How Stacey Abrams Fell Again in Georgia Governor’s Bid

ATLANTA — Four days before Election Day, with her campaign for governor on the ropes, Stacey Abrams called into a morning radio show with a message — not for voters, but for the show’s host.

“It was so disturbing to me to hear you suggesting that I wasn’t talking to Black people in Georgia,” she said sharply to Rashad Richey, a popular Atlanta radio personality. “I want to address it.”

Taken aback, Mr. Richey, an enthusiastic Abrams supporter, began tangling with Ms. Abrams — live on Atlanta’s AM airwaves — over whether she had ignored his invitations to come on his show. “I don’t know why you decided to do it this way,” he said.

After several minutes, Ms. Abrams decided she’d had enough.

“If you want to keep doing this, I’d prefer we just stop right now,” she said.

Then she hung up.

Talk of Ms. Abrams’s interview shot through Atlanta’s political class, where puzzled allies worried, not for the first time, how the candidate’s awkward remarks might land with voters.

If Ms. Abrams’s first campaign for governor for Georgia in 2018 earned her the reputation as a fierce political tactician — the strategist who changed the state’s politics, and helped elect President Biden and flip Senate control to the Democrats — her second exposed the limits of her skills as a political candidate, especially in the intensely competitive and demanding environment of Georgia.

In interviews, community leaders, campaign aides, state lawmakers and other allies describe Ms. Abrams, 48, as a visionary sometimes distracted by her obvious national ambitions and a personality more at home explaining intricate policy than engaging in the glad-handing and rope-line hugs.

The portrait they paint helps answer the question: How does a politician who a few years ago was described as a once-in-a-generation star, and has become a record-breaking fund-raiser and liberal darling, keep coming up short in her home state?

The Abrams campaign was often described as insular and reluctant to take advice. By the final weeks, it was stunningly tight on cash. The Abrams campaign and its two affiliated committee raised at least $131 million. After spending at least $2.2 million a week on television ads for more than a month, the campaign’s spending plummeted in the final week to just $313,000, according to data from AdImpact, a media-tracking service.

The Abrams campaign declined to comment for this article.

Ms. Abrams’s 2022 campaign was always going to be more difficult than her 2018 run, when she lost to Brian Kemp by 54,000 votes. Mr. Biden’s unpopularity combined with Republican talking points on inflation, high gasoline prices and crime all worked in Mr. Kemp’s favor. The governor spent two years presiding over the distribution of millions of dollars in pandemic aid to Georgians and won credibility with swing voters by defying Donald J. Trump’s demands to overturn the result of the 2020 election.

Public and private polling from both parties never showed Ms. Abrams ahead.

Ms. Abrams’s loss, made more striking by Democrats’ better-than-expected performance on Tuesday, is another major setback for a party whose most celebrated up-and-comers seem to just never arrive. (Also losing on Tuesday were the 2020 presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Tim Ryan.) Ms. Abrams hasn’t won a race since 2017, the last time she was elected to the Georgia state House.

Running in a state that has never elected a Black chief executive, no less a Black woman, Ms. Abrams was also contending with deep prejudices. Ms. Abrams’s supporters saw racism and sexism at play. Other politicians would have received less scrutiny and more leeway, they argue.

“If we believe the electorate has bias in it, then do you blame the person who’s the victim of that bias for not doing something different or better?” said Steve Phillips, an early Abrams supporter and progressive Democratic donor from San Francisco. Ms. Abrams remains underestimated compared with other Democratic stars, Mr. Phillips argued, including other former presidential candidates.

“People will say, ‘Oh well, that’s a nice run you had, Stacey.’ But she’s more accomplished electorally and she’s had a greater impact on the country’s politics than Pete Buttigieg.”

Ms. Abrams’s fate may have been sealed before she began her campaign last December.

By then, Mr. Kemp had made the politically risky — and perhaps dangerous — move to make Georgia the first state to fully reopen during the pandemic, a stance that grew more popular over time. Mr. Kemp had already tied Ms. Abrams to the left wing of her party, notably anchoring her to Major League Baseball’s decision to move its 2021 All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of the voting laws Mr. Kemp signed last year.

“Stacey Abrams and the M.L.B. stole the All-Star Game from hardworking Georgians,” Mr. Kemp said last October.

Ms. Abrams tried to keep some distance from activists on the left. (She never lobbied Major League Baseball to move the game, according to a league official involved in the decision.)

But she did not keep much distance from the national spotlight after 2018. She delivered her party’s response to Mr. Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, publicly lobbied to be Mr. Biden’s running mate in 2020 and told the hosts of “The View” that she’d like to be president one day.

