Long before Stacey Abrams became a nationally known go-to voice for Georgia politics, she was a relatively obscure representative from Atlanta in the Georgia state legislature. First elected in 2010, she quickly became a state party leader and strong opponent to Georgia’s GOP, which had a stronghold on every powerful post in the Peach State since 2004.
People who knew her at the time say that, when Abrams took office a decade ago, she decided that Georgia could be a blue state. All of her decisions since have been calculated to achieve that goal, and they came to fruition with Joe Biden winning Georgia by a little less than 12,000 votes on his path to the White House. Now this project is being put to the test again, in runoff elections that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.
The story of how this happened reflects the value of long-term planning and coalition building. As the cliché goes, it takes years of work—and in this case, a little luck—to become an overnight success.
Once she was elected, Abrams immediately started networking with grassroots organizations around the state. Eventually, she started two of her own, the Voter Access Institute and the New Georgia Project, which were focused on re-engaging people in the democratic process. Abrams joined an ecosystem of organizers operating with little national attention, continuing the legacy of Georgia’s role in the American civil rights and voting rights movements.
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Abrams’s celebrity-politician status didn’t come until after her gubernatorial run in 2018, an election marred by long lines at the polls, voter roll purges, and other suppression tactics that we now know disproportionately harmed minority voters in the state. The reason that race was close at all—Abrams lost by 55,000 votes—was due to the success of her political theory for Georgia politics.
At the time, it was seen as conventional wisdom that to win Georgia, you have to win 30 percent of white voters. But Abrams believed this was less important than energizing voters of color to turn out. This hypothesis hadn’t been fully tested until Abrams’s run for governor and was a major difference between her and her primary challenger, Stacey Evans. In the end, Abrams took only 25 percent of the white vote, according to exit polling, but still came incredibly close to winning the state, thanks to 40 percent of the electorate being nonwhite, and Abrams securing 84 percent of those voters.
Undoubtedly, Abrams’s grassroots gubernatorial campaign in 2018, which started door-knocking more than a year before Election Day, transformed the Georgia electorate. Her no-door-unknocked approach to politics clearly inspired more people than ever before to participate in the democratic process. The organizing that brought Georgia to the brink was a shared triumph, but Abrams can take full credit for crunching the numbers for her path to statewide office. And that carried over into 2020, giving Biden the votes he needed to break through.
It takes time to be an effective organizer. It’s hard to engage people who have long been ignored politically because they were deemed mathematically unnecessary for victory. And it’s even more difficult to sustain that progress. The reason it succeeded in Georgia owes much to the organizers who did the work. And it owes much to Stacey Abrams, a central figure in these efforts, who seeded the network of grassroots groups that have made Georgia a toss-up state.
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IN GEORGIA, THERE’S BEEN a long-operating ecosystem of voter outreach and engagement. These groups contributed much of the local canvassing work ahead of November—and are continuing now ahead of the January runoff election. They haven’t gotten nearly as much recognition for their efforts.
Groups like the Asian American Advocacy Fund, Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO), ProGeorgia, Georgia STAND-UP, the Coalition for the People’s Agenda, and the Legal Defense Fund have been among the web of organizations doing the legwork to turn Georgia blue, reaching out to voters of color and marginalized communities that may have been neglected in the past.
The New Georgia Project has also been active. The group was started by Stacey Abrams in 2014, but exists as a nonpartisan advocacy group. Abrams is no longer connected to the group and is not mentioned on the website.
Most of these organizations are run by Black women, and many have been organizing long before Abrams’s rise in politics. These organizations credit Abrams for supporting them and connecting with them in her early days in the state legislature. But they’ve been left out of Georgia’s election success story.
“No one resents Stacey Abrams. We all love Stacey Abrams. We would all take a bullet for Stacey Abrams. This isn’t about Stacey Abrams, it’s about the media,” says George Chidi, a Georgia-based reporter and former city council member in DeKalb County. “They’re looking for heroes. And she is heroic, but it ignores a lot of other people.”
What’s also often left out are the campaign teams who also came close to winning big in Georgia and decided to stay in town. The Jon Ossoff special-election campaign and the 2018 Carolyn Bourdeaux campaign teams for the U.S. House mostly stayed in place, waiting for round two, Chidi says. Bourdeaux was then successful in her 2020 run, flipping the only congressional seat from Republican to Democratic in the country this year. (Two other seats flipped in North Carolina, but those districts were redrawn for the 2020 election after a court case.)
Other community leaders played a role as well. ProGeorgia, which is actually a coalition for 40 organizations, has led part of that effort, bringing people to the table around issues beyond voting that have encouraged people to get involved in elections.
“I really see our work as a weaver and weaving … what ProGeorgia does is be a hub for all of us organizations that are trusted voices, trusted messengers, trusted within our communities not only on voter engagement but on the number of issues that are important to our lives,” says Malika Redmond, chair of ProGeorgia Civic Engagement Table and founding executive director of Women Engaged. “We get to come together from our different vantage points and weave together a collective work plan to get out into the state in the broadest and the deepest sense to all of our communities.”
These groups were also focused on far more than the presidency. CEO of GALEO Jerry Gonzalez and his organization mostly focused on its expertise with Latino voters in Georgia, most of whom are clustered in the Atlanta metro area. These voters were equally as interested in local sheriff’s races and where those candidates stood on enforcing federal immigration laws (287(g) agreements).
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AFTER HER GUBERNATORIAL LOSS in 2018, Abrams founded two additional organizations, specifically to fight voter suppression, which she held responsible for her defeat. Fair Fight Action and Fair Fight PAC (usually called Fair Fight 2020) were branded as a multistate effort. The United States’ decentralized election system means that, to make an impact, there would need to be people (or at least resources) in every state who can learn the details of election procedure and laws passed at the state and even county level. Abrams’s promise was to fund those teams to fight injustices in the mechanics of running elections.
