SOUTH FULTON, Ga. — Inside a local bar and restaurant here, a packed room of nearly 100 Black business leaders and community members welcomed Stacey Abrams with loud cheers and applause.
After laying out her plans for everything from health care to education, the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor made an admission: While she loved the support they were showing, she needed it to extend beyond those willing to come out to her events.
“None of it matters if we do not turn out the very people who are the most affected,” Abrams, standing beneath a disco ball, told the crowd late last month. “You have to tell the story, so as Moses said, ‘Go, run, tell.’ And make sure folks know what’s happening.”
She continued her pitch to a large, lively crowd that spilled over into the parking lot. “I also need you to reach out to those communities that didn’t know they should be here, the ones who don’t think any of this matters,” she said. “We don’t have an enthusiasm gap. We have a trust gap — and I need folks to trust me one more time.”
Abrams has been widely credited with working to build the base of voters who helped deliver the White House and Senate majority for Democrats. But as the race for governor heads into the final weeks, a question has swirled around her campaign: Will enough Black voters show up for her to win her second bid to make history?
Polls show Abrams trailing Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in their rematch and suggest she is struggling to replicate the same level of Black support that she garnered in 2018, when she defied conventional political wisdom by coming within 55,ooo voters, or 1.4 percentage points, of becoming the first Black female governor in the nation.
Four years ago, Abrams garnered between 93 and 94 percent of the Black vote, according to exit polls and AP VoteCast. Across five polls over the past month, Abrams averages 83 percent support.
Polls also consistently have her a few points behind Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), who has a slight lead over Republican challenger Herschel Walker, whose campaign has been rocked this week by allegations that he paid for a former girlfriend to have an abortion. Abrams, however, is polling similarly among Black voters as Warnock, but he is performing better among a wider swatch of voters.
Abrams will need strong turnout in cities such as South Fulton, which is 90 percent Black, and community leaders acknowledge that there’s work to be done to motivate people to go to the polls.
“If every Black person got out and voted, Stacey Abrams would already be our governor,” said khalid kamau (who spells his name lowercase), the mayor of South Fulton, which he has dubbed “America’s Blackest city.” “If you look at the margins she lost by, if every Black voter in South Fulton had turned out to vote for Stacey Abrams, she would be governor right now.”
Interviews with more than two dozen Black leaders, organizers and voters paint a complicated picture for why Abrams appears to be lagging in the polls with the largest bloc of Democratic voters in Georgia. Some say voters are feeling more disillusioned about politics than ever because many feel their lives haven’t improved and that national Democrats haven’t fulfilled key promises since the last election. Others note that it’s always difficult to run against an incumbent, and Kemp is regarded as a popular governor.
Juan Willis, who was at the South Fulton rally, is concerned by the amount of people he’s seen that “have gotten complacent and just given up on government.”
“There’s a lot of things she’s for that will benefit the Black community and the Black man, but … there’s a lot of people that don’t feel like it matters,” said Willis, 50, a controls engineer who lives in Decatur. He said the sense of hopelessness is “more frequent than before because of everything that went down with Donald Trump. There’s less trust in government.”
Abrams’s allies argue the challenges she’s facing aren’t surprising. They complain that the media is writing her off by fixating on polls that don’t capture the young and diverse Georgia electorate of today.
In an interview, Abrams herself argued that the polls are wrong because they capture just a “snapshot” of the state’s electorate and not the full coalition of voters she is trying to draw out to the polls.
“My responsibility is to build the electorate,” Abrams said. “And for some that sounds disingenuous, it sounds like I’m denying reality, but what I am saying is traditional politics ignores the very communities I seek to engage.”
Abrams achieved a strong showing in 2018 by registering hundreds of thousands of new voters and mobilizing people, particularly voters of color, who don’t regularly participate in elections. She’s hoping a similar approach will work this year.
“My outreach is intentional because I respect Black voters. I respect Latino voters. I respect AAPI voters,” Abrams said. “I show up because I do not take for granted their engagement, and I do not presume that their choice is me or the other guy. Their choice is vote or not vote — tired and despairing or trust one more time … My responsibility as the person seeking their support [is] I need to go and ask.”
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, emphasized that Abrams is not dramatically underperforming with Black voters — but even a small decrease from her 2018 performance makes a difference. He said, in part, it could be because there are more Black voters this time who will back Kemp and appreciate some of his work, including the tax rebates he signed into law earlier this year. Bullock added that an additional challenge for Abrams is building enthusiasm with Black voters after losing in her first bid.
“It’s hard to rekindle the enthusiasm that surrounds a first major effort — and that first effort did not succeed,” Bullock said. “It’s just hard to recapture some of that excitement that surrounded her first bid.”
Kamau, who took office early this year, dismissed the polls, pointing to his own “surprise upset” unseating an incumbent mayor and said he’s seeing a lot of energy and hunger on the ground.
Many voters are still thrilled about having another opportunity to elect Abrams as Georgia’s first Black and first female governor. Abrams served as Democratic leader of the State House until she stepped down in 2017 to run for governor. After her unsuccessful bid for governor, she built a national profile as a voting rights activist and best-selling author, and was floated as a possible running mate for Joe Biden in 2020.
“I probably scare people with how excited I am about Stacey Abrams,” Alaina Reaves, 33, a Georgia committee member for the Democratic National Committee, said with a huge smile and laugh after a recent Warnock event in Jonesboro.
