just asking questions

Did Stacey Abrams Pick the Wrong Year?

Greg Bluestein on what’s happening in Georgia one week out.

Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images
Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images

Georgia has been at the molten-hot core of American politics for almost two years straight. From the Senate runoffs that gave Democrats the Senate to Donald Trump’s vengeance campaign against Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger to the chaotic Herschel Walker campaign and another Stacey Abrams run for governor, no American state has experienced so much drama (or so many political TV ads) recently. Greg Bluestein, a political reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has chronicled it all and become a reliable guide for anyone trying to understand the Peach State’s dynamics. I spoke with Bluestein about Georgia’s turnout surge, the wisdom of Abrams’s run, and Trump’s unusually muted role in the proceedings.

Last week I talked to Jon Ralston, known as pretty much the only guy who can accurately predict elections based on early-voting patterns. I won’t ask you to do that in Georgia, but I’m wondering: Does the extremely high turnout there so far tell you anything at all about the state of the election?
It shows that voters’ behavior is changing. More people are obviously embracing early voting, especially when compared to 2018 — we’re far outpacing our 2018 levels. We’re not at 2020 levels, but no one expected us to be there. It’s so dangerous, though, to read too much into these patterns and say, “Hey, this means Democrats are surging or Republicans are in trouble” or whatever. I can tell you that both parties have reason to be encouraged by the numbers, but there have been significant increases in early voting among men. That’s an issue that Stacey Abrams, in particular, was worried about. She focused a lot of events on Black men and even said, “If Black men vote, I win.”

So Democrats are enthusiastic about that. They’re enthusiastic about the overall minority participation in early voting. But look, Democrats are supposed to win early voting and Republicans are supposed to win Election Day voting, so we’re not sure how much of that traditional pattern is changing. I’ve heard all sorts of different numbers. Every single day there’s different internal numbers from campaigns that come out and say, “Republicans are two points behind Democrats!” Yeah, but Democrats have built their entire strategy on killing it during the early-voting period. And so if they don’t hit whatever internal benchmarks they need to hit, then they’re in trouble. I know that’s not breaking new ground, but it’s why there’s so much emphasis on getting that early voting number out. For both campaigns, for both parties, the thing is getting the folks they know will vote, getting them to vote so that they can spend their resources on the more up-in-the air voters, the ones who are a little harder to get out.

Because right now, if you’ve got someone who’s showing that they voted in every Democratic primary the last 10 years but they still haven’t voted, you have to go bug them and knock on their door, call them, send them digital messages, all that other stuff. Once you’re off the list, in Georgia at least, you’re off the list. And so they stop bugging you as much, and it’s one less person who the parties have to encourage to vote.

Polls are probably a better predictor than early-voting numbers. In Georgia, the polls did well two years ago, unlike in some other states. They were quite accurate for the presidential race, the Senate races, and the runoffs last January — a stark contrast to states like Ohio and Wisconsin, for instance. Do you have any theories as to why they were so much better there than in other places?
You know, it’s a good question, because we’ve had plenty of polls in the past that haven’t been accurate. Pollsters tend to use similar models — a lot of them tend to predict that 55 percent or so of the electorate will be women and about 29 to 30 percent of the electorate will be Black. The smart folks out there think that could be the general turnout model for this year, too. You just don’t know, with the Dobbs decision, if the percentage of women goes up to 57 percent or even higher, and how that affects things. But we don’t see too many outliers. We have seen a general trend right now of a neck-and-neck Senate race, and I think more significantly, a solid Governor Kemp lead over Stacey Abrams between five and even ten points in a lot of polls. The more recent ones showed a little bit of tightening, a six- or seven-point lead. But in Georgia, a six- or seven-point lead is a landslide.

A lot has been made of ticket splitting in some states this cycle. As you said, Kemp is comfortably ahead in almost every poll, and Raphael Warnock has led most polls, though it’s a much tighter race between him and Herschel Walker. Do you attribute that split just to the strengths and weaknesses of these particular candidates?
The singular factor why the Senate race could be a runoff but the governor’s race could be a clean victory is that ticket split. It has shown up in polls since the summer here in Georgia. Polls are still showing a significant number of Republicans — and we’re not talking 20 percent, we’re talking 3 or 4 percent — who are signaling they’re just not comfortable with Herschel Walker. And that, again, shows you the vulnerabilities of his candidacy and also the strengths of Raphael Warnock. Because Warnock is bending over backwards not to antagonize those middle-of-the-road swing voters he’s trying to appeal to — basically, the Republican-leaning voters who have problems with Walker. And that’s why it’s not surprising at all to see Warnock, over and over again, not answer any questions about Joe Biden. He won’t say whether he wants him to run again in 2024, won’t say whether he wants Biden to campaign with him, doesn’t bring up his name, really, on the campaign trail. He talks more about working with Ted Cruz than he does about working with Joe Biden.

