How Stacey Abrams Made Georgia the Center of the Political Universe
I moved to Athens, Georgia from New York City in June 2013, but over the last 48 hours, most of my old friends finally seem to have realized where I live. The text messages have been blowing up. “ALL EYES ON GEORGIA!” “MAKE IT HAPPEN, LEITCH.” “DAWGS GONNA DO IT!” A presidential election with nothing less than democracy on the line might not be the ideal way for my NYC friends to finally learn to identify Georgia on the map, but I suppose I will take it.
Early Friday morning — or very late on endless Thursday, depending on how much you tried to Kornacki your way through it — Democratic nominee Joe Biden finally passed President Donald Trump in the vote count in this great state. This led to a whole new round of text messages and a global understanding that Georgia — specifically Rep. John Lewis’ old district of Clayton County, the peach of the old South—may have just kicked Trump out of office. Now the rest of the country is staring directly at us.
With both of its senatorial races likely going to runoffs on January 5, 2021, control of the U.S. Senate and the potential success of the Biden administration will ride entirely on Georgia. Every urgent issue of our time—climate change, Covid-19 relief, the redistribution of wealth, the movement for racial justice, so much else… What happens here in January will either accelerate or slow progress on all of them.
The real reason Georgia is turning blue, as we saw with the final vote totals that put Biden over the top, is due to the work that Black people are doing in the state.
While this surely means even more political ads for the next few months, I can say that Georgia is ready. While Florida has grown red in the last few years, Georgia has gone in the opposite direction, for a variety of reasons that have converged to define this election. The Atlanta suburbs, notorious for white flight, have become increasingly Democratic over the last few elections, culminating with Hillary Clinton winning the mostly minority Cobb County in 2016. The state has become a hotspot for the entertainment industry in the last decade, bringing in more professionals from blue states, thanks to tax breaks to make Hollywood movies. (I can also vouch that it’s also a great place for a former New York City writer to ply his trade.)
But the real reason Georgia is turning blue, as we saw with the final vote totals that put Biden over the top (for now), is due to the work that Black organizers are doing in the state. Atlanta has long been considered the “Black mecca” of America, but its political power has been steadily growing over the last decade. Lewis’ death reminded the nation how powerful a figure he’d been in the state for decades and how deeply his influence has resonated. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Democratic candidate for Senate Raphael Warnock have emerged from the Atlanta political movement. But there’s no single person who deserves more credit for what has happened than Stacey Abrams.
Abrams, who just missed becoming the state’s governor two years ago, under circumstances that still rankle, poured her efforts and resources into Fair Fight, an organization dedicated to fair elections, overcoming voter suppression, and registering and mobilizing as many voters as possible. (Here’s an incredible Jelani Cobb profile of Abrams in the New Yorker last year.) Fair Fight registered an estimated 800,000 voters since 2018, a staggering number that has “transformed the electorate,” as Abrams put it.
We are now seeing the fruit of those efforts. We saw them Friday morning when Biden finally passed Trump, thanks to votes from Lewis’ county. And one suspects we will see them in two years when Abrams is widely expected to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp, the man who (maybe) beat her for the governorship in 2018, and a man as historically associated with voter suppression as Abrams is with voter empowerment.
In many ways, Kemp is the avatar of the old South, a wealthy white businessman and real estate developer whose easy, dopey smile and backslapping nature has allowed him to hold onto power by appealing to the sort of good-ole-boy culture that has long run Georgia politics. Let us never forget this ad from the 2018 campaign for governor.
It is difficult to imagine an ad like that working in 2022, not with the electorate changing the way that it has. This is the old Georgia. The new Georgia looks like Abrams.
For the next two months, Abrams, Biden, and the entire Democratic establishment want it to look like Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the two men facing Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, in the January runoff. The entire political establishment will be descending on Georgia for the next two months, with the Biden agenda depending on whether or not Georgia can deliver the Senate to Democrats. Many, many people have worked for a long time to get Georgia to this point, with countless moments of deep discouragement, Abrams’ loss perhaps most painful among them. But now it looks prepared. This is what they were all building for.
I’ll close with a PSA for my New York friends: It is not in fact too late for you to actually move to Georgia and vote in the election, as long as you get here and register by December 5. Trust me, you’ll love it down here. It’s a whole new Georgia. At last.