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What Should Stacey Abrams Do?

The case for the rising Democratic star to stay local

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

To borrow from Irving Berlin, there was nothing Beto O’Rourke did that Stacey Abrams didn’t do better in her historic campaign for governor of Georgia. She came closer than Beto, the near-miss Senate candidate from Texas, to breaking the Republican stranglehold in an equally difficult state for Democrats, falling short by just 55,000 votes, and she did it against an opponent who had previously waged an eight-year campaign of voter suppression as Georgia’s secretary of state. Yet in the aftermath of the 2018 midterms, it was Betomania that broke out, not Staceymania. And now, it’s O’Rourke who’s running for president.

Abrams ran on tangible progressive issues rather than airy liberal rhetoric. She raised record money. She came within a whisker of winning not just thanks to her own considerable charisma, but also because she’d spent years leading an unprecedented voter-registration effort, known as the New Georgia Project, and ultimately brought out 800,000 more Democratic voters in 2018 than in the 2014 midterms. She had built a movement, not just a campaign. Along the way, she broke new political ground by speaking freely about her financial debts, her brother’s incarceration and mental-health struggles, and her sky-high political ambitions. And people were riveted: Abrams was officially the most Google-searched politician in America in 2018.

Her reward? Zero presidential buzz, aside from a small boomlet of interest after she pulled off the rare feat of delivering an effective and inspiring retort to the State of the Union address in February. If Democrats were willing to embrace a candidate who had fought nobly but lost in a state that once seemed out of reach, Abrams should have been at the top of the 2020 list from the get-go. Instead, she’s being courted by two white male warhorses, Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer, to help boost their own ambitions to become, respectively, president and Senate majority leader. In recent weeks, as O’Rourke was propelling himself into the presidential race, speculation has been swirling about which lesser office Abrams ought to pursue: Veep or Senator? Helpmeet to Biden or Schumer?

In the eyes of Washington pols and pundits, Abrams’s third option—running for governor of Georgia again in 2022—sounds hopelessly minor-league, almost as ridiculous as the notion of Abrams gunning for the White House herself in 2020. Schumer encapsulated the prevailing wisdom when he told a reporter last month: “There’s no one who knows how to fight for voting rights better than Stacey Abrams. If she got to the Senate, she’d have a huge platform to do it, not just in Georgia, but nationally.”

This was a classic example of an insult masquerading as a compliment. Abrams is already the leading national voice for voting rights—a fact that was underscored again last week when Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost his own gubernatorial race in Florida last November, announced he’d be following in the footsteps of Abrams to lead a massive voter-engagement effort aimed at transforming his own state in a lasting way. “This isn’t the sexy work, I gotta admit. I’m sure it’s probably more fun for some of those out there running for president,” Gillum said. But like Abrams before him, he’s opting to do what he deemed “the hard work of democracy.”

Transforming politics at the grassroots is exactly the “hard work” that Democrats have disastrously failed to do over the past decade and counting. By betting everything on national politics—emphasizing winning the White House and congressional majorities while ignoring state and local elections—the Democrats steadily bled seats and power throughout Barack Obama’s presidency. By 2016, Republicans controlled about two-thirds of the country’s state legislative chambers. The short-sighted emphasis on federal elections has been catastrophic for abortion rights, social welfare, criminal justice, and economic fairness. With Congress hopelessly gridlocked, the bulk of policymaking now happens in state capitals and municipalities, where the GOP is dominant.

And ironically, the emphasis on national politics has made it harder for Democrats to win nationally. They’ve given Republicans in many states free rein to gerrymander and pass restrictive voting laws that provide them with an artificial and undemocratic advantage in elections on every level.

Abrams has been the leading light for a smarter approach to moving the country in a progressive direction. Her movement, and her remarkable campaign in 2018, have already begun to remake Georgia; on her coattails, the Democrats captured 13 GOP seats in the state legislature last year, the best they’d done in 20 years, and sent a gun-control advocate, Lucy McBath, to Congress from Newt Gingrich’s old district.

