Stacey and all her sisters in that class were as safe as possible, and that we stretched them, so they learned how to fly.”
Abrams had grown up with college-educated parents, but she had never known kids whose families socialized with Presidential Cabinet members or flew on their own jets. Cole encouraged her to run for campus office—by her senior year, she’d been elected student-government president—and allowed her to sit in on meetings of the board of trustees. The idea was to give Abrams, who frequently told Cole how she thought Spelman should be run, insight into the workings of a university. Abrams says that the experience provided her with her first lessons in raising and allocating funds.
A turning point in her understanding of politics came in the spring of 1992, when four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, an African-American construction worker. Los Angeles exploded into riots, and there was unrest on campuses across the country. Students from several schools gathered at the Atlanta University Center to protest the verdict. Atlanta’s civic leadership, unlike that of Los Angeles, was largely black—a legacy of the civil-rights movement—and included Mayor Maynard Jackson and the police chief, Eldrin Bell. That fact heightened the indignation of the protesters when the police began teargassing them.
Incensed by sensational portrayals of the protest in the local news, Abrams organized students to call the networks repeatedly to complain, and that led to a meeting with Jackson. In her memoir, Abrams writes, “With a boldness that surprised me, I excoriated his record and scoffed at his leadership. If I’d thought more deeply before I stood I might have held my tongue. . . . In this moment I had access to power, a voice, and a question. Sometimes the why of ambition can only be discovered in nervy actions that cut against our instincts.”
After graduating from Spelman, and earning a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Texas, she entered Yale Law School. It was there that she began writing novels. (She has published eight, under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery, the last of them, “Deception,” in 2009. They feature professional women caught up in romance and intrigue.) “The act of writing is integral to who I am,” she told the Washington Post last year. But fiction was a sideline; she specialized in tax law, and decided to go back to Georgia. She knew that she wanted to pursue a career in government, and, in 2002, when she was twenty-nine, she became a deputy city attorney for Atlanta. Four years later, she won a seat in the Georgia House, representing the Eighty-fourth District, which encompassed part of the east side of Atlanta.
In 2004, the Democrats had lost control of the House for the first time in more than a century, and DuBose Porter, then the leader of the Democratic caucus, was struggling to define its role as the minority. He saw an asset in Abrams. “When Stacey was first elected, she was somewhat reserved,” he told me, but “she instantly gained credibility, because she was kind of like our Google. If you needed some answers on something, you would go ask Stacey.”
Abrams also earned a reputation for being willing to oppose the Republican leadership, though she is not a radical by nature. Her emergence as a national figure has coincided with the left’s ascendancy in the Democratic Party, and many have portrayed her as part of that movement. But colleagues repeatedly point to her ability to forge compromises. Porter ran for governor in 2010—he lost in the primary, and Nathan Deal, a Republican congressman, was elected—and, when Abrams made a bid to replace him as minority leader, he supported her. She won, becoming the first woman to lead either caucus in the Georgia House.
That year, Kemp, then a forty-six-year-old state senator from Athens, Georgia, became the secretary of state. After the 2010 census, the Republicans redrew the district lines. The G.O.P. was expected to pick up seats in the 2012 races, and it was Abrams’s job to try to prevent the Party from winning a supermajority in the legislature. Lauren Groh-Wargo, then a thirty-one-year-old activist turned strategist from Cleveland, who had worked on Democratic campaigns in Ohio, including Governor Ted Strickland’s unsuccessful 2010 bid for reëlection, was looking for candidates to support. She had heard about Abrams and spoke with her a few times by phone, and, in early 2012, when Groh-Wargo was visiting Atlanta, they met for lunch. Abrams hired her as a consultant. Groh-Wargo, who is white and a lesbian, and Abrams represented voices that had never been at the center of Georgia politics, and, together, they pursued a plan to blunt the effects of redistricting through voter mobilization.
Abrams surprised the state G.O.P. by raising more than three hundred thousand dollars to support Democratic candidates that year. The money was spent not on expensive television and radio ads but on voter-turnout strategies, like organizing canvassing teams and volunteer networks. In the end, the Democrats held on to four redistricted seats. “It was a really big deal that the Republicans didn’t get the supermajority they had drawn for themselves,” Groh-Wargo told me.
