In Georgia, Stacey Abrams relies on new voters to buck history

WASHINGTON — As Stacey Abrams builds her second campaign for governor in four years, she is looking at a Georgia electorate that is far larger, younger and less white than the one that handed her a narrow defeat last time around, according to an analysis her aides provided exclusively to NBC News.

That’s one reason Abrams is confident that the result will be different this time, despite a national political wind that has shifted to Republicans’ backs after the elections of Joe Biden as president last year and Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the Senate in January.

Nearly 1.3 million Georgians have registered to vote since her first bid in 2018. Forty-seven percent of them are people of color, 31.6 percent of them are Black and 43 percent of them are under age 30 — cohorts that traditionally skew heavily toward Democrats — according to the Abrams campaign’s analysis. Almost 250,000 of them have registered since the 2020 election.

In Georgia, Stacey Abrams relies on new voters to buck history

And while voters don’t register by party in Georgia, the campaign’s modeling of available information about newer registrants estimates that 45 percent are likely Democratic voters and 28 percent are likely Republican voters, with the remaining 27 percent unclassified because of a lack of data.

“There is a clear trajectory that has been present for a decade that is continuing of who has registered since 2018 — who is eligible to vote for Stacey this time that was not on the rolls last time,” campaign spokesman Seth Bringman said.

The challenges for Abrams are historic. She would be the first woman and the first person of color to win Georgia’s governorship, and both the well-established historical trend and fresh electoral evidence suggest that Democrats who win in the midterms will have to overcome the wind at Republicans’ backs.

Biden’s approval rating is upside-down at 42.3 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, and Republicans made major gains in elections in Virginia and New Jersey last month. But Abrams’ camp believes the shifts in those states, driven in part by white suburbanites, won’t be echoed in Georgia because the electorates are different.

The campaign’s analysis found that 52 percent of registered voters in Georgia suburbs are people of color; the comparable demographics in Virginia and New Jersey are 25 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

That sets up a contest not just among the candidates but also between the trend in the state’s voting patterns and what appears to be significant momentum for Republicans nationally. Georgia was once a bastion of Republican strength, but a streak of narrow Democratic wins fueled by Abrams’ registration and turnout efforts has demonstrated Democrats’ competitiveness.

Some Republicans have reason to fear that former President Donald Trump’s entry into the fray could ravage the party’s chances. Trump has called for Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s ouster, and former Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., a Trump ally, is expected to announce this week that he will run in the primary against Kemp.

“If that happens, it will be the biggest bloodletting Georgia has seen since Sherman took Atlanta,” University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said Friday, referring to Union Gen. William Sherman’s burning of the city in 1864.

Kemp already faces a challenge from former state Rep. Vernon Jones, a onetime Democrat who switched to the GOP last year.

All sides say they expect the general election to be close, and the Cook Political Report, a respected electoral oddsmaker, shifted the race from “leans Republican” to “tossup” when Abrams announced her bid Wednesday.

Abrams lost to Kemp by 54,723 votes out of nearly 4 million cast in 2018. Kemp is caught in the thresher of Trump’s fury because he refused to intervene on Trump’s behalf when Georgia voters handed Biden their 16 electoral votes last year. It was a squeaker, decided by 11,779 of more than 4.9 million votes cast.

Trump’s pollsters surveyed a possible primary in August and found an opportunity for Trump to make a difference with an endorsement of Perdue.

“We found that Brian Kemp is a weak incumbent that could be very susceptible to a strong primary challenge,” pollsters for Trump’s SuperPAC wrote in a memo first reported by Politico, adding, “Trump’s endorsement of David Perdue would completely upend the race.”

Trump said at a rally in Perry, Georgia, in September that he so disdains Kemp, a fellow Republican, that it would be “OK” with him if Kemp loses to Abrams.

“Having her, I think, might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know what I think,” Trump said. “Stacey, would you like to take his place? It’s OK with me.”

Trump allies, including Fox News’ Sean Hannity and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., have piled on — Hannity called on Kemp to drop out, and Gingrich wrote that Perdue is the only candidate who can unify the party. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution referred to Kemp’s predicament as an “epic political squeeze” between the pressure of Trump and Perdue in the primary and of Abrams in a possible general election rematch.

Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington did not reply to a text message asking whether Trump has spoken directly to Perdue since Abrams announced her campaign.

Kemp is running both on his conservative record as governor and against the national Democratic Party. In particular, he plans to highlight more restrictive election regulation and abortion measures he signed into law, his resistance to Covid-19 lockdowns and his efforts to combat gang violence and human trafficking, campaign spokesman Cody Hall said.

“Gov. Kemp is in the fight against Stacey Abrams, Joe Biden and their woke allies to keep Georgia the best place to live, work and raise their families,” Hall said. “We feel confident that his record of fighting for hard-working Georgians and his vision for the next four years will ensure victory next May and November.”

But as word of Perdue’s imminent entrance into the race broke Sunday afternoon, Hall showed that Kemp is ready to throw punches inside the GOP tent, too.

“Perdue is best known for ducking debates, padding his stock portfolio during a pandemic and losing winnable races,” Hall said.

For Abrams, who isn’t expected to really ramp up her campaign until the new year, the potential chaos on the Republican side is a boon. Against the backdrop of a divided GOP, she plans to run in lockstep with Warnock, a longtime ally who is seeking election to a full term in what is expected to be one of the most closely contested Senate races in the country.

“We know that on our side we’re going to be moving in the same direction, and there’s no disunity between any type of political heavyweights at the top of the ticket,” said Bringman, the campaign spokesman.