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Democrats pursue Stacey Abrams as top Senate recruit

POLITICO logo POLITICO 1/24/2019 By James Arkin
a person posing for the camera: Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Georgia since 2000, but if Stacey Abrams’ popularity put the race on the battleground map, it would have a major impact on the battle for control of the Senate next year. © Jessica McGowan/Getty Images Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Georgia since 2000, but if Stacey Abrams’ popularity put the race on the battleground map, it would have a major impact on the battle for control of the Senate next year.

Democrats are doing a full-court press to draft Stacey Abrams into Georgia’s 2020 Senate race, a move that would put in play a state that hasn’t gone blue in two decades and could reshape the party’s path to retaking the Senate majority.

The problem is that Abrams still has hopes of becoming governor — it’s where she could have the most direct impact on issues like voting rights — and isn’t sold on the Senate. But the pressure on her to run in 2020, capitalizing on her rise to national prominence last year and her continued popularity in Georgia despite losing the 2018 governor’s race, is only growing.

Abrams is giving serious consideration to a Senate run, and she met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) in recent weeks. As she deliberates, Abrams also sat down with three of the most prominent African-Americans in the Democratic Party: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has been close with Abrams since they overlapped in law school, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Lewis said that he wasn’t urging Abrams to choose a path forward, but that he’d be a “strong supporter” of whatever she does next. Abrams has also been keeping supporters fired up with a statewide tour billed as an opportunity to thank her backers in 2018.

State Rep. Al Williams, a close ally of Abrams’, said Abrams is getting the “hard sell” from national and local Democrats who want her to run in 2020, but that she hasn’t indicated to him whether she’s leaning towards or against a run.

“The Democratic Party certainly needs candidates like Stacey Abrams, so there will be a lot of push for her to run,” Williams said.

The biggest thing in the way of that push is Abrams' ambition to be Georgia's governor. “She's the obvious frontrunner for the race. But I still think she wants to be the governor and she always has, and that's going to weigh on her,” said Jason Carter, Democrats' 2014 gubernatorial nominee and the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

That's why some Democrats believe Abrams is unlikely to challenge Georgia Sen. David Perdue, the freshman senator and former businessman, though they say the pull from the national party to build on her momentum from 2018 could change that.

"I think it is highly unlikely she runs for Senate, but there is no one more persuasive than Chuck Schumer," said a Georgia Democrat familiar with Abrams' thinking.

Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Georgia since 2000, but if Abrams’ popularity put the race on the battleground map, it would have a major impact on the battle for control of the Senate next year. Democrats need to win at least three seats to take control of the chamber, including states that President Donald Trump carried in 2016. Their path relies on candidates like Abrams who have forged unique appeal in red states.

Indeed, in a recent survey from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, 52 percent of registered voters said they have favorable views of Abrams, compared to 40 percent who view her unfavorably. Only former GOP Gov. Nathan Deal scored higher favorability numbers. Perdue was viewed favorably by 45 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 31 percent.

“There's no disputing that Stacey is incredibly charismatic, personable and an incredibly effective communicator. There's no hiding that,” said John Watson, the state GOP chairman. “But what belies that are some really bad positions.”

Watson and other Republicans said Abrams' positions on health care, immigration and gun control measures, which they attacked relentlessly during the gubernatorial race, would be similar wedge issues if she runs again. Republicans also argue Abrams would face very different circumstances in a Senate run, where federal and national issues would loom larger than local concerns discussed during the gubernatorial campaign.

Perdue would also present a more formidable opponent than Kemp, who had lower name recognition and won his nomination months after Abrams, after fighting through a tough GOP primary runoff. Perdue, a strong ally of President Trump, remains popular across the Republican Party and is unlikely to face a primary challenge.

"She was, for Democrats across the country, their dream candidate," said Jeremy Brand, a political strategist for Kemp. "They invested tens of millions of dollars, she put in a lot of work on mobilization and she lost."

Abrams has made clear publicly that she plans to run for office again, though which office remains the question. Some Democrats view her lingering desire to be the state's top executive as the biggest hurdle to a Senate candidacy. Carter said Abrams would likely clear out the Democratic field should she choose to run against Perdue.

If she doesn’t run, Democrats could face a potentially crowded field, with a handful of other candidates weighing a run, including Jon Ossoff, who lost a nationally watched special House election in 2017; the Rev. Raphael Warnock; and state Rep. Scott Holcomb. Teresa Tomlinson, the former mayor of Columbus, has been most aggressively laying the groundwork for a campaign. Tomlinson was in Washington this week to speak with representatives of EMILY's List and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, though neither organization is actively recruiting her to run at this stage.

Tomlinson, in an interview, declined to say definitively whether or not she would run if Abrams does. She said she thought she would be a formidable opponent against Perdue, but she also heaped praise on Abrams, calling her the “standard-bearer” for the party.

“Stacey helped make this a two-party state. Should Stacey decide to run she'll be a fabulous candidate,” Tomlinson said. “Should I decide to run, I think one thing that will demonstrate is Georgia has a very deep, broad bench.”

Earlier this month, Abrams set a deadline for the end of March to decide on a Senate run — she'll return to Washington the following week to receive an award from EMILY's List, which was a major backer of her race in 2018 and likely would be again in 2020. Abrams said in a local radio interview that she was weighing whether she was the right person to run, and whether she had the capacity to win and do the job well. At her thank-you rally Monday, she implored her supporters to stay motivated.

“We have proven that Georgia is not about to be a battleground state. We are at war right now," Abrams said. "It’s time for folks to show up and fight with us."

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