ATLANTA — The local politicians in any swing state always have an argument about why their state is the most important.
In Georgia the case is particularly convincing for Democrats. There’s one congressional seat the party could flip and one that it only recently gained and would like to keep. There are two competitive Senate seats that may determine who controls the upper chamber. The Georgia state house is up for grabs, and with it control over redistricting for the next decade. And, of course, there are 16 electoral votes that Joe Biden doesn’t need to reach 270 but Donald Trump almost certainly does.
As Georgia gradually emerged as a top-tier presidential swing state this year it went through the five stages of surrogate love from the Biden campaign that local Democrats in every state track to measure their worth.
On a scale from Doug to Obama, Georgia is now an Obama.
“First we got Doug,” said a local Georgia Democrat, speaking of Kamala Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, the lowest rung on the inner-circle surrogate ladder. “Then Jill. Then Kamala. Then Joe.” On Monday night, the biggest star is coming. “Now, we’re getting Obama on election eve. It’s real. They wouldn’t be coming back if it wasn’t real.”
The data says it’s real. Biden has a 1- to 2-point lead in polling averages in a state that Trump won in 2016 by 5 points. The two Senate races and the two competitive congressional races are tossups.
If there is one person who is both most responsible for Georgia’s emergence as a competitive state, and most likely to benefit from a Democratic victory here, it is Stacey Abrams. The 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s near miss — she lost by 1.4 points — made Georgia the new North Carolina: a recently red Southern state undergoing dramatic demographic change that has made it competitive for the foreseeable future.
Since her campaign ended in November 2018, Abrams, who is 46, has flirted with running for president, was recruited and passed up a chance to run for Senate, and was vetted by the Biden campaign as a potential running mate. Through it all, she has kept an eye on a couple of things: making sure Georgia was treated as a serious swing state by the Democratic presidential campaign and preparing for a likely race for governor in 2022.
“Back in 2019, I met with every major candidate who was running for president and I had two messages,” she told me. “One, voter suppression is real and it’s one of the reasons that we lost across the country. But two, Georgia is a competitive state and it would be malpractice to not pay attention. Luckily both of those messages broke through.”
Abrams wrote the playbook for Democrats in the state — literally. She and her former campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, put together a 16-page data-rich document detailing the trends in the state benefitting her party and the strategies and resources necessary to take advantage of them. The state was attracting thousands of new voters, many from blue Northern states, and “[e]ach person who moves to Georgia and votes is almost twice as likely to vote Democratic than Republican.”
Black voters were growing as a percentage of the electorate, populations of Latino and Asian American voters were getting large enough to be significant Democratic-leaning voting blocs, and white suburban voters, especially women, were trending away from Trump. (Abrams won 25 percent of white voters in 2018, four points more than Hillary Clinton in 2016.)
“We kept making the case publicly and privately,” she said. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer aggressively recruited her to run for Senate and while she declined, the two Georgia races made the state a top Schumer priority. “The [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] and Chuck Schumer very early came on board,” she said.
Abrams spent a decade as a Georgia legislator, rising to minority leader of the House, so Schumer figured the Senate would be a natural fit. “I think the Senate is a very specific job and while I appreciated my time in the state legislature, my political bent is not the legislature,” she told me, adding that being a senator “has never been my ambition and never been my goal.”
She was more upfront about being vice president. The old cliche is that you can’t run for vice president, and when asked you’re supposed to pretend you would never want such a job. Abrams was clear she would take it, which led some people, including in the old-school Biden campaign, to gripe that she was too public.
“I wouldn’t say I ran for it,” she told me. She compared her public comments to her “cheerleading” for Georgia. “I’m from a place and a region and I personally inhabit a race and a gender that will not receive due consideration if we do not put ourselves forward. When I was pushing for Georgia to be considered as a [swing] state, I could not assume that people would look at the numbers and see us and know we were viable.” The same thing was true about being Biden’s running mate.
“As a black woman, especially one from the South, I could not presume that I would get the benefit of the doubt,” she said. Playing coy might have sent the wrong message. “We’re not presumed to be the natural inheritors and the natural occupants of these offices. And if I were to diminish my capacity or to declaim the possibility — I’m not doing it just for myself, I’m doing it for every other woman of color, every other young black woman who has never seen this as a possibility.”
It worked. The Biden campaign fully vetted her for the job. She said the process was intense, and not just the investigative nature of it — “I luckily have all of my tax returns since I turned twenty” — but the Biden team’s searching questions about her decision-making process and how she operates as part of a team.
“I feel very honored to have been included in the number of people who were considered,” she said. “I appreciate being on the short list.”
Abrams is unique in the constellation of rising Gen X and Millennial stars of the Democratic firmament. She’s more authentically progressive than Julián Castro. She’s more experienced than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s more cerebral than Beto O’Rourke. And she’s not as extremely online as any of them. Her best work can be found in places like Foreign Affairs, where she wrote a cogent essay on identity politics, rather than on Instagram and Twitter.
Her seriousness can make the contemporaries she’s often compared to seem frivolous. When she beamed in for an appearance on Jimmy Fallon on Friday to discuss Georgia politics and promote a recent documentary on voter suppression, her background was a bookshelf of carefully curated works on social justice (Emily Bazelon’s Charged), foreign policy (Samantha Power’s The Education of an Idealist), politics (Ezra Klein’s Why We Are Polarized), and history (Paula J. Giddings’s biography of Ida B. Wells). And her own two books as well (Our Time Is Now, Lead from the Outside). There were not a lot of laughs.
Considering how much nonsense there’s been in 2020, her bluntness and seriousness can be refreshing. I asked if she had her eye on any positions in a potential Biden administration, but she wouldn’t bite.
“I don’t know what comes next until I know what happens on Tuesday,” she said. “And once that occurs I’ll start thinking about the next step.”