Martha Zoller, a conservative radio host in Georgia and former aide to Mr. Kemp, noted Ms. Abrams’s 2021 book tour did not include stops in Georgia. The perception that Ms. Abrams had her eye on other ambitions was reinforced in May, when she described Georgia “the worst state in the country to live,” while pointing out the state’s low rankings on quality of life.

“She shot herself in the foot multiple times,” Ms. Zoller said. “And the question was asked in many circles: If you really believe this about Georgia, why would you want to be governor?”

It did not take long for some Democrats to start complaining that Ms. Abrams was neglecting the people who powered her rise.

David Brand, a veteran Atlanta Democratic strategist, said he offered in December to help the Abrams campaign build its network with local Black business owners and civic organizations. With their candidate still operating under pandemic precautions, the gatherings were virtual and short-lived.

“She’s having Zoom meetings with Black businesspeople,” Mr. Brand said. “Brian Kemp’s having cocktails with them.”

Derrick Jackson, an Atlanta-area state representative, said he approached Ms. Abrams’s campaign around the same time with a warning: engage more with Black fraternities and sororities or risk alienating an important constituency — one that could be crucial to helping mobilize and turn out Black voters.

Mr. Jackson, who is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a Black fraternity, said his group and several others invited her to their gatherings this spring. She did not attend them and her campaign cited her busy schedule, he said. Ten months later, after polls showed some slippage in her support from Black voters, Ms. Abrams hosted a town hall event with the organizations.

“Stacey must own some of this,” said Mr. Jackson, the vice chairman of the state legislative Black caucus. “If you’re running a statewide race, if you venture off and you nationalize it, then that’s problematic.”

That national profile helped Ms. Abrams raise tens of millions of dollars — enough to outspend Mr. Kemp, a rarity for a challenger in a governor’s race who is not self-funding their campaign. It was bolstered by donors in larger, more Democratic leaning states where Ms. Abrams spent her time to fund-raise during the campaign. The day after winning her primary unopposed in May, for example, she flew to New York for a fund-raiser.

“She had spent an enormous amount of time being a national figure on really crucially important issues,” said Jason Carter, a former colleague in the Georgia legislature who was the Democratic Party’s 2014 nominee for governor. “That national profile is really important and has enormous value, but it also has consequences.”

The Abrams campaign was widely seen as a tight-knit operation — run by Ms. Abrams herself and two longtime aides. Her fund-raising prowess meant that Ms. Abrams was less dependent on party committees or outside groups and free of political pressure they impose. Her status as the undisputed leader of Georgia’s Democrats meant the universe of voices willing to publicly question her choices was small.

Mr. Richey, the radio host, was one of the few. After his exchange with Ms. Abrams about Black voters outreach, he told his listeners his conclusion: “​​I can only assume that the team is not prioritizing this,” he said.

There were no immediate signs that Ms. Abrams saw a significant erosion support from Black voters. According to exit polls, Mr. Abrams won the vast majority of Black voters in the state, about the same share as other Democrats on the ballot, including Senator Raphael Warnock, whose race against Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee, is headed to a runoff.

The child of preachers, Ms. Abrams has long been known for her sharp debate skills and command of policy. As the Democratic leader in the State House — who wrote romance novels on the side — she was hailed as a master strategist, devising a long-term plan to bring Black, Hispanic and Asian American citizens into the electorate.

But people who worked closely with her acknowledge she was often removed from the people she sought to represent. Her campaign events were long on relatable anecdotes and policy explanations and short on up-close, personal moments. In her concession speech on Tuesday, she even acknowledged her introverted style.

“That is why I am proud that over the past year we have shaken the hands and hugged thousands of people — and y’all know how I feel about hugs,” she said.

“She’s always 100 percent poised and perfect all the time,” said Paul Glaze, an official with the New Georgia Project, the organization Ms. Abrams began to register the state’s voters of color. “It’s kind of hard to reach people that are turned off by the process if you don’t give off the perception or don’t appear willing to piss off the powers that be.”

By the end of her campaign, Ms. Abrams spoke more bluntly about seeing herself as an outsider and wanting to take on the power structure in a state with a long history of racism.

“I don’t have the luxury of being a part of a good-old-boys’ club,” she noted in her first debate against Mr. Kemp.

It remains to be seen what comes next for Ms. Abrams after her loss. Her political ambitions are hardly extinguished, and some supporters believe she could do better — at least in a Democratic primary — in a presidential campaign than in Georgia.

Like so many other losing candidates, Ms. Abrams used her concession speech Tuesday to insist that her political career will go on and her fight isn’t over.

“We may not have made it to the finish line but we ran that race. And we know this path,” she said. “We know that running is what matters, that standing is what matters, that defending is what matters.”


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