ATLANTA - Stacey Abrams, who built her national reputation by advocating for voting rights, is calling on Congress to take action on federal voting rules as the Democrat launches a second bid to become Georgia’s governor.
Senators including Georgia Democrat Raphael Warnock, Abrams’ close ally, have been arguing in recent days that the Senate must try again on federal voting standards, despite earlier setbacks.
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Abrams said senators need to override Republican opposition to new federal voting guarantees by weakening the legislation-blocking filibuster to allow the Democrats’ bare majority to pass new rules. Otherwise, Abrams said, more Republican-dominated state legislatures nationwide will adopt voting restrictions like Georgia did this year.
"Starting in January, when legislators come back into session in 2022, we’re going to see a maelstrom of voter suppression laws. I understand the resistance to completely dismantling the filibuster. But I do believe there’s a way to restore the Senate to a working body so that things like defending democracy can actually take place."
Abrams lost narrowly to Republican Brian Kemp in 2018 after becoming the first Black woman to ever become a major party’s nominee for governor. She maintains that Kemp used his position as secretary of state to unfairly tip the scales in his favor by doing things like purging voters from the rolls. Kemp denies wrongdoing. Abrams’ loss and her response, including forming a new voting group called Fair Fight, vaulted her to national prominence among Democrats.
This year, Republicans pushed through a new voting law in Georgia which, among other things, cuts days for requesting an absentee ballot, shortens early voting before runoff elections and limits drop boxes.
Democrats fear it will chip away at their gathering strength in Georgia, where President Joe Biden won the state’s 16 electoral votes and then Warnock and fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff won runoffs in January, delivering control of the U.S. Senate to their party.
Republicans argue the law is fair to all and was necessary to restore confidence in the state’s elections after claims of fraud by then-President Donald Trump inflamed many GOP voters. Those claims have been debunked and repeatedly rejected by courts.
Stacey Abrams speaks during a get-out-the-vote rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe at Ting Pavilion in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Eze Amos/Getty Images)
Abrams insists she can still win election in Georgia next year even if there are no changes to its new law.
"I will do everything in my power to make certain that these new onerous voter suppression laws do not effectively block voters from their right to vote," she said. "And so yes, there’s absolutely a pathway to win."
Abrams said that pathway leads in a different direction than the traditional approach to policy taken by Southern Republicans, instead seeking to improve the prospects of those who don’t get a fair shot today.
"This is a state that is on the cusp of greatness. But we have high income inequality; we have low graduation rates relative to our capacity; we have a broken public health infrastructure system," Abrams said. "But we also have the ability, if we had good leadership, to invest in our communities, in all of our communities across the state."
Republicans are mobilizing against that approach, saying it would undermine freedom and the economy in Georgia, and that Abrams is just using Georgia as a stepping stone to run for president. Although she said she’d like to be president one day, Abrams pledges to serve a full term as governor.
In a lacerating attack on Kemp, Abrams argued he failed to recognize the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and has been callous in his refusal to expand the Medicaid health insurance program to poor adults.
"Leadership is about leading. It’s not about guessing, and more importantly, it’s not about abdicating responsibility by saying everyone just figure it out," Abrams said. "If we wanted a system where everyone could figure it out, we wouldn’t need to elect the governor."
Kemp maintains he’s struck the right balance between health and the economy during the pandemic. He noted that he avoided unpopular lockdowns and that Georgia has a record-low unemployment rate right now.
But with former Sen. David Perdue challenging Kemp in the Republican primary, Georgia’s 2022 governor’s contest might not be an Abrams-Kemp rematch. Abrams said Thursday that she would focus on her campaign, saying she didn’t know enough about Perdue to evaluate his record.
"I don’t really know what it is, and I’m someone who’s paid very close attention to politics," Abrams said.
In a year where national public opinion has turned sour on Biden and Democrats, Abrams believes she can still win. She said that’s in part because Georgia is different, with a population on the cusp of becoming majority nonwhite, and because her approach is different, with a focus on "one Georgia" where she says "I’m going to talk to every community and I’m going to have plans for every community."
Republicans, though, maintain that Abrams will never overcome the tide of anti-Democratic sentiment and hope to lure wayward white suburbanites home, as well as pry away some African American, Latino and Asian voters.
Abrams is preaching patience to those communities.
"Winning an election isn’t about magic," she said. "Voting isn’t magic. It is medicine. It takes time, it takes effort, it takes continued investment."
The terrain that Abrams is campaigning on could change in other ways in coming months. Congress is considering creating a workaround to give health insurance to more people in states that have refused to expand Medicaid to poor adults. Extending Medicaid benefits has been the central focus of Democratic campaigns in Georgia for a decade. Abrams said she would celebrate if Congress expanded Medicaid, but said Georgia would still have a high uninsured rate and a troubled public health system.
The U.S. Supreme Court could clear the way for Georgia to ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Passed in 2019, the law is currently on hold before an appeals court. Abrams called it a "forced pregnancy bill."
"I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure that no woman is forced to put her family, herself or her life in jeopardy, simply to satisfy the political whims of a conservative man who has never had to make that choice," she said.