After years of close calls, red herrings, and increasingly narrow constituencies, the Democrats won Georgia for the first time since 1992 in this year’s presidential election.
The victory broke the Republican lockdown on the southern states in the electoral college, but also confirmed Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat and former House minority leader who has become synonymous with the party’s efforts to win nationwide. Ms. Abrams, who has helped organizations register new voters and tackle voter suppression, said the win was a personal relief – a political boost after narrowly losing her race for governor in 2018.
In an interview with The Times, she explained how she believes Mr Biden has won and how liberal groups in other southern states can repeat Georgia’s path. She also discussed the current divisions within the Democratic Party and its future political plans.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Georgia is turning blue after all these decades of work. How did you feel when this became clear? Was it justification? Was it relief? What was the emotion?
I think it was a combination of relief and excitement at what this means. But also a healthy dose of realism – we did this, but it was just about hit, which means there is more work to be done.
I wouldn’t give a justification in the sense that there was some kind of chest blow, but I’m excited to see how the model for building this tapestry of leaders across racial and geographical boundaries proves it. I’ve had the privilege of being part of building the resources, infrastructure, and narration that help bring diverse communities together. We are all working towards the same goal. Over a decade and with resources, this brought success to fruition.
What was different about the coalition voters this time? What happened in 2020 that wasn’t possible in 2018 or 2016?
I think these are two parts. On the one hand, demographic change is ongoing, and each cycle offers the opportunity not only to register them, but also to include them. So you build the muscle memory of voting, you build the ability to engage because people have more information and a deeper sense of their ability and potential as voters.
I would differentiate between 2016 and 2020 and use 2018 as a marker because it also happened that we were able to lift notable restrictions on voter access.
The suppression of voters was instrumental in shaping the turnout figures in 2018 and 2016. In 2018 we invested much deeper in actual voter turnout, but we still came across the buzz saw of voter cleanups, accurate game closings and inaccurate old machines and unevenly deployed, broken machines and then comparatively high rejection rates from black and brown voters in the letter or preliminary election room.
So what we were able to specifically identify in 2018, we were then able to moderate on the way to 2020.
I think you see the combination of increased voter engagement with an additional 800,000 registered people and staying in these elections through November 2018. However, they also had the opportunity to remove and moderate a number of obstacles that blocked access to the surveys.
I think it’s really important, as much as people are excited about the proactive work we have been able to do to get the voters to vote, we cannot ignore the incredible change that has been made because the voters do it actually managed to get through the gantlet and let their votes count.
How were those early years? Were you believed when you said that Georgia could be a democratic state?
I became a minority leader in November 2010, two weeks after the worst loss Democrats suffered in Georgian history. We lost every nationwide office. We lost the Senate to a super major. We lost more members of the State House. And we were facing a year of restructuring in which Republicans withdrew 124 seats out of 180 on paper.
I have traveled the country raising money for house races and it has been almost impossible to get people to invest. People didn’t see the validity of a victory in Georgia. They pointed to the 2008 election when the Obama campaign found we were not yet viable so no investment was made. In 2012, I couldn’t take advantage of the fact that the campaign was making investments to get donors to come in. So it was a really small cadre of donors, mostly philanthropists, whom I met myself. I would say, “I know you don’t believe Georgia is real, but let me tell you what it can be like.”
Every cycle I took the same deck and updated it and said, “Here we were. And here we go. And while this thing feels incremental, let me tell you what’s different now.”
I’ve always loved these lines: “Give me a place to stand and I can move the world.” Give me a place to stand and I can convince you Georgia is real.
What was your lowest point during that time? At what moment did you ask if this was possible?
The end of redistribution in 2011. Republicans passed cards giving them a disproportionate stake everywhere. It grabbed black communities, it cracked Latino communities. It placed the only Latin American legislature in a predominantly white district. And the cards were approved. It was December 2011 when the Republicans were given permission to act racially in the state of Georgia, and that was heartbreaking for me. It meant the only salvation we had was crawling our way back.
There would be no new card. There would be no litigation. We had to do this by finding every voter we could, and that would take a lot longer than I had hoped, but not longer than I had imagined.
Looking to the future, how are the Democrats holding together the coalition we saw in November without Trump on the ballot? Obviously, the Senate drains are the first step.
This coalition existed in 2018 when I was elected. This is a coalition we have built on new ground over the past decade through groups such as the Asian-American Advocacy Fund, Black Lives Matter, Coalition for Popular Agenda, Mijente and Southerners. So this is a group that didn’t come together for convenience. We worked together in a coalition and so I think we can keep it up.
What about other states? Why didn’t Democrats see similar gains in other states through the South on Election Day?
I can’t talk to what hasn’t happened in other states. I can tell you that Georgia has the most diverse voters of all battlefield states. We saw a dramatic increase not only in voter turnout but also in the proportion of the electorate. Latino and A.A.P.I. The number of voters rose sharply from 2016.
We disagree with The Upshot’s analysis. We believe the black percentage is actually 29 percent, and that’s where it was. It fell slightly because we saw a sharp increase in Latino and A.A.P.I. The voters and I firmly reject the idea that we have lost 2 percent of the black vote.
Not only did we see the proportion of voters increasing, but also that voter turnout in Latino has increased by 72 percent. A.A.P.I. The number of voters rose by 91 percent and that of black voters by 20 percent. White voters increased theirs by 16 percent. So we were able to increase all these margins and also further increase the proportion of white voters. And this combination is important. This is a combination that doesn’t really exist in other states on the plane here in Georgia.
There are divisions among Democrats, particularly moderate and progressive, on some of the voting results. You have respect in these two camps. Do you think news like Defund the Police hurt the party in races in the House and Senate?
I think you are campaigning for the place where you live. And I’ve always held onto the reality that we exist in a spectrum of advances. There are those who have made it further in this spectrum. There are other communities who have difficulty finding our way. And the responsibility of any election in any campaign is to find out where you are, but also where you can go.
However, it is up to these local communities to calibrate how far and how far the vision can go.
I don’t think it’s helpful to try to force every single person into the same shape. I speak of the work I do here as a translation of “progressive” to “southern” because I know that there are conversations that are absolutely necessary but you can’t get to it if you haven’t built the language to describe them. And we have to do the language building work before we can get to the slogans.
But is it zero sum? The word we hear from some of the moderate members of the House is that some of these progressive members and those slogans are given too much space and it hurts them.
For the Democratic Party, it is our burden and our benefit that we face diversity. Republicans rarely need to get involved because of the homogeneity of their belief system. When you are against most things there is no need to articulate what you are for.
And this is a broad generalization, and I know it, but Democrats have always had to recognize that we will have robust talks in the big tent we have built. And these conversations always flow into the atmosphere. Republicans will arm these talks. And it can be whispering or screaming, but you will find a way to use it.
Our responsibility is to make sure we have a basic understanding of who we are.
Are you going to run for governor in 2022?
I’m focusing on January 5th and making sure we can send Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the United States Senate.
Is there a timeline in which you need to make this decision?
I’m just looking forward to January 5th.