But Abrams had also discovered how fractious party politics can be. The previous year, as part of a round of budget cuts, Governor Deal considered severely curtailing the state’s popular hope Scholarship, which had used funds from the Georgia Lottery to pay the tuition and the cost of books for hundreds of thousands of qualifying students at certain Georgia colleges. A plan called for full scholarships to be made contingent on SAT scores, which meant that many students would no longer be eligible for them. Abrams agreed to a compromise: a second tier of partial tuition funding was made available to tens of thousands of students who met the previous standard of a 3.0 G.P.A. (Porter pointed out that the compromise spared Georgia’s pre-K program, which was also funded by the lottery.) Liberals criticized the deal, largely because tying the funds to SAT scores would favor suburban, mostly white students. Abrams still sounds stung by the experience. In February, during an interview with the MSNBC host Chris Hayes, she said, “I was accused of selling out the students because they got ten to twenty per cent less. To me, eighty per cent is a lot more than zero.”
Then came the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down as unconstitutional a provision of the Voting Rights Act that had required Georgia and other states with a history of discriminatory voter suppression to get “preclearance” from the Justice Department or from a federal court before changing their voting regulations. Legislatures and elected officials in the South and elsewhere immediately embarked on efforts to disenfranchise voters. (Earlier this month, the Brennan Center for Justice reported that seventeen million Americans had been purged from the voter roles between 2016 and 2018, and that the largest increases in purges were in states that had previously been under preclearance.) Abrams launched, and became a part-time C.E.O. of, the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to registering overlooked constituencies: young people, women, people of color.
There were conflicts early on—critics noted Abrams’s $177,000 salary, and, in 2014, Kemp’s office, acting on reports that the group was submitting fraudulent registration forms, began an investigation of more than eighty thousand forms. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed a suit on behalf of the New Georgia Project and the state N.A.A.C.P., alleging that the state had wrongfully held up thousands of forms submitted by the group; a judge found that the suit lacked sufficient evidence. Ultimately, Kemp’s office identified fifty-three registrations as potentially fraudulent; all of them had been submitted by canvassers who were hired and paid by outside companies that the New Georgia Project had contracted. Kemp’s investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing by the group, and the matter was referred to the state attorney general’s office, where it still awaits possible civil action. The battle proved to be a prelude to 2018.
By 2018, Republicans had won the previous four gubernatorial races in the state, but political strategists were beginning to think that a black candidate who could perform respectably in rural areas and over-perform in the Democratic strongholds around the cities could win. Abrams decided to run, on a platform of Medicaid expansion, affordable housing, criminal-justice reform, and gun control. She defeated the former state representative Stacey Evans in the primary, in a contest cast as the Battle of the Staceys.
Kemp had also decided to run, and he campaigned on an anti-immigration, pro-gun platform, supporting tax cuts and opposing Medicaid expansion. Trump endorsed him, and after a primary runoff he became the Republican nominee. But he didn’t resign his office, which meant that he oversaw an election in which he himself was a candidate—a conflict of interest that Abrams likened to a boxing match in which one fighter is also the referee and one of the judges.
Kemp, who described himself as a “politically incorrect conservative,” did not endear himself to the emerging electorate. He appeared in campaign ads with a truck that he said he drove in case he needed to round up “criminal illegals.” Another ad accused Abrams of “dancing around the truth” of her financial history, while showing a clip of tap-dancing feet. Some viewers saw this as a racist reference to minstrelsy. (Abrams had disclosed that she was two hundred thousand dollars in debt, citing student loans and the costs of helping support family members. She also owed the I.R.S. more than fifty thousand dollars in deferred tax payments, which she said she was repaying. She noted that three-quarters of Americans are in debt, and that it shouldn’t prevent them from running for office.)
Kemp’s office declined to comment on the election for this piece, though he has called reports of voter suppression “a farce.” A spokesperson pointed to a new report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission that lists Georgia as the leading state for voter registration through its motor-vehicle department. But there was a broad range of complaints during the campaign. In July of 2017, according to a study by American Public Media, the secretary of state’s office, under a “use it or lose it” policy, and allegedly as part of an effort to prevent voter fraud, cancelled the registrations of a hundred thousand voters who hadn’t voted in seven years. Kemp also enacted an “exact match” policy, which required information on voter-registration applications to precisely match information on other official records. Something as minor as a missing hyphen could put a registration on hold. The registrations of fifty-three thousand voters, seventy per cent of whom were African-American, were set aside for review. The race drew national attention as more complaints were lodged, including reports that residents who had become citizens were wrongly informed that they could not vote. Voters who requested absentee ballots said that they never received them. The state Democratic Party reported that forty-seven hundred absentee-ballot requests from DeKalb County, which is more than fifty per cent black, had gone missing.
Four days before the election, U.S. District Court Judge Eleanor Ross ruled that the exact-match policy presented a “severe burden” for voters, and allowed three thousand new citizens whose registrations had been held up to vote. The day before the election, the Brennan Center brought a lawsuit on behalf of Common Cause Georgia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that focusses on election integrity, alleging that a vulnerability in the registration database left it open to hacking, and requested that Kemp’s office insure that provisional ballots be properly counted. On Election Day, November 6th, there were numerous reports that polling places ran out of provisional ballots; residents of Gwinnett County, a heavily minority district outside Atlanta, had to wait in lines for hours to vote.