Reaves, former president of the Clayton County Young Democrats, praised Abrams as a “champion for everyday people” and credited her with drawing in a lot of young voter enthusiasm. She expressed hope that this election will change the narrative that young people don’t vote.
Mark Taylor, who showed up at the South Fulton rally, is a self-described Black Republican, who voted for Donald Trump in 2020. Taylor refused to vote for Biden because of the then-senator’s strong support for the 1994 crime bill that he argues led to mass incarceration. And he plans to vote for Trump again if he runs in 2024. But, now, in 2022, he’s a big fan of Abrams.
“I just like what she stands for. I’m going to say I’m bipartisan because I vote for what I feel is right,” said Taylor, 41. “I’ve seen a lot of gun violence, a lot of violence among the community and I think it’s time for a change.”
Taylor and several supporters all used the same word to describe why they’re backing Abrams: A need for “change.”
“We need change right now. Of course, the majority of us feel that way. We just have to convince a lot of other people that we do count,” said Tina Hodge, 50.
Hodge, a small-business owner, came to the Abrams event with her husband and brother-in-law because she feels Abrams isn’t “as detached from our reality” as other candidates and said the issue of abortion rights, in particular, has her really focused on the election.
Like Hodge, several women at the event emphasized they are especially motivated to vote given the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn abortion rights. “Our rights as women are being taken away,” said Letitia Jackson, 49, from East Atlanta.
While it’s clear that abortion rights has been a galvanizing issue for women to vote Democrat, there have been concerns about Abrams’s standing with a key base: Black men.
This past week, Atlanta rapper and activist Killer Mike caused a stir when he went on “Hell of a Week with Charlamagne tha God” and declared that Kemp had an “effective week with Black people. And I would love to see [Abrams] do that. But if she doesn’t, that ain’t our fault.”
Kemp’s campaign shared that last week he participated in a town hall hosted by local Black radio stations, which Abrams attended as well. He also held a town hall in Buckhead with 50 Black male business owners that was moderated by conservative radio host Shelley Wynter.
The clip of Killer Mike’s comments was shared Friday on Twitter by Kemp’s communications director. Abrams’s supporters quickly pushed back, noting that she has held numerous events aimed at engaging with Black voters.
Earlier on Friday, Abrams shared photos from an event with Black business owners and posted a video with television host and comedian Steve Harvey calling on Black men to “show up for Stacey.”
Omar Ali, a business leader and developer, said that Abrams is running at a time when frustrations are running high with the Democratic Party across the country. Ali, who said he doesn’t identify as a Democrat or Republican, has been active in pushing for Black men to “sit in the middle” to push Democrats to not take them for granted and Republicans to actually have a dialogue with them.
“It’s just a really bad time for her to be running. It doesn’t matter who it was going to be to be honest with you,” Ali said. “If you have a Democrat and they’ve been telling over and over they’re going to do something. Why should we trust it’s going to be done one more time?”
“A message has to be sent to the Democratic Party,” Ali said, adding that oftentimes the focus is on engaging Black men on police brutality and criminal justice reform and not enough on economic opportunity, which is what “Black men want the most … above and beyond everything.”
Abrams acknowledged that Black men, in particular, have been disillusioned by politicians because “their challenges are often not met with consistency and with integrity,” and the attention falls on Democrats because “the presumption is, well, Republicans aren’t going to do it.”
“They are absolutely legitimately suspicious of politicians writ large,” she said. “And I understand that, which is why we’ve had so many conversations because I want them to know that I’m not a typical politician.”
Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University, agreed that some of the challenges Abrams is facing, including with Black men, speak to broader national problems for Democrats — and that the party is just starting to come to grips with the fact there’s a gender gap that exists in the Black community. She added that she can’t rule out sexism as part of why Abrams is facing this issue, too.
A win for Abrams, however, doesn’t just depend on Black voter turnout — but strong turnout from all voters of color, Gillespie said. And the fact that voters of color have that much power in determining the election is in part thanks to the infrastructure Abrams has built out, which helped candidates like Biden, Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff win their races, delivering Democrats the White House and Senate majority, she added.
“The sad part is the possibility — and I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion yet — but the possibility that she might not be able to reap the benefit from it,” Gillespie said. “Mark my words, whoever the next Democrat is who gets elected statewide … owes Stacey Abrams a great debt of gratitude for helping to put the infrastructure together to teach people how to do this.”
Abrams allies, however, push back on the polls and narrative that the longtime voting rights advocate is struggling or facing an enthusiasm gap. They emphasize that with a month to go, the election is far from over.
In Columbus, the Rev. Joseph Baker is grappling with how to get churchgoers and community members excited about the election and ready to vote. But he admits part of the challenge is getting people’s attention when many families are still facing economic hardship from the coronavirus pandemic.
To help those families, Baker, who has been pastor of St. James AME Church for nine years, is ensuring his church’s food drive stays up and running with volunteers offering fresh food each week. But he’s also urging them to go out and vote — a tool he believes can ultimately help their whole community improve.
And while Baker avoids sharing his opinion with churchgoers and community members, he’s certainly heard a lot of chatter from them about one of the candidates they’re planning to support: Abrams.
“It all has to do with who they feel is the person that will better represent them … and that person is Stacey Abrams,” Baker said. “A lot of her work has focused … on people who are often forgotten and have some of the greatest challenges. Now, we just have to get everyone out to vote.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.