Live from Atlanta, Georgia, Stacey Abrams delivered the Democratic response to the State of the Union address, standing in front of a slowly swaying group of people in which women and minorities were notably represented. The former Georgia House minority leader and the Democratic nominee for Georgia’s governor in the 2018 election began with a story of her parents’ dedication to faith, and education, and called for a “renewed commitment to social and economic justice.”
In a brief speech lauded by Democrats, Abrams succeeded in elevating an event that is often awkward and anticlimactic by nature. With a measured tone and her trademark working-class anecdotes, Abrams outlined a raft of policy measures, from the potential of Medicaid expansion in combating infant mortality to the importance of gun control and immigration reform. But the high point of the speech was her strong and vocal stance on protecting voting rights. As the national face of the party for a few minutes on Tuesday, Abrams pushed the issue of the franchise closer to the heart of Democratic politics, and gave Democrats another rhetorical weapon against the Republican Party.
Abrams appeared on air shortly after President Donald Trump, who during his address to Congress appeared at times to seek bipartisan praise, while also sticking to his familiar stances on law enforcement, immigration, abortion, and foreign policy. During key moments when Trump talked about women’s suffrage, criminal justice reform, and cancer research, members of both parties cheered. But for much of his speech, he sounded like the president who staged countless political rallies last summer and fall. “Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls and gates and guards,” he said, admonishing Democrats for not agreeing to his demands for a border wall that led to the longest government shutdown in history. “Meanwhile, working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal immigration.”
While the president defended his border wall and recited stories of kidnapping and rape along the border, he made no reference to the financial pain suffered by federal employees during the government shutdown. In the moment, he seemed eager for applause and conciliation.
Abrams, by contrast, zeroed in on the workers’ pain. She recalled the time she spent distributing meals from food pantries to furloughed federal workers. Abrams called the impasse “a stunt engineered by the President of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people—but our values.”
She also called the White House’s response to rampant gun violence “timid,” a barb that seemed designed to irritate Trump. Abrams lamented the lack of any new immigration reform, and promoted Medicaid expansion as a way to reduce overall mortality among vulnerable groups. She called for action on climate change, criticized the 2017 Republican tax cuts, and hoped for the appointment of “fair-minded judges.”
Still, it was Abrams’s call for a renewed focus on voting rights that seemed to distinguished her rebuttal. “None of these ambitions are possible without the bedrock guarantee of our right to vote,” she said.
Abrams has a special interest in the issue. The 2018 Georgia governor’s race was marked by allegations of voter suppression, a regime of mass voter purges, and a collapse of some critical election-day infrastructure, all under the watch of her opponent, former secretary of state Republican Brian Kemp, who was also in charge of state elections. Abrams lost the race narrowly. With few of those discrepancies and allegations ever addressed or adjudicated, she created Fair Fight Georgia, a group dedicated to rooting out voter suppression in the state.
In Trump, Abrams found not only a dispositional opposite, but a natural foil for her voting-rights agenda. In his address, Trump avoided making false claims about non-citizens voting en masse, as he has been wont to do in past speeches. Nor did he say anything about one of his favorite issues, voter fraud. But just last week he amplified a likely false claim of rampant voter fraud by Latino immigrants in Texas.
Abrams pinpointed the White House’s weaknesses on voting rights. “Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real,” she said. “…This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country. We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a ‘power grab.’”
In that particular portion of her speech, Abrams revealed the ideas that have helped distinguish her as a force within the national Democratic Party. She’s become the public face of a new strategy centered around expanding the ballot to poor people, people of color, and people with disabilities, and has through her own electoral returns helped show the viability of a Democratic strategy that focused on disenfranchised, disengaged, and unlikely voters. Democrats know that they will likely need to act on Abrams’s message to defeat Trump in 2020.
The ur-text of recent battles between the Democrats and the Republicans has been the very shape of the electorate. In a State of the Union response that seemed, perhaps for the first time in years, memorable, Stacey Abrams delved the divide in a way that almost no other politician can.