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Democrats Fret as Stacey Abrams Struggles in Georgia Governor’s Race

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NEWNAN, Ga. — Georgia Democrats have grown increasingly pessimistic about Stacey Abrams’s possibilities of ousting Gov. Brian Kemp from office, pointing to her struggles to rally key parts of her party’s coalition and her inability to appeal to a slice of moderate Republican voters who can resolve the state’s elections.

Private and non-private polls have consistently shown her trailing Mr. Kemp, a Republican in search of a second term. And, in a very worrying sign for Ms. Abrams, polls also show she is drawing less support than the opposite high-profile Democrat on the ballot, Senator Raphael Warnock, who’s in search of a primary full term.

The gap between the 2 Democrats, which is throughout the margin of error in some recent surveys and as wide as 10 points in others, highlights the extent of her struggles. Though she is beloved by Democratic voters, she has lost some ground with Black men, who provided crucial backing in her narrow loss to Mr. Kemp in 2018. And while Mr. Warnock draws some support from Republican moderates, Ms. Abrams — who has been vilified more by the G.O.P. than every other statewide figure — has shown little sign of peeling off significant numbers of disaffected Republicans.

Ms. Abrams’s standing — consistently trailing Mr. Kemp in polls by around five percentage points — has alarmed Democrats who’ve celebrated her because the master strategist behind Georgia’s Democratic shift.

For years, she worked to register and end up Democratic voters, narrowly losing her first bid for governor in 2018 and helping fuel President Biden’s victory in 2020. Now, her struggles have some Georgia Democrats wondering if the Abrams model — in search of to expand the universe of voters to suit her politics — is really higher than attempting to capture 50 percent of the voters who exist now.

“Without delay, individuals are concerned — form of looking sideways,” said Erick Allen, a Democratic state representative, who said he hoped enthusiasm would pick up in the autumn sprint. “There’s loads of energy across the Warnock campaign. I’m unsure if the identical energy that we had 4 years ago is across the Abrams campaign yet.”

In an interview last week, Ms. Abrams defended her strategy, noting that her Democratic turnout operation helped carry the state for Mr. Biden, Mr. Warnock and Senator Jon Ossoff within the 2020 election cycle. “I imagine an electorate that is feasible, not the electorate as if the election was held today,” she said.

She and her top aides consider her standing is improving, buoyed by voter anger over the Supreme Court decision overturning the federal right to an abortion. She is planning a broader campaign to spotlight Mr. Kemp’s signing of a 2019 law — which went into effect in July — that bans abortion in Georgia after the sixth week of pregnancy.

Ms. Abrams’s allies said the comparisons between her and Mr. Warnock neglected stark differences. Ms. Abrams is a Black woman contending with sexist stereotypes about leadership, they note. She can also be running against an incumbent governor with a well-built political apparatus, while Mr. Warnock’s rival, the previous football star Herschel Walker, is a political novice. (Each Mr. Kemp and Mr. Walker’s campaigns declined to comment.)

“We have now to work harder as women, as African American women,” said former Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, who added that girls “just have a harder time capturing the imagination as executives.”

The Abrams and Warnock campaigns have pursued different strategies. Mr. Warnock is betting on winning over simply enough moderate, white Republican voters to get himself past Mr. Walker. Ms. Abrams needs an enormous turnout from base Democrats and recent voters to oust Mr. Kemp.

Last week, Mr. Warnock demurred when asked by The Recent York Times during a news conference if he would campaign with Ms. Abrams, delivering the type of practiced non-answer Democrats have been reciting when asked in the event that they would welcome help from an unpopular President Biden.

“The pundits need to know who I’m campaigning for and who I’m campaigning with,” Mr. Warnock said. “I’m focused on my campaign.”

The following morning, Ms. Abrams announced she would join Mr. Warnock for a campaign stop that very afternoon.

“We want Stacey Abrams,” Mr. Warnock told supporters on the event, calling her “a visionary leader” and “my dear friend.”

Democrats have largely kept quiet on their concerns about Ms. Abrams’s campaign. But several county elected officials and community leaders in Georgia have privately expressed their worries to the campaign directly, in line with interviews with greater than two dozen Democratic officials who asked to not be named discussing private conversations. They’ve complained that the campaign was slow to achieve out to key constituencies and underestimated Mr. Kemp’s strength in an already difficult yr for Democratic candidates.

Ms. Abrams has in recent weeks focused attention on winning support from Black men, voters who’ve inched toward Republicans through the Trump era.

