Abrams, Georgia Democrats look to prove 2020 wasn't 'fluke'

ATLANTA (AP) — Four years ago, Georgia Democrats had a contested primary for governor because the party old guard didn’t believe in Stacey Abrams. She blew away the elders’ alternative and, in a close general election loss, established herself as de facto party boss in a newfound battleground.

That previewed 2020, when Joe Biden put Georgia in Democrats’ presidential column for the first time in 28 years, while Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff captured two Senate seats in early 2021 to give Democrats control on Capitol Hill.

Now Abrams and Warnock top the Democratic ticket together for the first time as the party tries to replicate its success in a tough midterm election landscape. The outcome will again help determine Senate control in Washington and whether Republicans continue to dominate state government in Georgia.

“We’re putting in the work to show everyone across the country that 2020 was not a fluke,” said Democratic Chair Nikema Williams ahead of the party’s convention Saturday.

Yet Williams and other Democrats acknowledge that 2022 is not a simple replay of the last two cycles.

Abrams is no longer a burgeoning juggernaut running against a little-known secretary of state; she’s a battle-worn challenger facing Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, a well-positioned incumbent. Warnock isn’t a political newcomer but a sitting senator who must distinguish himself from a relatively unpopular president who once campaigned for him — a point underscored by GOP nominee Herschel Walker relentlessly criticizing Warnock as a rubber-stamp for the White House.

The rest of the Democratic slate must run under the banner of a national party that controls Washington amid sustained inflation and an uncertain economy. And Democrats must retool their voter turnout operation to comply with tighter voting restrictions that Kemp and the state’s Republican legislature enacted after Democrats’ 2020 victories.

The response, Democrats here say, isn’t to run from their record but to embrace it, while casting Republicans as an “extremist” party that advances an out-of-step cultural agenda and remains in thrall to former President Donald Trump.

“The party of Trump is a party of extremism, a party of election deniers, a party of authoritarianism, that says that their opinions about who should win elections matter more than the voters,” said lieutenant governor nominee Charlie Bailey, whose Republican opponent, Burt Jones, is among the fake electors who signed certificates falsely stating that Trump, not Biden, had won their states.

That approach aligns with the national midterm pitch that Biden unveiled Thursday at a campaign rally in Maryland, where he cast voters’ choice in November as being between Democrats and Trump’s “MAGA movement,” a dominant strain of the GOP that Biden said resembles “semi-fascism.”

Kemp and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger have garnered plaudits from moderate voters for bucking Trump's bid to overturn the 2020 election. But Abrams and others challenge the “moderate” label for either man.

Abrams criticizes Kemp as an “extremist” who signed a concealed carry law to loosen gun restrictions and a near-total abortion ban that bars the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy, before many women know they're pregnant.

Bee Nguyen, a legislator challenging Raffensperger, hammers the secretary of state for his part in overhauling state voting procedures. Nguyen notes Raffensperger as a state lawmaker compiled a staunchly conservative record on abortion and guns, among other matters. “He’s not a friend to democracy. He’s not a friend to women, either,” she said recently on the liberal “Pod Save America” podcast.

Indeed, Georgia Democrats agree that the Supreme Court’s decision eliminating a constitutional right to access abortion, combined with Georgia’s near ban, is a critical enough issue to overcome swing voters’ worries about the economy.

“I’ll tell you that people are much more concerned about protecting their rights and their access to health care than anything else,” said attorney general nominee Jen Jordan, a state senator who has made her support of abortion rights a centerpiece of her bid.

Even so, Democrats insist they aren’t afraid to discuss the economy or other issues Republicans try to claim as theirs.

Kemp blasts Abrams as a liberal who wants to “defund the police.” Abrams counters with proposals that would increase salaries for many law enforcement and criminal justice personnel. “Brian Kemp wants you to be afraid of me,” she says in one of her advertisements.

Jordan talks openly of crime increases but dismisses Republicans’ effort to cast it as “an Atlanta problem” — GOP framing aimed at white voters beyond the demographically diverse and heavily Democratic city.

“It’s not an urban problem or a suburban problem. It’s a Georgia problem, and the people who have been in charge have a lot to answer for,” Jordan said.

In the Senate campaign, Warnock has largely steered clear of Biden, even as he embraces Democrats' legislative victories. Warnock touts a pandemic relief bill and its child tax credit as critical aid to Georgia families. He notes the benefits from a long-sought infrastructure package.

The senator acknowledges that gas prices and general inflation have spiked but notes that he called for a suspension of the federal gas tax and then won passage of a provision in the Democrats' big climate and health care bill that caps the price of insulin for Medicare patients. Republicans blocked his effort to extend the cap to all consumers.

Williams, who is also an Atlanta congresswoman, summed up the two-track argument.

“We Democrats have delivered on the national level. ... And just imagine what we could be doing when we are in control at the state level,” she said. And if Republicans control Congress, she added, “a national abortion ban is on the table” along with cuts to popular programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Those warnings ignore that Biden would certainly veto such measures. But Williams said the point remains: “A lot is at stake.”

And every marginal shift among voters matters. In 2018, Kemp topped Abrams by 55,000 votes out of about 4 million cast. Biden outpaced Trump by less than 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast. In concurrent Senate runoffs two months later, about 4.5 million Georgians voted; Warnock and Ossoff won by 2 percentage points and 1.2 percentage points, respectively.

Democrats hope the November electorate is at least as large as that Jan. 5, 2021, electorate. Georgia requires a majority vote to win statewide office, and Libertarian candidates can draw enough to force a runoff.

With that in mind, Abrams, a Black woman from Atlanta, has spent a noticeable amount of time in rural, mostly white Georgia, where she lost ground in 2018 compared with Democrats’ performances in previous midterms. Jordan, who is white, notes that she grew up in small-town south Georgia but now represents a suburban Atlanta state Senate district that had been a Republican lock. Abrams sometimes campaigns alongside Bailey, a white man with a pronounced Southern accent and small-town Georgia roots.

“We have a ticket that looks like Georgia,” Abrams says often.

Al Williams, a Black state lawmaker who is close to Abrams, praises the ticket as well. But he put the pressure most squarely on the woman at the top, predicting that in an era of few split-ticket voters, Abrams must win for Democrats to have a big day.

“Stacey is the wind beneath the sail,” he said.

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