One chilly evening earlier this month, a crowd of more than 700 showed up at the University of Iowa to hear a popular Democratic politician speak. But it wasn’t one of the 17 people competing for the party’s nomination.
The speaker on this night, three months before the Iowa caucuses and a year before the presidential election, was Stacey Abrams, the Georgia Democrat who came within fewer than 55,000 votes of being elected the nation’s first black female governor.
Abrams was there to talk about voting rights. But, as often happens at her public appearances, a question came up: Would she be willing to serve as vice president?
“I’m happy to do so,” she said, to applause and cheers from the crowd.
Abrams’ Iowa appearance points to the delicate needle she has been threading since her 2018 loss – even as she has declined to run for Senate, saying she wants to focus on voting rights, she has remained a top-tier player in the Democratic Party, frequently mentioned as a potential vice president.
It’s speculation she herself has encouraged. Asked about it during a talk at a church in Washington in September, Abrams said it would be “disingenuous” to say she wasn’t interested in the role. “I’m pretty good at campaigning,” she said, also citing her experience in politics, business and activism.
Her ties to the Democratic leaders, converging on Atlanta this week for the presidential debate, are clear. She is friends with some of the candidates, and has advised others. On Monday, her organization announced that Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey , Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang would help contact Georgia voters in danger of being purged from the voting rolls later this week.
Even former President Barack Obama has sung her praises, telling a conference of major Democratic donors recently, “I love me some Stacey Abrams.”
Abrams as vice president would have once seemed far-fetched, said Joel Goldstein, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law who studies the vice presidency. Over the past 40 years, he said, vice presidential candidates have had an average of more than 14 years in Congress or as governor.
But, he noted, the 2020 candidates for the Democratic nomination have an unusually wide range of experience. Buttigieg is a two-term mayor of a city of about 100,000. Andrew Yang has never served in government. So the fact that Abrams has no national political experience (she served for 10 years in the Georgia state house, including as minority leader) is less of a liability.
Goldstein also said Abrams is the rare political figure that answers honestly, and enthusiastically, that she is interested in being considered for vice president. “I think being as open about it as she is is a way of keeping herself in the conversation,” Goldstein said. He also noted that she is seen as an “impressive” political leader. Along with being a black woman and a Southerner, that could make her an attractive running mate, especially for an older white man.
Abrams’ political future has been the source of much political speculation. For a time earlier this year, Abrams said she considered running for president, accelerating the 2028 timeline she laid out in her book, “Lead from the Outside.”
But in August, she said she would focus on voting rights. Her Fair Fight 2020 organization is helping Democrats in battleground states prepare for the fierce fight over access to the ballot. Virginia and Kentucky, where Democrats claimed major electoral victories this month, were among the states where Fair Fight had a presence.
In Kentucky, Fair Fight gave the party $10,000, the maximum allowed, to print literature left at the homes of targeted voters with a phone number to call for election information. Mary Nishimuta, executive director of the state party, said the No. 1 question the hotline got was “Where do I go to vote?” Nishimuta said Abrams’ efforts contributed to the increased turnout, which helped Democrat Andy Beshear defeat Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.
Abrams’ passion for this issue comes from personal experience. Her own gubernatorial election was plagued with numerous irregularities – hours-long waits because of malfunctioning voting machines, new voters being turned away because their registrations had been suspended, local officials tossing out absentee ballots because of problems with signatures – that may have prevented thousands of voters from casting ballots.
Republican lawmakers and conservatives dismiss her as a “sore loser” for refusing to concede last year’s election. They say what she calls voter suppression is merely an attempt to root out fraudulent activity in the process. The Georgia ethics commission launched an investigation into Abrams’ 2018 campaign, alleging “unlawful coordination” with third-party groups. Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ top aide, counters that the investigation is politically motivated and aimed at intimidating groups representing voters of color.
Abrams says it doesn’t matter who’s running if their supporters can’t cast a ballot or have their votes counted. Her work toward that goal is more important than her own presidential run right now, she said.
“My decision was premised on where I could make the strongest impact and where I could add the deepest value,” Abrams said. “My responsibility is not to be the person on the [debate] stage but to be the person who is making sure that no matter where you live in the United States that your right to vote is protected.”
Abrams is also trying to make sure people participate in next year’s census, particularly people of color, young people and the poor. Toward that goal, she created a group called Fair Count and recruited her sister, Jeanine Abrams McLean, to help lead it.
McLean has worked for the for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on public health and population-based research. When Abrams asked her how best to “count everybody in the census in Georgia,” McLean did some studying and came back with ideas and strategies.
Their plans include identifying and providing Internet access and tablets in community sites, such as churches, restaurants and barbershops, where people gather and might be motivated to go online and fill out census forms.
“I joke with her that she the only person who could get me quit my good government job to come and do this,” McLean said.
Asked what she thinks her sister should do next, McLean laughed. “Stacey does what Stacy wants to do. . . . At end of the day, she makes her own decisions.”
Abrams has said that will include another run for office down the road.
National party leaders heavily courted her to run for Senate against freshman Republican Sen. David Perdue, up for reelection next year. Abrams demurred, saying that while she respects the role of the Senate, she no longer thinks the legislative process is the best place for her to affect change.
Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, who followed Abrams’ decade in the Georgia legislature, including six years as Democratic leader in the state house, thinks Abrams will make another bid for governor in 2022. Running for Senate would have complicated that plan.
Then, of course, there’s still the specter of Abrams running for vice president in 2020. Shelton Stromquist, a retired historian and activist who with his wife and several friends came to hear Abrams in Iowa City, said she would be an asset to any nominee.
“She’s obviously deeply principled. She can generate enthusiasm,” he said. He described the Georgia governor’s race as a “trial by fire.”
“It was a national race in some ways,” he said.
His wife, Ann Stromquist, said Abrams displayed “wisdom” by sitting out the presidential primary and focusing on voting rights.
“I think what she’s doing now is more important,” she said.