Republicans in Georgia are bickering these days -- about whether Donald Trump cost them their two Senate seats and the GOP majority in the chamber, about President Biden becoming the first Democrat since 1992 to win the state in November’s election, about who should run for Senate next year and who to side with when the former president tries to defeat their current governor in his primary.
Yet through all the dissent and division, Georgia Republicans -- across the board -- agree on one critical fact. Their biggest threat, their worst problem, is Stacey Abrams.
Even if Abrams is not a candidate next year in a likely rematch with Gov. Brian Kemp, who beat her in 2018, Republicans in the Peach State fear her ability to overpower them in the 2022 elections. Neither Biden nor Georgia’s two new freshman senators will be able to deliver more Democratic ballots next year than Abrams herself.
Kemp supporters aren’t being subtle, and have launched a “Stop Stacey” campaign with a mission statement that reads: “Funded by Hollywood and billionaire socialists like George Soros, radical leftist Stacey Abrams is on a mission to destroy our country. She ‘flipped’ Georgia for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. She delivered two Senate seats for Chuck Schumer. Now, she’s aiming for total control. We have to Stop Stacey and Save America before it’s too late!”
Former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who may challenge Sen. Rafael Warnock next year to try and win back the seat she had been appointed to but lost in January, recently started “Greater Georgia,” a Republican response to Abrams’ project Fair Fight, to register new Republican voters at a pace they hope can compete with or exceed that of Abrams.
Abrams lost to Kemp by 55,000 votes in 2018, insisting votes were suppressed by purges and other obstacles to voting at the hands of Kemp, who was secretary of state and presided over the gubernatorial election he won.
Voter purges like the one that wiped more than 500,000 voters from Georgia’s rolls in July of 2017 alone, are happening across the country and totaled more than 17 million between 2016 and 2018 alone, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The purges often remove voters who did not vote in the previous election.
That she never conceded the election made Abrams a lightning rod for Republicans. That she refused to run against Perdue for Senate when Democrats wanted her to, and then openly campaigned to become Biden’s running mate, angered some Democrats. But she got to work registering 800,000 new voters in those two years, and, having turned her state blue, is a hero to Democrats nationwide and the Georgia GOP’s most formidable foe.
In a recent New York Times piece, Abrams and her former campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, who founded Fair Fight together in 2018, described the long game that can help Democrats in other states become more competitive. Their efforts began in 2010 and 2011 (with a group called New Georgia Project), and to them Biden’s win in November and the runoff results this January were not “a miracle or truly a surprise,” because of the decade of work that preceded those victories. “Years of planning, testing, innovating, sustained investment and organizing yielded the record-breaking results we knew they could and should,” they wrote.
Abrams’ sprawling network has expanded from Fair Fight to include Fair Fight PAC, which amassed $33 million in the 2020 campaign, as well as the Southern Economic Advancement Project, and Fair Count, which is focused on the census.
Last fall Abrams starred in a documentary called “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” and described attempting to vote in 2018 in her own race but being told at her polling location she had already voted, which wasn’t the case. The error was corrected, yet the anecdote speaks to common voting issues many Georgia voters, particularly African Americans, continue to face.
Last week, new voting restrictions passed, with all Republican votes, through the Georgia state House -- changes that will disproportionately affect African American voters. They included new identification requirements for absentee ballots, limits on drop boxes for absentee ballots, limits on weekend and early voting, and a ban on private funding of election operations. Fair Fight Action estimated that black voters, who are 30% of the state’s electorate, were 36.7% of those voting on Sundays in 2020 and 36.4% of those voting early.
Abrams took to CNN and MSNBC immediately for interviews about the new restrictions, and a group inspired by Abrams’ efforts, Turnout Democrats, is circulating mobile billboards in Atlanta that read “Georgia Republicans Don’t Want Black People to Vote,” as lawmakers in the state Senate consider the bills.
Abrams’ visibility, armed with the resources to build on her successes in 2020 and 2021, may alone be enough to drive up enough Democratic votes next year to help reelect Warnock, even with new limits. But Republicans are well aware if Abrams herself is a candidate -- again -- to become the first black woman governor ever in the country, that she will have a much better chance of succeeding this time.
The losses on Jan. 5 for Loeffler and former Sen. David Perdue, even more so than Biden’s win in November, underscored for Republicans the progress Abrams had made in cultivating a broader, more energized Democratic electorate.
Non-college whites turned out on Nov. 3 for Trump and Perdue and Loeffler, but a dropoff in their runoff turnout, combined with a surge in black turnout on Jan. 5, brought Jon Ossoff and Warnock to victory. A total of 228,000 voters participated in the January runoffs who had not voted in November.
According to a New York Times analysis, runoff turnout in precincts where black voters make up 80% or more of the voters was at 93% of general election turnout while white, non-college precincts saw turnout fall to 87% of November’s numbers.
As it turned out, Trump gave Abrams and the Democrats some help. An analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed turnout dropped the most in South and Northwest Georgia -- where Trump had held rallies calling his election loss “rigged.”
Trump last week again tried to blame Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for the losses in January, but as the Wall Street Journal wrote on Friday, “Mr. Trump is the main reason Republicans lost two Georgia Senate races in January and thus the Senate majority. Mr. Trump refuses to take responsibility for those defeats, contrary to all evidence.”
It’s clear Trump’s grudges will hang over not only the gubernatorial and Senate race but every election in Georgia next year when Republican candidates will be forced to take a side in the feuds.
Perdue figured out quickly that the situation in 2022 will be untenable. On Feb. 15, he filed candidate paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, but a visit with Trump at Mar a Lago changed his mind and by Feb. 23 he was out.
The New York Times reported that Trump spent most of their visit threatening retribution against Kemp and that “trying to navigate a feud between the former president and his state’s sitting governor for the next two years was deeply unappealing to Mr. Perdue.”
The expectation is that Loeffler again will face former Rep. Doug Collins, whom she bested in the primary. Loeffler was chosen by Kemp to replace former Sen. Johnny Isakson when he retired for health reasons. Trump favored Collins and was angry Kemp chose Loeffler without his consultation. Trump may be trying to talk Collins into challenging Kemp instead. And what if the freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose belief in conspiracies have cost her committee assignments, decides to run for Senate? Would Trump back Greene, who has spoken with Trump several times, thanked him for his support and said they plan to meet soon?
It’s easy to see how Abrams may get another assist from Trump: He seems to have made Georgia ground zero for the GOP civil war. Even with new voting limits and an advantage in redistricting, Republicans will need a united front to compete with the one Georgia Democrats have forged behind Abrams. No matter the outcome next year, the 47-year-old Abrams is in it for the long haul.