On November 16, one of the most extraordinary political speeches in American history was delivered, when Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee in Georgia’s gubernatorial race, acknowledged that her opponent would be the Peach State’s next governor, but refused to concede that she had lost the race.
“To be clear,” she told supporters, “this is not a speech of concession.Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede. But my assessment is that the law currently allows no further viable remedy.”
For years, Abrams has been fighting the state’s systematic disenfranchisement of voters—most of them African American—at the hands of Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the very man who was claiming victory over her in the race for governor. Nevertheless, that contest proved astonishingly close in a state handily won by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. That Kemp retained his position overseeing the administration of the state’s elections even as he ran for its highest elected office is enough to have raised some eyebrows. And when you factor in that Kemp is known as the nation’s foremost vote-suppressor (arguably in close contention with former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who just lost his bid for governor in that state), it’s galling that Kemp’s bald exercise of his office as a means of cheating his way to the top wasn’t a bigger deal.
Writing in Slate in August, Mark Joseph Stern observed, “It’s possible he’s already suppressed enough to votes to win himself four years in the governor’s mansion, a perch he’d doubtless use to continue his erosion of democracy in Georgia.”
During his eight-year tenure as the state’s top election official, according Abrams and voting-rights groups, Kemp purged millions of names from Georgia’s voter rolls. He prosecuted voting-rights advocates for helping their neighbors to request absentee ballots. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that, since 2013, Kemp shut down 214 polling places, “mostly in poor counties with large black populations,” according to writer Bob Moser, an expert in Southern politics.
On Election Day, Moser wrote for Right Wing Watch, lines at the polls stretched for hours, with one poll station ostensibly stymied by lack of power cords for running the state’s outdated touch-screen voting machines, which Kemp refused to upgrade, even when offered federal dollars to do so.
“Make no mistake, the former secretary of state was deliberate and intentional in his actions,” Abrams said in her Friday-night non-concession speech. “I know that eight years of systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment, and incompetence had its desired effect on the electoral process in Georgia.”
The editorial board of the right-wing Weekly Standard this morning denounced Abrams’s speech as “contemptible.”
What likely frightens them is Abrams’s next act: In her non-concession speech she announced the formation of a new organization, Fair Fight Georgia, which she said would launch a federal lawsuit against the state for mismanagement of the 2018 election.
After all, it was the New Georgia Project, an organization founded by Abrams in 2013, that registered tens of thousands of new voters, prompting Kemp to warn Republicans at one 2014 meeting that if Democrats succeed at their voter-registration efforts, they can start winning elections in the state.
And the state elections are not simply about the state, after all. Come 2020, they’re about the Electoral College, which was Trump’s path to power in 2016, and likely the only road accessible to him in 2020, given his low approval rating among the general population. But with governors’ mansions in red states won by Trump having flipped two years later in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Kansas, two hotly contested gubernatorial races in big Southern states—Georgia and Florida—are a bad omen for our authoritarian president. That Abrams and Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Andrew Gillum, both African American, came close to defeating candidates with outsized systemic advantages must be read as a bad omen to the folks currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Florida alone has 29 electoral votes, and Georgia’s 16 place it in the top tier of states with the largest rankings in the Electoral College.
Abrams herself, though, remains a singular threat. A Yale-trained attorney with a gift for organizing and delivering a good speech—and a non-deferential black woman—Abrams embodies everything that the white nationalist Republican party has taught its base to fear. If she can come this close to winning, despite the obstacles and intimidation laid before her by the state (not to mention the death threats and the neo-Nazi robocalls), she just might win next time, at whatever she chooses to do.
This electoral season has yielded several new stars in the Democratic Party, even if they ultimately were unable to prevail in their individual races: Beto O’Rourke in Texas (who ran against Ted Cruz for a U.S. Senate seat), as well as Gillum and Abrams. Among them, Abrams possesses a unique combination of brains and talent that should encourage the party to push her to the forefront. She knows how the system works and how to challenge it—and, like Gillum and O’Rourke, she knows how to talk to voters.
In the past, it’s been women of color who have given Democrats their winning margins. Stacey Abrams knows how to win their votes by making sure they’re allowed to vote. A wise party leader might ask her to take charge of a multi-state project that could throw a wrench into the gaming machinery often used by Republicans to deliver the White House to the major-party candidate who got the least votes.
Now, wouldn’t that be something.