While she is keeping her future options open—insisting that she’s a perfectly plausible presidential candidate in 2020, and pondering whether to heed Schumer’s call even though she’d “not thought about the Senate before”—Abrams has strongly suggested that she’s still leaning toward a gubernatorial rematch with voter-suppressing bigot Brian Kemp in 2022. (On Sunday, while promoting her book Lead from the Outside in Los Angeles, she attempted to quell rumors that she’d discussed the vice presidency with Biden during a “lovely lunch” in Washington, calling it “pure speculation.”)

“I am going to run for something. And I will tell you in April,” she said earlier this month. “But everything is on the table. I’m not being coy. This is hard. When you spend two years focusing on one thing, it’s not easy to turn to something else.” A Senate seat, she said in a recent speech at Vanderbilt University, would be “an indirect solution to some of the challenges I see.” She smilingly hinted at what she really wants next: “Revenge can be very cathartic,” she said.

By ousting Kemp, Abrams would be setting herself up—again—as the model for a revivified Democratic Party going forward. She’d be formidable in a 2022 rematch, not only because her statewide voter-engagement project has worked wonders, but also because of the state’s fast-evolving demographics—with its rapidly growing African American, Latino, and Asian populations, Georgia’s on a fast track to be majority-nonwhite in the next decade. As the first liberal governor of a Deep South state—like, ever—she could show how to bring progressive governance and reform to a state that isn’t overwhelmingly blue like California or New York. The considerable savvy she showed as House minority leader in Georgia leaves little doubt that she’d be a consequential governor. And that would put her in an even stronger position to pursue the White House in 2028 or later. She’s only 45, so there’s ample time on her side.

By eschewing national politics for now, Abrams would be taking a powerful symbolic stand against the recent drift of the Democratic Party—in stark contrast to O’Rourke and Julián Castro, who’ve given up on changing Texas to pursue long-shot presidential bids. (Castro’s twin brother, U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro, is challenging Republican Senator John Cornyn in 2020, though.) She’s already forged a new path for Democrats to compete in red states, running successfully as a full-on progressive rather than falling back on “conservative values.” And after she lost her disputed election to Kemp, she demonstrated the kind of fighting spirit that Democrats have also been sorely lacking for a long time, stubbornly refusing to go through the motions of graciously accepting defeat to an opponent who rigged his own election. “I don’t concede that I lost,” she said in March for the umpteenth time. “I feel very comfortable saying that this election was not fair, and not only was it not fair, it was not accurate.”

But rather than just complaining, or lighting out on a self-pity tour à la O’Rourke, she went to work after the election to make sure that such an injustice couldn’t happen again—to any Democrat. She turned her campaign operation into a political action group, Fair Fight, that’s working to democratize elections in Georgia and elsewhere; the group filed what could become a landmark federal lawsuit challenging the “gross mismanagement” of the state’s elections. As she’s been making the rounds on a far-flung speaking tour—wowing crowds in Las Vegas, San Francisco, New York, and Oxford University, as well as on late-night TV—she’s continued to flash the big, broad grin and ferocious brain that lit up the campaign trail in Georgia, displaying her rare talent for pursuing her ambitions while conveying that she’s not in politics just because of what she wants to be, but what she wants to do.

Stacey Abrams should run for anything she damn well pleases, anytime she wants. With all due apologies to O’Rourke, she is the next-generation Democrat who was “born to be in it.” If she sees a route to the presidency in 2020, she should go for it; if she thinks she could make a real difference in the Senate, she should give that a shot. But she’s already shown that you don’t need the rhetorical pedestal of a seat in Congress to be the country’s most influential champion for voting rights. And while vanquishing Kemp and becoming governor of Georgia in 2022 might strike establishment pundits and Democrats as sadly unsexy, it might just be the most important task she could undertake—for her party, for the progressive cause, and also for her own limitless political future.