How Times reporters cover politics.
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Her campaign has begun a series of conversations with Black men, calling the events “Stacey and the Fellas.” The policy-heavy discussions, aimed especially at younger or infrequent voters, are sometimes moderated by community members or local celebrities, just like the Atlanta rapper Yung Joc and radio personality Big Tigger. At one recent event, she said bluntly: “If Black men vote for me, I’ll win Georgia.”

Her outreach has not won over Democratic skeptics.

“A part of the grumbling that you simply’re seeing from Black men is because they need to be engaged,” said Kevin Harris, a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus who helped lead Mr. Biden’s Georgia campaign operations in 2020. He criticized national Democrats as slow to have interaction with key voters, but said he believed Ms. Abrams still had time to make up the lag.

“We wouldn’t start talking to white suburban voters just a number of weeks before the election,” he said. “So why do you think that you possibly can call the Black men just a number of weeks before the election, one time, and expect to get the outcomes that you simply need?”

A July poll from The Atlanta Journal-Structure found Ms. Abrams winning support from about 80 percent of Black voters in Georgia, a figure that’s dangerously low within the narrowly divided state. Her campaign released an internal poll last week showing her support amongst Black men at 85 percent, a figure still in need of her 2018 performance by about eight percentage points. That poll found her two points behind Mr. Kemp overall, a tighter margin than previous surveys.

A few of Ms. Abrams’s supporters say her struggles are more rooted in sexism than any strategic misstep. She is running within the Deep South for an office that has long been elusive to women and candidates of color. If she wins in November, she can be the primary Black woman and only the third Black person in American history to occupy a governor’s mansion.

“The image of leadership we’ve, Stacey is like the alternative,” said Steve Phillips, an early Abrams supporter and outstanding progressive Democratic donor who attributed her polling deficiencies to “just sexism.” Ms. Abrams’s identity as a Black woman is “a part of the depth of the passion for her nevertheless it also explains the depth of the resistance.”

Others point to a different source of resistance, particularly amongst Republican-leaning voters: Because the face of the Democratic Party within the state, Ms. Abrams has change into a polarizing figure. Her 2018 campaign for governor marked the start of the Democrats’ rise, and lots of Republicans still associate her together with her refusal to concede defeat to Mr. Kemp in that race. Ms. Abrams has repeatedly defended that call, particularly against those that say it was no different from efforts by former President Donald J. Trump and his allies to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory in 2020.

“I’ve never once claimed to be the governor, I’ve never desired to make myself the governor,” Ms. Abrams said.

Fred Hicks, a Democratic pollster in Atlanta, said Ms. Abrams’s 2018 campaign, and her outstanding role in Democratic politics since, had put some voters out of reach to her — even those that turned to Democrats through the Trump era.

“There are Republican voters who’re OK with Senator Warnock,” he said. “But there’s a really strong anti-Stacey Abrams feeling.”

One among the Abrams campaign’s pollsters, Ben Lazarus of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart, questioned whether Mr. Warnock’s support amongst Republican voters would hold through November.

“White voters are going to come back home to Republicans and Black voters are going to come back home to Democrats,” Mr. Lazarus said. “That’s what happens in Georgia.”

In Mr. Kemp, Ms. Abrams is up against a comparatively popular governor who, in defeating the Trump-endorsed David Perdue in the first, demonstrated some independence from the previous president with moderate Republican voters.

Mr. Kemp has doled out popular policies like giving bonuses and pay raises for public schoolteachers and state employees, suspending the state’s gasoline tax thrice and eschewing any public health guidance related to Covid-19 to maintain businesses open.

“You don’t need people from Atlanta or from the White House attempting to let you know what to do along with your child,” Mr. Kemp said last month at campaign stop in Eastman, Ga.

Ms. Abrams herself has acknowledged the issue of her undertaking this time around. During a recent conference call with other Georgia Democrats running for statewide office, she joked about Mr. Kemp being a tougher opponent than Mr. Walker and Burt Jones, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor who took part in a scheme to overturn 2020 election results.

Ms. Abrams acknowledged the moment of candor, saying she “can have made a comment to my colleagues.” But she insisted Democrats in Georgia must take every Republican seriously.

“Anyone who pretends that there’s someone easier or harder to run against just isn’t being attentive to politics,” she said.

Maya King reported from Newnan, Ga., and Reid J. Epstein from Washington.

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