There’s also, of course, Hershel Walker’s side of it. There are a significant number of Republican-leaning voters who have issues with him, whether it be his erratic or violent behavior in the past, or bizarre answers on the campaign trail, or just concerns about whether he’s fit for office or not. Let alone the recent abortion allegations, which we’ve written doesn’t really change the dynamic here, because if you’re not going to be swayed by the first accusation.

At some point, people have factored all of the scandal in.
We call it a wash, rinse, repeat cycle because not only with the abortion allegations, but with others that have come up, it’s been like, “Oh my gosh! How is he going to make it through this allegation or that allegation?” Any one of these allegations, any one of these issues, I should say, because they’re not allegations in some cases, any one of them would have defeated another candidate. It could have been the death stroke for Brian Kemp in 2018 if it came out that he lied about graduating from the University of Georgia. But with Walker, the concern from Democrats all along is there’s already so much baked into his campaign, or that so many of his issues came out even before he entered the race, that many voters just see it as another piece of paper on the pile.

And, of course, you’re dealing with a celebrity candidate. Some states, like California, are used to dealing with celebrity candidates. We’re not. And certainly not ones like Herschel Walker, who’s just in a sort of different stratosphere. He’s not just this great athlete. It’s hard to put into words, but he really is this legendary figure in Georgia for people probably 40 and older, or 35 and older. I never saw him play, but I grew up hearing stories about him.

My parents don’t care about college football at all. They were both not really interested in any sports. But I still grew up hearing stories about Herschel Walker. And some of my closest friends who are Democrats named their dog Herschel, or they made their garage codes 3434 after his number. And there are serious Democrats here who aren’t joking when they say, “Had Herschel Walker run in an open Democratic Senate primary, he could’ve won.” That’s his name-brand appeal.

It’s not for nothing that every other big-name Republican who thought about running and who could very well have been pulling ahead of Senator Warnock right now — they all got out of the race, not just because Donald Trump endorsed Herschel Walker, but because Walker was openly saying he could run, and really smart, well-known Republicans like Chris Carr, the attorney general, said, “You know what? I’m out.” Buddy Carter, Drew Ferguson, other very ambitious Republicans who could one day end up in the Senate — they ducked out of this race because they just couldn’t go up against Herschel Walker.

And they’d probably be winning this race now, right? 
You never know. People ask me all the time: What if Gary Black, the agriculture commissioner who ran against Walker, was the nominee? This is what Gary Black warned about. He told me a couple days before the primary, “I cannot vote for Herschel Walker.” The fact that he has abused women is a disqualifier for him.

It seems that some people may just leave that part of the ballot blank.
This is what’s interesting with the polls, because in Georgia, there’s not really a history of splitting tickets. At the top of the ticket, folks tend to stay in their lanes. We saw this in 2014 with the governor and Senate races. Nathan Deal won by eight points; David Perdue won by eight points. They were facing two very different opponents, but they still won by the same margin. In this race, poll after poll after poll, including the AJC polls, have shown 4 or 5 or 6 percent of Kemp voters saying that they’re going to vote for Warnock, and 3 or 4 percent of Kemp voters saying they’re going to vote for the Libertarian. And then a bunch of them will be undervoting this race.

To turn to the governor’s race for a minute: Unless the polls are very wrong, it’s likely that Brian Kemp will beat Stacey Abrams again. She’s a nationally known figure who is credited with driving voter turnout in Georgia in 2018 and 2020. What do you think her reputation in the state is going to look like if she loses by eight points? What would be next for her, and how much would another loss harm her reputation?
She lost the first race, and Governor Kemp would joke about it. He’d say, “She’s even more famous than I am,” even out of office. She created Fair Fight Action, a group that instantly became a force of nature in Georgia politics and raised more than $100 million. So no one in Georgia, even Republicans, counts her out. No one thinks she’ll go into exile and disappear forever. I could see her playing a role in national politics, could see her being considered for a cabinet appointment by President Biden in the latter half of his first term. I could see her going back to Fair Fight or going back to another organization she starts and being a force outside of traditional politics.

Fair Fight became this power in Georgia because it didn’t just focus on voting rights but also on expanding Medicaid and other issues that were near and dear to Abrams’s campaign. And I kind of believe her when she says her endgame is — she’s said she wants to run for president one day. It’s a lot harder if you’ve lost twice. But also, she parlayed her first defeat into a State of the Union rebuttal and all sorts of different positions.