Lawyers for the Abrams campaign sought more time for ballots to be examined; a margin of less than one per cent would have triggered a recount. The next Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Totenberg ordered Kemp to open a hotline so that voters could determine if their provisional ballots had been counted. The state had planned to certify the results the next day, but Totenberg ordered that no certification occur before 5 p.m. that Friday. By the end of the week, though, it became clear that there would not be a recount, and, on the night of November 16th, Abrams gave a speech in which she said, “I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor of the 2018 gubernatorial election. But to watch an elected official—who claims to represent the people of this state—baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote has been truly appalling. So, to be clear, this is not a speech of concession.”
Many people in and outside Georgia believe that, without the irregularities, Abrams would have won. In early June, in Atlanta, Joe Biden, the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, told the African American Leadership Summit that “voter suppression is the reason Stacey Abrams isn’t governor.” Addressing the same event, Pete Buttigieg said, “Stacey Abrams ought to be governor right now.”
In March, I interviewed Abrams for an event at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C., and asked her why she thought voter suppression, an issue most closely associated with the civil-rights era, had reëmerged as a pivotal concern across the country. She replied, “We’ve never not been in this situation.” Historically, Georgia’s gubernatorial elections, in particular, have highlighted the nexus between racism and voter suppression. In 1906, the Democratic-primary race—between Hoke Smith, a former publisher of the Atlanta Journal, and Clark Howell, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution—became a competition over who would do more to disenfranchise the African-American population. The escalating rhetoric, amplified by the candidates’ newspapers, set off a riot that left at least twenty-five blacks and two whites dead. In 1946, Governor Eugene Talmadge, a noted segregationist, lost the popular vote in the Democratic primary to James V. Carmichael, an Atlanta businessman who was a moderate on racial issues. But Talmadge was declared the winner, owing to Georgia’s notorious “county unit” system, which gave disproportionate weight to rural areas. In 1966, Lester Maddox, an Atlanta restaurant owner, won the office after refusing to serve black customers, in open defiance of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In 1971, Maddox was succeeded by Jimmy Carter, but even Carter, who would become an icon of Southern liberalism, was not immune to the contortions of Georgia politics. He had lost a bid for the governorship in 1966, when he was a state senator, in part for appearing insufficiently conservative on matters of race. (He had worked to repeal voter restrictions.) In 1970, he courted the support of white conservatives, and Maddox, who was running separately for lieutenant governor, endorsed him. But Carter announced, in his inaugural address, that “the time for racial discrimination is over,” and set about integrating the state government. In the 1976 Presidential election, he carried every state of the former Confederacy except Virginia, winning just forty-five per cent of the white vote, but ninety-five per cent of the black vote.
Beginning in the nineteen-seventies, Georgia—particularly Atlanta—became a destination for a growing number of educated African-Americans repatriating to the South. Between 2000 and 2010, the state’s black population grew by twenty-five per cent, and the Latino population almost doubled, to nearly nine per cent. By 2010, Asian-Americans accounted for three per cent of the population. But those changes were not entirely reflected at the polls. In 2016, six hundred thousand African-Americans who were eligible to vote remained unregistered. Many people viewed this fact as a reflection of the Democratic Party’s pessimism toward the potential of the black electorate in the state. In 2008, Ben Jealous, then the director of the N.A.A.C.P., told me that Democrats were ignoring a political bounty by failing to allocate sufficient money to organize and register black Georgians.
Shortly before Abrams announced her candidacy, she told me, in a phone conversation, that, if she ran, her campaign strategy would rely on registering those six hundred thousand people. During our Brookings discussion, I said that she probably could have heard my eyebrow raise over the phone. “More like I could hear your eyes rolling,” she said. In her public appearances, Abrams often rattles off statistics about the election. But one statistic stands out: nine hundred and twenty-five thousand African-Americans voted in the 2014 gubernatorial race; in 2018, 1.4 million African-Americans voted—ninety-four per cent of them for Abrams.