Abrams was very clear about this project. “I’m going to use my energies and my very, very loud voice to raise the money we need to train those across the country in our 20 battleground states, to make sure that Donald Trump and the Senate take a hike, and we put people in place who know what we need to have in the United States of America for progress to be brought,” she said at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades convention in Las Vegas on August 13, 2019. “We’re going to train folks to protect the right to vote, to assure every ballot gets counted, to make sure there’s a hotline in each state so that when the new law shows up people know what they need to do. We’re going to have a fair fight in 2020 because my mission is to make certain that no one has to go through in 2020 what we went through in 2018.”
While the final analysis is yet to be written, we can definitively say that there wasn’t enough voter suppression to prevent Joe Biden from winning the election. In fact, voter turnout was the highest in over 100 years, with over 155.5 million Americans casting a ballot in the presidential race. Nearly one million more people voted in Georgia alone than in the high-turnout 2018 gubernatorial election.
So if it was a fairer fight, the question is why? You do have to credit the effects of the pandemic, which upended election laws in ways that inspired heavier turnout. As Prospect board member Miles Rapoport has explained, people turned out in great numbers because they could, thanks to easier voter registration rules, expanded early voting, and widespread use of vote-by-mail. This effort over decades exploded in the pandemic and triggered high turnout.
One example of this in Georgia is particularly salient. Beginning in 2016, an automatic voter registration effort through the state’s motor vehicles department put anyone who applied for or renewed a driver’s license on the voting rolls. This led to hundreds of thousands of new eligible voters. This did not come through legislation, but a simple decision by the motor vehicles department.
Second, anti-Trump sentiment activated a dormant electorate and shifted traditional voting patterns in the presidential race. White suburbs and the middle-aged, middle-class electorate came out for Biden, making the difference in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and even Georgia, where Atlanta-area suburban counties like Gwinnett and Cobb, which are whiter than the metro region as a whole, shifted left the most. These areas have traditionally voted for Republicans (and in some cases have districts gerrymandered around that assumption).
Fair Fight also made a contribution to this effort. But that contribution was largely delivered through what is considered the mother’s milk of politics: money.
THE FAIR FIGHT STATE-BASED anti–voter suppression teams didn’t quite materialize, at least not in the form that Abrams initially promised. It’s unclear what states were intended for the 20-state plan, but the Fair Fight website’s sleek graphics later showed an 18-state target plan, including the usual swing-state targets as well as Maine, Mississippi, Alabama, Iowa, New Hampshire, Texas, Virginia, and of course, Georgia. By September 2020, the battleground state information was gone from the website and her talking points.
But Abrams also promised to use her voice to raise money, both for organizing and the fight against voter suppression. The money flowed primarily through a hybrid PAC called Fair Fight, Inc. And the sums were prodigious.
In 2019, 17 state Democratic parties received contributions (Georgia, Nevada, Virgina, Arizona, Ohio, Maine, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Michigan, Louisiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Mississippi, and Minnesota), according to documents filed with the FEC. The state parties had the discretion over how to use the money, whether for legal teams to expand voter access or getting out the vote. Fair Fight also gave contributions to local candidates throughout Georgia and Andy Beshear, who in 2019 won his race for governor in Kentucky. And Fair Fight Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit which received $3.2 million from the PAC in 2019, spent a significant portion of its revenue on legal services, including more than $3 million on a law firm in Georgia.
By 2020, Fair Fight PAC really flexed its fundraising muscles. According to its most recent FEC filing, between January 1 and November 23, it raised $67.5 million and spent $45.3 million, with more than $22 million cash on hand.
Again, Fair Fight Action was the recipient of the largest contribution, with 11 payments totaling $13 million. The Democratic Party of Georgia received $3.39 million, much more than any other state party. AL Media, a company based in Chicago, was paid almost $8 million for TV, digital and radio ads, and media consulting.
Given the results, you have to conclude that Stacey Abrams did help make for a fair fight in 2020. But it wasn’t an immediate transformation. It was an evolution ten years in the making, built with deliberate work on the ground and the money to keep it going.
In November, Abrams was able to raise $34 million in one month, specifically for the Senate runoffs. Much of this money has been distributed to grassroots organizations. Southerners On New Ground, Southern Center for Human Rights, Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs, and the Georgia Chapter of the NAACP all received contributions before November 3. But after the general election, nine organizations received $100,000 from Fair Fight PAC, and Georgia STAND-UP received $50,000. Stacey Abrams’s other organization focused on getting people to participate in the census, Fair Count, received $750,000, despite the fact that the census-counting period had finished.
From the numbers we have so far on the runoff, the success in diversifying the electorate has continued. Three million voters participated in early voting for the Senate runoffs, a record number. Black voters in particular have made up a greater percentage of the electorate in the runoffs than during the 2020 general election, and 114,000 voters who did not participate in the general election at all have voted in the runoffs. About 37 percent of those new voters are Black, a much higher number than their overall percentage of registered voters (30 percent).
Prior to 2020, election funding was scarce in Georgia, Gonzalez says. The attention that came with the general election and Stacey Abrams changed that. But he adds that groups like his and those within the ProGeorgia coalition are focused on creating a cycle of continued participation. And there are organizations in other places hoping to get the same kind of attention for their efforts. “We’re in a better place now, but there’s groups in Alabama and groups in Mississippi doing that kind of work,” he says.
Stacey Abrams was able to bring money and resources to existing organizations in Georgia that previously wasn’t flowing. But as she told New York magazine, “It can be undone just as quickly and as effectively as we did it.”