Chuck Schumer was essentially pleading with her to run for U.S. Senate. She ended up turning it down, but it’s hard to envision a reality where she’s not playing some sort of major role in Georgia and U.S. politics. Even if she gets defeated in a landslide.

I just thought it was an odd choice to run this year, in what one could have predicted would be a bad Democratic year.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that. But when she got in the race in December, there were so many different factors going on.

First of all, everyone in the party expected her to run, once she passed on the Senate race. She had basically not stopped running for governor. She already had the apparatus — she had Fair Fight Action, and a number of staffers went over to her campaign, including her campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, who was Fair Fight Action’s executive director.

So she had this sort of shadow campaign in waiting and an entire party built around the expectation that she would run. But also, in December of last year, Governor Kemp looked to be in a really bad situation. He was being booed at Republican rallies; he was booed at the Republican Convention the previous summer. He was facing all sorts of tumult from his own party’s base. And the biggest concern of all was that Donald Trump was saying he’d rather see Stacey Abrams as governor than Brian Kemp. Trump was putting a giant target on his back and promising to come back to Georgia and rally against Brian Kemp. And at the time, Trump was the most popular Republican figure in Georgia. So Stacey Abrams’s advisers had to be looking at that, too. They had to be thinking that not only will she basically waltz to the Democratic nomination, but that her opponent, even if he managed to win the primary, would be limping into a general.

Even Republicans at the time were giving Kemp 50-50 odds of getting out of the primary, because Trump didn’t decide to back just anybody to go against him. He decided to back David Perdue, who is one of the other most popular Republican figures in Georgia. And the way that Kemp survived that and then came out even stronger kind of says it all. That’s the reason why Kemp is in the strong position he is right now.

Georgia is the most prominent example of a state where Republican officials have successfully fended off attacks from Trump — Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger both defied him and won easily. Do you think Trump’s absence from Georgia since the primaries helps these Republicans much in the general election campaigns?
Yeah, definitely. Do you think Governor Kemp or Chris Carr or Brad Raffensperger want Donald Trump anywhere near Georgia right before an election? I reported a few weeks ago that there were serious discussions about Trump coming in October. And immediately I got texts from folks close to Governor Kemp saying, “If Trump goes to South Georgia, I won’t be shocked to see Governor Kemp in the mountains of North Georgia.” They don’t want to be anywhere near him. The more interesting part of this is — does Herschel Walker? He’s trying to consolidate his conservative base and, of course, he and Donald Trump go way back. They’ve known each other since the early 1980s. So there were some folks close to Herschel Walker who felt like Trump could give them a boost, and there’s others who felt like Trump would do more damage than good by helping to focus the race more on Trump than on Biden.

In the end, unless something changes between now and next Tuesday, it looks like Trump is going to forgo the state. And I’ve heard from people close to Herschel Walker that, essentially, some of Trump’s advisers had to show him poll information and told him, “Hey, you know, you’re still popular in the state, a lot of Republicans still love you, but how about you just back off this one?”

And Trump always, always listens to reason on that kind of stuff, right?
Maybe it’s just like, “Hey, we need you a lot more in Ohio; why don’t you focus on that?”

“You’re at 150 percent approval there, but only 100 percent here.”
Exactly. You never know with Trump, but as of this interview, he has still not announced any plans to come to Georgia, but he’s gone to Pennsylvania, he’s going to Ohio, he’s going to Nevada.

I don’t think enough people are talking about the possibility that the Walker-Warnock race goes to another runoff, like two years ago. And of course, the balance of the Senate could once again be determined by the outcome. Do you think either candidate would have an advantage if that happens?
If they’re not talking about that, they should be, because here in Georgia, we’re talking about it. It’s the most likely scenario right now. Up until the 2021 runoff, Republicans had dominated every statewide runoff in Georgia history. And that’s for a few reasons, but the main one is that it’s lower turnout, and the people who turn out tend to be older and whiter, which means, in Georgia, more conservatives. So that favored Republicans in major ways. Last year was an anomaly because you not only had Democratic enthusiasm, you had Trump not helping the Republicans by talking about rigged elections and all these election-fraud lies, and talking more about himself than the Senate candidates, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.

But I think all bets are off and this just becomes a reset race where both parties pour in hundreds of millions of dollars in four weeks, and all of our lives here in Georgia are pretty much ruined.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Did Stacey Abrams Pick the Wrong Year?