Democrats Fret as Stacey Abrams Struggles in Georgia Governor’s Race

She has been trailing her Republican rival, Gov. Brian Kemp, alarming Democrats who have celebrated her as the master strategist behind the state’s Democratic shift.

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Stacey Abrams has worked for years to register and turn out Democratic voters, helping to fuel victories by President Biden and two senators in the 2020 election cycle.

NEWNAN, Ga. — Georgia Democrats have grown increasingly pessimistic about Stacey Abrams’s chances of ousting Gov. Brian Kemp from office, pointing to her struggles to rally key parts of her party’s coalition and her inability to appeal to a slice of moderate Republican voters who can decide the state’s elections.

Public and private polls have consistently shown her trailing Mr. Kemp, a Republican seeking a second term. And, in a particularly worrying sign for Ms. Abrams, polls also show she is drawing less support than the other high-profile Democrat on the ballot, Senator Raphael Warnock, who is seeking a first full term.

The gap between the two Democrats, which is within the margin of error in some recent surveys and as wide as 10 points in others, highlights the extent of her struggles. Though she is beloved by Democratic voters, she has lost some ground with Black men, who provided crucial backing in her narrow loss to Mr. Kemp in 2018. And while Mr. Warnock draws some support from Republican moderates, Ms. Abrams — who has been vilified more by the G.O.P. than any other statewide figure — has shown little sign of peeling off significant numbers of disaffected Republicans.

Ms. Abrams’s standing — consistently trailing Mr. Kemp in polls by around five percentage points — has alarmed Democrats who have celebrated her as the master strategist behind Georgia’s Democratic shift.

For years, she worked to register and turn out Democratic voters, narrowly losing her first bid for governor in 2018 and helping fuel President Biden’s victory in 2020. Now, her struggles have some Georgia Democrats wondering if the Abrams model — seeking to expand the universe of voters to fit her politics — is truly better than trying to capture 50 percent of the voters who exist now.

“Right now, people are concerned — kind of looking sideways,” said Erick Allen, a Democratic state representative, who said he hoped enthusiasm would pick up in the fall sprint. “There’s a lot of energy around the Warnock campaign. I’m not sure if the same energy that we had four years ago is around the Abrams campaign yet.”

In an interview last week, Ms. Abrams defended her strategy, noting that her Democratic turnout operation helped carry the state for Mr. Biden, Mr. Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff in the 2020 election cycle. “I imagine an electorate that is possible, not the electorate as if the election was held today,” she said.

She and her top aides believe her standing is improving, buoyed by voter anger over the Supreme Court decision overturning the federal right to an abortion. She is planning a broader campaign to highlight Mr. Kemp’s signing of a 2019 law — which went into effect in July — that bans abortion in Georgia after the sixth week of pregnancy.

Ms. Abrams’s allies said the comparisons between her and Mr. Warnock overlooked stark differences. Ms. Abrams is a Black woman contending with sexist stereotypes about leadership, they note. She is also running against an incumbent governor with a well-built political apparatus, while Mr. Warnock’s rival, the former football star Herschel Walker, is a political novice. (Both Mr. Kemp and Mr. Walker’s campaigns declined to comment.)

“We have to work harder as women, as African American women,” said former Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, who added that women “just have a harder time capturing the imagination as executives.”

The Abrams and Warnock campaigns have pursued different strategies. Mr. Warnock is betting on winning over just enough moderate, white Republican voters to get himself past Mr. Walker. Ms. Abrams needs a big turnout from base Democrats and new voters to oust Mr. Kemp.

Last week, Mr. Warnock demurred when asked by The New York Times during a news conference if he would campaign with Ms. Abrams, delivering the sort of practiced non-answer Democrats have been reciting when asked if they would welcome help from an unpopular President Biden.

“The pundits want to know who I’m campaigning for and who I’m campaigning with,” Mr. Warnock said. “I’m focused on my campaign.”

The next morning, Ms. Abrams announced she would join Mr. Warnock for a campaign stop that very afternoon.

“We need Stacey Abrams,” Mr. Warnock told supporters at the event, calling her “a visionary leader” and “my dear friend.”

ImageSenator Raphael Warnock at a barbershop in Newnan, Ga. Polls suggest Mr. Warnock is ahead in his race, while Ms. Abrams is struggling to keep pace.Credit…Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock

Democrats have largely kept quiet on their concerns about Ms. Abrams’s campaign. But several county elected officials and community leaders in Georgia have privately expressed their worries to the campaign directly, according to interviews with more than two dozen Democratic officials who asked not to be named discussing private conversations. They have complained that the campaign was slow to reach out to key constituencies and underestimated Mr. Kemp’s strength in an already difficult year for Democratic candidates.