The fact that her campaign had conceived of a plan that, at least in theory, made Georgia look like a purple state has not gone unnoticed. “The path to victory as a Democrat here is you have got to build a multiracial, multiethnic coalition,” Groh-Wargo told me. “You have got to get super intellectually curious about African-American voters, about Latino voters, about Asian-American voters, about millennials, and white suburbanites.” When I asked Abrams if the national Party had invested too heavily in those communities in 2016, at the expense of the lower-income white electorate, ushering in Trump’s victory, she rejected the framing of the question. “I think where the Democratic Party has gotten into trouble is that we’ve created a binary, where it’s either the normative voter we remember fondly from 1960”—the working-class white male—“or it’s the hodgepodge. The reality is that we are capable as a society of having multiple thoughts at the same time. That’s one of the reasons why I went to the gay-pride parade,” she added. “I know that, as an ally, I’m responsible for making certain that the L.G.B.T.Q. community is seen and heard.” Most elections are framed as a referendum on the future; Georgia’s race was about how much of the past had been dragged into the present.
All this leaves open the question of what Abrams will do next. Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, tried to persuade her to run against David Perdue, Georgia’s junior senator, who is up for reëlection in 2020. In May, she announced that she would not run next year, a decision that was met with disapproval from observers who think that it’s incumbent on prominent Democrats to help the Party win control of the Senate. Abrams defended her decision to me by saying, “I was following the protocol that I set for myself, making sure that I take on jobs and roles because they are the right thing for me, and not simply because they’re available.” Strategists thought that she could beat Perdue; Trump’s approval rating in Georgia has dropped seventeen points since his Inauguration, and Perdue’s close ties to the President may make him vulnerable in the suburbs, where Abrams fared well. She was less sanguine about the part that would come next. The prestige of the Senate does not, in her estimation, offset its torpid pace of change. “It is a more indirect approach than the one I see for myself,” she said. “When I thought through who would be the best advocate in the U.S. Senate for Georgia, under the structure of the Senate, that was not me.”
Yet Republican control of the Senate has been key to some of the issues that most concern her. If it weren’t for the confirmation of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, an imminent challenge to Roe v. Wade would be much less likely. Similarly, the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder left open the possibility that Congress could create an updated standard for voter protection. One such effort is the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, which was co-sponsored by John Lewis, the longtime Georgia congressman and civil-rights leader. The bill, among other things, calls for any jurisdiction that’s been found to have committed repeated voting-rights violations in the past twenty-five years to be re-subjected to preclearance for ten years. Abrams has testified twice this year before Congress in support of such measures. (The Fair Fight Action lawsuit calls for Georgia to be put back under preclearance requirements.) A new voter-protection standard has almost no chance of passing the Senate now. It could, though, if Democrats gain control of the chamber.
Then there is still the question of the governorship. Abrams could run against Kemp again, in 2022, though some aspects of the past campaign are still being fought. In April, Kemp signed two significant bills that addressed some of the issues raised by Democrats and the Common Cause lawsuit, such as extending the “use it or lose it” period and insuring protections for voters using absentee and provisional ballots. New voting machines will be installed by next year, though there are concerns about security. And the new secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, has opened an investigation into the forty-seven hundred absentee-ballot applications that were reported missing.
But, also in April, David Emadi, the new head of the Georgia Ethics Commission, subpoenaed financial records and correspondence from Abrams’s campaign, to investigate contributions from four groups that, according to the subpoenas, may have exceeded the limit for statewide candidates. Groh-Wargo called the move “insane political posturing,” and pointed out that Emadi was a donor to Kemp. (He contributed six hundred dollars to Kemp’s 2018 bid.) Emadi said in a statement that audits and investigations of all the campaigns are ongoing and that “all of these candidates enjoy the presumption of innocence in these matters unless and until evidence indicates otherwise.”
There is also the question of whether Abrams will run for President. Supporters have been calling on her to do so since last year. (In January, she delivered a well-received response to Trump’s State of the Union—an honor generally afforded to a high-ranking officeholder.) A few months ago, she was mentioned in the press as a potential running mate for Biden—a development that caught her off guard. She had met with him, but they did not discuss a joint ticket. When I asked her about that possibility, she promptly shut it down: “I don’t believe you get into a race to run for second place.”
Abrams defended Biden earlier this year against allegations of inappropriate behavior with women, saying, “We cannot have perfection as the litmus test. The responsibility of leadership is not to be perfect but to be accountable.” She was equally politic when I asked her about Biden’s dispute with Kamala Harris, particularly over his history of opposing busing: “While America must reckon with its past, my focus is on how the next President will address the persistent issue of inequity in public education.” Her name will likely continue to show up on various shortlists for the Vice-Presidency.
What is not likely to change, at least in the short term, is the dynamic of the contest between two political directions, one of inclusion, one of resentment. Abrams told me, “What we did in our campaign was realize that the fundamentals are true for everyone. Everyone wants economic security. Everyone wants educational opportunity for their children and for themselves.” It’s an optimistic view—a belief that people are motivated more by their common aspirations than they are by their tribal fears. Abrams’s own future, no matter what she does next, hinges on that being true. ♦