On Tuesday night, the face of the Republican party was a wealthy 72-year-old white man from New York. The face of the Democratic party was a 45-year-old black woman from the deep south.
After Donald Trump delivered the State of the Union address, Stacey Abrams offered her party’s rebuttal. It is usually one of the more thankless tasks in American politics, blamed for nipping many a career in the bud. Abrams succeeded in turning it into an unofficial audition for future office.
Governor of Georgia? US senator? Vice-President? President? All are potentially on the table, now or in the years to come.
“It was an uplifting message of bringing people together,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, chief public affairs officer at the progressive advocacy group MoveOn. “It was filled with hope and optimism. Having a woman of colour respond to Donald Trump is a powerful statement [or] rebuke of his policies and rhetoric. Giving a response is hard. Most failed. Stacey Abrams killed it.”
Jean-Pierre, a veteran of Barack Obama’s election campaigns, added: “Democrats are not going to win by jumping in the mud with Donald Trump. We’re going to win by offering up policies and a different vision for the country. She did that well. Her message was spot on. We are going to be seeing a lot more of her. She’d be a strong candidate for any office. Where ever Stacey is going next, count me in.”
As the first African American woman to deliver the rebuttal, Abrams offered a vivid contrast from two years ago. Then, former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, a grey-haired white man joined by mostly white people in a diner, gave the Democratic response to Trump’s first address.
Abrams spoke from a union hall in Atlanta, with a diverse audience including activists, educators and labour leaders. She dismissed the recent 35-day partial government shutdown as a “stunt” engineered by Trump.
“America is made stronger by the presence of immigrants – not walls,” she said.
Abrams emerged as a rising star in last year’s election for governor of Georgia, a Republican stronghold where she came agonisingly close to an upset. She eventually abandoned the race without a formal concession, asserting that her opponent, Brian Kemp, used his post as secretary of state to make it harder for people of colour to vote. She has since launched an effort to combat voter suppression, highlighted in Tuesday’s address.
Abrams also has compelling biography. One of six siblings who grew up in segregated Jim Crow Mississippi, she studied law at Yale and became a leader in the Georgia state legislature. She is also the award-winning author of eight romantic suspense novels, under the pen name Selena Montgomery, and tweeted this week that her favourite Doctor Who was Tom Baker.
Soon after her rebuttal began, Dan Pfeiffer, co-host of Pod Save America and former senior adviser to Obama, tweeted: “Stacey Abrams should run for President.”
A subsequent New York Times article was headlined: “Stacey Abrams Isn’t Running for President. Should She Be?” Some observers believe she deserves just as much hype as Beto O’Rourke, who narrowly lost a Senate race in a red state, Texas, last November.
There is no evidence to suggest Abrams will run, but Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer is reportedly trying to persuade her to aim for Senate in 2020, sensing a chance to flip a Republican seat. Alternatively, she might wait for another chance to take on Kemp for governor, in 2022. Or she could become a formidable running mate for whoever emerges from the crowded Democratic field.
Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, said: “Clearly she’s capable of reaching out very successfully to a broad coalition and stirring up real enthusiasm in her base. She has an affirmative personality. She tells a story rooted squarely in religion and tradition. She wasn’t running against America in any way. She was firm but not angry.”
Long a “red state”, Georgia could become competitive in 2020 and Abrams could give Democrats an edge. But according to the unwritten rules of American politics, her prospects depend on the gender and race of the Democratic nominee. Notwithstanding that white men have long dominated the presidency and vice-presidency, conventional wisdom suggests that certain voters are not ready for two women or two people of colour on one ticket.
If, for example, Senator Kamala Harris of California is the nominee, there is “zero chance” she will choose Abrams as her running mate, Galston argued.
“It would not be a strategic calculation to reach out to a broader electorate. The political logic points strongly in the opposite direction.”
But in the event of a white man being the party’s standard bearer, Abrams could be the pragmatic choice as Democrats pursue a base far more diverse than that of Republicans. Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, said: “I would lay odds on it being an African American, and possibly an African American woman.”
Other analysts agreed. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “Let’s say, for whatever reason, Joe Biden or Beto O’Rourke gets the nomination. They’re white and male and they’re naturally going to look for balance. Let’s say they’ve had a particularly nasty encounter with Kamala Harris in one of the primary debates: they might see Stacey Abrams as a good option.”
Abrams might prefer to keep her powder dry for a re-run for governor, however.
“It would make the most sense for her,” Sabato said. “She came so close and Brian Kemp is not impressive. In four years, Georgia will have evolved further: it used to be red but is going purple.”