Ms. Abrams has in recent weeks focused attention on winning support from Black men, voters who have inched toward Republicans during the Trump era.

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Her campaign has begun a series of conversations with Black men, calling the events “Stacey and the Fellas.” The policy-heavy discussions, aimed especially at younger or infrequent voters, are often moderated by community members or local celebrities, like the Atlanta rapper Yung Joc and radio personality Big Tigger. At one recent event, she said bluntly: “If Black men vote for me, I’ll win Georgia.”

Her outreach has not won over Democratic skeptics.

“Part of the grumbling that you’re seeing from Black men is because they want to be engaged,” said Kevin Harris, a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus who helped lead Mr. Biden’s Georgia campaign operations in 2020. He criticized national Democrats as slow to engage with key voters, but said he believed Ms. Abrams still had time to make up the lag.

“We wouldn’t start talking to white suburban voters just a few weeks before the election,” he said. “So why do you think you can call the Black men just a few weeks before the election, one time, and expect to get the results that you need?”

A July poll from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Ms. Abrams winning support from about 80 percent of Black voters in Georgia, a figure that is dangerously low in the narrowly divided state. Her campaign released an internal poll last week showing her support among Black men at 85 percent, a figure still short of her 2018 performance by about eight percentage points. That poll found her two points behind Mr. Kemp overall, a tighter margin than previous surveys.

ImageMs. Abrams campaigning in McDonough, Ga. At one recent event, she said bluntly: “If Black men vote for me, I’ll win Georgia.”Credit…Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock

Some of Ms. Abrams’s supporters say her struggles are more rooted in sexism than any strategic misstep. She is running in the Deep South for an office that has long been elusive to women and candidates of color. If she wins in November, she will be the first Black woman and only the third Black person in American history to occupy a governor’s mansion.

“The picture of leadership we have, Stacey is like the opposite,” said Steve Phillips, an early Abrams supporter and prominent progressive Democratic donor who attributed her polling deficiencies to “just sexism.” Ms. Abrams’s identity as a Black woman is “part of the depth of the enthusiasm for her but it also explains the depth of the resistance.”

Others point to another source of resistance, particularly among Republican-leaning voters: As the face of the Democratic Party in the state, Ms. Abrams has become a polarizing figure. Her 2018 campaign for governor marked the beginning of the Democrats’ rise, and many Republicans still associate her with her refusal to concede defeat to Mr. Kemp in that race. Ms. Abrams has repeatedly defended that decision, particularly against those who say it was no different from efforts by former President Donald J. Trump and his allies to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory in 2020.

“I’ve never once claimed to be the governor, I’ve never wanted to make myself the governor,” Ms. Abrams said.

Fred Hicks, a Democratic pollster in Atlanta, said Ms. Abrams’s 2018 campaign, and her prominent role in Democratic politics since, had put some voters out of reach to her — even those who turned to Democrats during the Trump era.

“There are Republican voters who are OK with Senator Warnock,” he said. “But there is a very strong anti-Stacey Abrams feeling.”

One of the Abrams campaign’s pollsters, Ben Lazarus of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart, questioned whether Mr. Warnock’s support among Republican voters would hold through November.

“White voters are going to come home to Republicans and Black voters are going to come home to Democrats,” Mr. Lazarus said. “That’s what happens in Georgia.”

In Mr. Kemp, Ms. Abrams is up against a relatively popular governor who, in defeating the Trump-endorsed David Perdue in the primary, demonstrated some independence from the former president with moderate Republican voters.

Mr. Kemp has doled out popular policies like giving bonuses and pay raises for public schoolteachers and state employees, suspending the state’s gasoline tax three times and eschewing any public health guidance related to Covid-19 to keep businesses open.

ImageGov. Brian Kemp during the national anthem at Republican event last month in Perry, Ga. He is a relatively popular governor with a well-built political apparatus.Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

“You don’t need people from Atlanta or from the White House trying to tell you what to do with your child,” Mr. Kemp said last month at campaign stop in Eastman, Ga.

Ms. Abrams herself has acknowledged the difficulty of her undertaking this time around. During a recent conference call with other Georgia Democrats running for statewide office, she joked about Mr. Kemp being a tougher opponent than Mr. Walker and Burt Jones, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor who took part in a scheme to overturn 2020 election results.

Ms. Abrams acknowledged the moment of candor, saying she “may have made a comment to my colleagues.” But she insisted Democrats in Georgia have to take every Republican seriously.

“Anyone who pretends that there is someone easier or harder to run against is not paying attention to politics,” she said.

Maya King reported from Newnan, Ga., and Reid J. Epstein from Washington.


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