IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'A harder race': Georgia Democrats face new political dynamics after Abrams masking debacle

The backlash underscored both Democrats' struggles with pandemic politics and the intense spotlight that’s now on Abrams compared to when she ran in 2018.
Stacey Abrams speaks to supporters during an election night party in Atlanta on Nov. 7, 2018.
Stacey Abrams, on election night in Atlanta on Nov. 7, 2018. Leah Millis / Reuters file

Georgia's Stacey Abrams rocketed to such political stardom after her narrow 2018 loss to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp that Democrats essentially cleared the field for her bid for governor this year.

But now that Abrams’ campaign has begun, she’s campaigning in an environment that’s different and in some ways trickier than what she faced four years ago.

In her first high-profile stumble of this campaign, Abrams apologized on CNN Tuesday for having removed her mask for a picture with masked school children — a photo she had shared on Twitter and quickly deleted. Republicans widely criticized the photo as a hypocritical violation of the school’s mask policy.

The backlash underscored both Democrats’ struggles with pandemic politics and the intense spotlight that’s now on Abrams compared to 2018, when Republicans and many in the national media paid less attention to the former state Democratic House leader at the outset of her first statewide campaign.

"It's going to be a harder race now," Kasim Reed, a Democrat and the former mayor of Atlanta, said. 

"In 2018, Leader Abrams had the element of surprise. White people fundamentally believed she did not have a shot, and that she was on a fool’s errand,” Reed said. “Now that's not the case at all and will not be a surprise. It will be much more difficult."

Recent polls suggest the race is essentially tied in head-to-head matchups against Kemp and the other leading GOP candidate, former Sen. David Perdue

Hanging over statewide races in Georgia this year is the national environment. Donald Trump was in the White House in 2018, and his low approval ratings weighed down Republicans. Now Joe Biden, whose approval ratings in the state are worse than Trump’s heading into his first midterm, is in the White House. 

Abrams, citing an unspecified scheduling conflict, skipped an Atlanta event with the president last month — even though he was speaking to her signature issue: voting rights and ballot access. Allies said Abrams, upset that Biden and Democratic leaders didn’t do enough to pass a federal voting rights law, didn’t want to be used as a prop. 

Abrams, who spearheaded an unprecedented voter registration and turnout effort heading into 2018, proved that once-red Georgia was a winnable purple state when Kemp beat her by fewer than 55,000 votes, or 1.4 percentage points. Abrams refused to admit she lost, blaming it on what she described as voter suppression efforts Kemp led as secretary of state at the time. Thanks partly to Abrams' organizing, Trump lost Georgia in 2020 and, months later in 2021, the state's two Republican U.S. senators, including Perdue, lost their special elections.

“It was a hard race in 2018. It’s going to be a hard race now,” a spokesman for Abrams, Seth Bringman, said.

Issues of election administration take on additional importance in this year’s elections after the Republicans who control the state Assembly and governor’s office passed Senate Bill 202, a wide-ranging law restricting voting and giving state lawmakers more power over local election officials.

That legislative power grab worried Democrats like Reed and voting-rights groups who note that Republican legislators passed the law in response to Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen. After the election — and after numerous recounts, lawsuits and investigations showed there was no widespread fraud — Trump tried to improperly influence the Republican secretary of state in Georgia to “find” him more votes.

A day after the two Republican senators lost their races, a pro-Trump mob rioted in the U.S. Capitol in a failed attempt to stop the official certification of Biden’s presidential win.

Compared to 2018, “it’s going to be more difficult because voter suppression tactics have become more sophisticated,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, the voting rights group that Abrams once led. 

“We just don’t know how aggressive the Republicans are going to be with their best attempts” to restrict voting, she said, noting her group is both registering new voters and educating those who turned out in the past on how to navigate the new law.

But for all the challenges, Ufot and other Democrats see countervailing forces in their favor.

Since 2018, the electorate is becoming marginally more Democratic leaning as the share of white Georgia voters has declined by about 2 percentage points, according to state data and models from the Democratic consulting firm Target Smart. The models also show that the electorate, compared to 2018, now has more younger voters, who tend to vote more Democratic as well. 

Abrams also has the advantage of raising money she doesn’t have to spend in a primary, while Kemp and Perdue shred each other in the GOP contest. In the two months since she announced her candidacy, Abrams raised $9.2 million, compared to Kemp’s $2.5 million and Perdue’s $1.1 million.

And then there’s Trump, whose legacy of losing big races in Georgia and his meddling in gubernatorial and congressional primaries have led to intraparty hostilities.

“Trump isn’t on the ballot, but he’s still causing a tremendous amount of chaos for Republicans,” said Tharon Johnson, a top Democratic strategist in the state. 

Kemp campaign spokesman Cody Hall argued that Democrats are overestimating the Trump effect and fail to realize that Republicans “are campaigning more on issues of importance to voters — the economy, inflation, Covid, schools — and Democrats aren’t.”

Privately, Georgia Democrats are concerned about that as well.

“We have a lot of headwinds we didn’t in 2018, and schools and Covid fatigue are real problems for Stacey and everyone,” said one Democrat who recently ran statewide in Georgia but spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to publicly criticize the Abrams campaign. “She really hit a tripwire with that school masking picture. The swing voters we need are increasingly done with Covid and masks and school closures. The fatigue is setting in.”

The state’s lieutenant governor, anti-Trump Republican Geoff Duncan, said Abrams’ school mask debacle was a sign that the new dynamics of the campaign cycle caught her unaware and “demonstrated a shocking level of ineptitude. … She’s going to have to do a lot better to outrun the drag of Joe Biden as his approval numbers keep sinking.”

But some Republicans credit Abrams for doing just that by snubbing Biden when he came to Atlanta to talk about voting rights.

“The reality is that Biden’s really seen a drop with Black voters over voting rights, and she showed her base she was with them,” a Trump confidante who recently spoke to the former president said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. 

Sarah Riggs Amico, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2018, when Abrams mounted her first bid for governor, said she has a “contrarian” opinion compared to other Democrats and believes the environment could prove to be more favorable for Abrams this year.

But she acknowledged that there are headwinds that Democrats face and that she hopes pass by.

“If we’re exiting a pandemic, inflation is falling, unemployment is still low and wages continue to go up, those are all favorable for us,” Amico said. “But those things have to happen. However, even if they don’t, it’s still a neck-and-neck race.”

Quentin James, who leads The Collective, a super PAC that aims to help Black Democrats, agreed with Amico but acknowledged that Democrats will have to work harder this year.

“Republicans changed the voting rules for a reason,” James said. “When you make it harder for us to vote, it makes it harder for us to win.”