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Stacey Abrams’s State of the Union rebuttal gives the Democratic Party a chance to redefine itself

Two years after centering appeals to Trump voters, the party is moving in a different direction.

Stacey Abrams
The Democratic Party’s decision to have Stacey Abrams deliver the State of the Union response reflects her status as an emerging political leader.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

It’s been just over two months since Stacey Abrams ended her nationally watched campaign to become the next governor of Georgia, losing to Republican Brian Kemp by a narrow margin in a contest marred by voting rights controversies and Election Day issues.

But a moment that could have signified the end of her career has only increased Abrams’s prominence.

In her most high-profile move since ending her campaign, Abrams will deliver the Democratic Party’s rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, cementing the voting rights advocate and former Georgia lawmaker’s place among a new crop of party leaders.

Abrams, a former Democratic leader in the Georgia House and the first black woman to be a gubernatorial nominee from a major political party, has received national attention since announcing her candidacy in 2017. The 2018 Georgia election was one of the highest-profile races of the midterm cycle, particularly as concerns over voter suppression, and Kemp’s role as Georgia’s then-secretary of state, became a dominant issue in the closing weeks of the campaign.

In the weeks since her defeat, Abrams has further advocated for voting rights and the political needs of communities of color, topics that boosted her campaign last year. Many Democrats have argued that this makes her the ideal person to respond to Trump’s upcoming speech, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer saying last week that Abrams was a perfect contrast to the “lack of leadership” from the Trump administration.

Abrams is the first black woman and the first non-sitting public official to give the rebuttal, the New York Times reports*, which speaks to her growing influence within the party. The decision also highlights the party’s increasing acknowledgment of the power that people of color, and women — especially black women — have as voters and as political candidates, and the mounting demands for Democratic policies and politics to better reflect the needs of these groups.

Abrams, who regularly highlighted the ways issues like health care and the economy would impact communities of color and centered issues like immigration and voting rights in her gubernatorial campaign, has become an avatar for communities with these concerns. And calls for her to launch a Senate campaign in 2020, or a second gubernatorial campaign in 2022, are getting louder.

The State of the Union rebuttal, then, presents an opportunity for both Abrams and the Democratic Party at large. For Abrams, the address gives her a chance to further expand her national profile and share her vision on high-profile political issues. And for the Democratic Party, selecting her sends the message that the party is actively backing younger leaders supportive of a more inclusive political system.

Democrats are betting big on Abrams’s State of the Union response

The State of the Union rebuttal, when not being mocked for unexpectedly awkward moments, is typically seen as the minority party’s chance to define itself relative to the president. In these addresses, the messenger matters as much as the message, and in recent years, parties have chosen high-profile politicians or likely rising stars to deliver the response.

Just two years ago, Democrats drafted former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear to deliver the rebuttal to Trump’s 2017 Joint Address to Congress, largely because of Kentucky’s success in improving access to health care, an issue the party has rallied around. But Beshear, who gave his address in a diner, also used his speech to appeal to the voters who backed Trump, arguing that the new president “should worry every freedom-loving American.”

His comments reflected a broader debate about the future of the Democratic Party, which has spent considerable time in recent years weighing if it should prioritize appeals to Trump voters or focus on strengthening outreach to voters of color.

The decision to have Abrams give the address suggests that the party is moving toward the latter, a direction that includes an open discussion of race and racism, while centering issues important to voters of color and finding ways to make meaningful connections with nonwhite voters who have pushed Democrats to victory in recent elections.

Abrams was more successful at this than other politicians in 2018, since she fueled an increase in minority voter turnout and lost Georgia by fewer than 60,000 votes, a far smaller margin than the 200,000 vote gap Georgia Democrats faced in 2014. She ended her campaign after weeks of fighting for all votes in the election to be counted. It had the effect of painting the Georgia election as more than a statewide contest — and part of a larger fight over voting rights and political representation.

Abrams ended her campaign with an acknowledgment that Kemp had legally won the race but did not concede or call the Georgia election legitimate; she has continued to criticize Georgia’s elections system in the months since, including helping launch Fair Fight Georgia, a voting rights group, which filed a November lawsuit challenging Georgia’s entire elections system.

On Super Bowl Sunday, the group ran a local ad in which Abrams, joined by Natalie Crawford, a Republican commissioner in Northeast Georgia’s Habersham County, discussed Georgia’s ongoing election problems and argued that election reform should be a bipartisan issue.

Abrams has also waded into larger debates in the Democratic Party. She recently published an article in Foreign Affairs on the value of “identity politics” and political efforts to address the specific needs of marginalized communities, issues she tackled head-on in her campaign.

While Abrams’s political opponents have argued that she is “unqualified” and that her increased prominence on issues like voting rights is a sign that she’s been a sore loser in the aftermath of her campaign, she remains popular in Georgia. One recent poll of Georgians found that 52 percent of those polled had a favorable impression of Abrams, while just 37 percent had a favorable impression of Kemp.

Taken together, the direction charted in recent weeks suggests that Abrams, a black woman who has not shied away from a frank discussion of race and focused her campaign on issues like health care, education, immigration and voting rights, has the ability to serve as an effective contrast to Trump’s State of the Union.

And the fact that the Democratic Party recognizes this is a powerful indication of the course it plans to chart in the years before the 2020 election.

* Clarification: Though former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear had left office by the time he delivered his rebuttal to Trump’s 2017 speech, the speech Beshear responded to was a Joint Address to Congress, not a formal State of the Union address.