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Why Stacey Abrams Lost to Brian Kemp

Race and voter suppression contributed to the Democratic hopeful’s loss, experts say.

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor, leaves the stage after delivering her concession speech Tuesday in Atlanta. (Ben Gray/Associated Press)

Supporters of Stacey Abrams have had a difficult time processing her gubernatorial race loss to GOP incumbent Brian Kemp on Tuesday.

“It just doesn’t make sense to me, honestly,” Clark Atlanta University student Jessica DuBois told Capital B Atlanta earlier this week. “I thought for sure this time Stacey was going to win, especially after all the work she did to help Black people.”

Indeed, Abrams had already become a national figure in politics prior to her latest run for governor. Her rise to fame followed the years she and other voting rights advocates have spent registering and mobilizing infrequent Black voters in metro Atlanta and more rural regions of the state.

Abrams’ efforts paid dividends in 2020, when Black voters, who tend to favor Democrats, helped turn Georgia blue during a presidential election for the first time since 1992. The state also elected not one, but two Democratic U.S. senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, during the same cycle.

But in the end, according to some political experts, Abrams wasn’t able to overcome a series of challenges that help explain how she lost to Kemp for the second time in four years.

Her ‘One Georgia’ message didn’t land with rural white voters

Abrams’ “One Georgia” campaign slogan was a unifying message of her desire to make the state a better place to live for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.

However, according to Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright, preliminary election data shows that message didn’t connect with voters outside of metro Atlanta.

“On the surface, we can see that there was probably a surge in rural voter turnout, particularly among white voters; there was a lot of split ticket voting; as well as there were probably some people who declared themselves independents or independent thinkers who did not vote at the levels they needed to for Stacey Abrams,” he said.

It’s rare and difficult for Black statewide office candidates to win elections in Georgia. Former state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond and former Attorney General Thurbert Baker are the only two Black people in history to do it, aside from Warnock, who serves at the federal level.

Abrams was one of five Black general election candidates who tried to join Baker and Thurmond’s ranks this year. All of them ran on the Democratic ticket, and all of them lost.

This history is part of the reason Clark Atlanta University political science professor Kurt Young said Abrams’ loss, for him, was disappointing, but not surprising.

“She started off with an uphill climb,” Young said of Abrams, referencing the role race places in Georgia’s political history and the racially polarized nature of contemporary American politics. “Usually, for candidates to break that trend, something major has to happen in the campaign that either mobilizes would-be voters for that candidate or something that causes the opponent’s turnout to suffer.”

Kemp made the race about Democrats in Washington

Abrams did her best to focus her campaign on what’s been happening in Georgia — hospital closures, gun violence, and lack of economic opportunities. But Seawright said Kemp succeeded in making the race about what Democrats, including Joe Biden, have been doing on Capitol Hill.

“He made it a referendum on national Democratic politicians, the same way Herschel Walker tried to do,” Seawright said of Kemp.

Seawright attributes that to anger about inflation and Democrats gaining control of Congress following the 2020 election. That anger, he said, motivated Republicans to vote against Democrats instead of voting in their own self-interest. For these folks, Seawright suggests that Abrams was an avatar for the Democratic Party.

“This was an election that was driven by emotions, and it’s [easier] to vote against something than it is to vote for something,” he said, “I think that the people who voted for Brian Kemp were voting against the Democratic brand.”

Voter suppression

Black voters contributed to record turnout during the election’s early voting period, but the in-person voting rate declined on Election Day. That’s the impact of SB 202 and Republican redistricting efforts, according to Kimberlyn Carter, a former political strategist who is now the executive director of Represent Georgia, a nonprofit, statewide leadership development initiative that does voter engagement work.

SB 202 is the controversial law passed in the wake of Georgia’s 2020 election. Critics of the law, which requires Georgians to apply for absentee ballots and allows registered voters to challenge the eligibility of others in their county, have argued it was designed to reduce Black voter turnout.

Georgia’s electoral maps get redrawn every 10 years. Republicans, the political party in power at the Georgia General Assembly, had final say over the process most recently.

GOP officials tend to disperse Black residents into districts in a way that favors Republican candidates, a process known as gerrymandering. This, Carter pointed out, can lead to precinct changes for local residents.

Carter said Black turnout was dampened this year, in part, due to SB 202-related voter eligibility challenges, people being misinformed about where to vote, or having their precinct location changed without their knowledge due to gerrymandering.

“​​We can’t have this conversation about what we saw [Tuesday] night without addressing the real elephant in the room, and that is SB 202,” Carter said. “We can’t deny that those things had an impact.”

Defund the Police talk

Abrams made it clear throughout her campaign that she is not a proponent of the Defund the Police movement, but that didn’t stop her opponent from characterizing her that way in campaign ads and during debates.

Young said the edited clip of Abrams telling CNN, “We have to reallocate resources, so yes,” when asked if she supports defunding the police, may have turned off some pro-police voters as well as those with concerns about rising crime.

“Although I certainly believe in police reform, I don’t think that her campaign handled that situation the best that they could have,” he said. “Her campaign is probably wishing that she answered the question in a way that neutralized it rather than allowed it to be a campaign weapon for the Kemp administration.”

The power of incumbency

Kemp was just the secretary of state when Abrams nearly beat him during their 2018 gubernatorial matchup, but this year, he had a record to run on.

Carter says seeing the “I” for incumbent next to a candidate’s name on midterm election ballots gives that person an edge over their competition.

“Incumbency not only has that strength when it comes to the name recognition, but it also has that strength because it looks differently positioned, if you will, on the ballot,” she said. “I definitely think that being the first thing at the top with the incumbency was definitely a very powerful advantage.”

Seawright said Kemp’s refusal to go along with former President Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert Georgia’s 2020 election results probably gave the governor an edge with moderate Republicans and swing voters who may have voted for Abrams if she was up against a more pro-Trump candidate.

“You cannot [ignore] the fact that he is an incumbent governor who took on the right-wing MAGA extreme when he took a position against Donald Trump,” Seawright said. “I think, to some degree, that mattered to some of those more moderate Republican voters who maybe would have given Stacey Abrams consideration otherwise.”