Stacey Abrams’ loss in the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia can only be described as, well, suspicious.
Amid credible accusations of voter suppression, Republican and Trump acolyte Brian Kemp appeared to be getting away with the slimmest of wins, thanks in part to policies enacted by the Georgia secretary of state, who is tasked with running elections. That person being, of course, Kemp himself. Abrams had a genuine shot at becoming the first Black woman to serve as governor in the history of the U.S. But in the aftermath of the crushing loss, observers buzzed about how this lawyer and decade-long Georgia legislator could become a new star for progressive Democrats to follow.
In a parallel universe, in 2020, Abrams becomes a superstar as a junior senator, grilling Mitch McConnell in lengthy hearings and joining Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to stream on Twitch. In another universe, she wins the vice presidential seat. Perhaps she becomes a new face of The Resistance® and the subject of giddy memes shared in Facebook groups.
But in this universe, Abrams isn’t the star of the election cycle. After the failed run for governor, she couldn’t shake the feeling that voters had fallen through some crooked cracks in the Georgia electoral system. And she vowed to fix those cracks rather than look for new pavement.
The result? Georgia is now the stunning site of a blue tide, with Democratic candidate Joe Biden trailing Donald Trump by a hair as of this afternoon. The Senate race is just as close, too — both seats, currently held by Republicans, are now locked in for a January runoff vote.
The one person nonplussed by all this is Abrams, who was bold enough to publicly state, shortly after her 2018 loss, that Georgia could be won by Democrats — a radical departure from convention. Mixing demographic and election data with observations from the campaign trail, the 46-year-old architected a literal playbook that shined as the rare cogent strategy for building progressive bulkheads in regions that look like, in conventional Democrat wisdom, lost causes. Abrams saw how an influx of left-leaning voters in the last decade could shift Georgia politics for good. And the strategy wasn’t merely about securing wins in 2020 — it was about never losing a one-sided, dirty fight ever again.
Her success reminds me of how the world of politics is full of people who think they’re Michael Jordan and act accordingly, diving into electoral fights with MJ’s mouth but none of his magic. What we need more of is Scottie Pippen — the figures who will publicly accept their role as No. 2, then coyly whip out perfect assist after perfect defensive play, letting the frontman freestyle while teaching the rest of the team how to run the game. The Chicago Bull legend wiped up missed shots, turning mistakes into points. Pippen shut down the opponent’s best player night after night, with nary a complaint. And all the while, he kept the Bulls bonded with a mix of kindness and a therapist’s wisdom, staying calm even in the face of another Jordan temper tantrum. (No wonder that, even with MJ being the GOAT, everyone loved Scottie more.)
As Democrats face a reckoning of which way the party will bend, that kind of allure and bond becomes critical to party unity. The success in Georgia stems in part from how Abrams used the hype of her gubernatorial run to pull the ear of Senate Democrat leader Chuck Schumer, leading the latter to usher campaign resources to the state. It proves, in short, how the need for ambitious networks and human infrastructure remains a critical element of every campaign. Yet it’s also the hardest to secure, especially for underdogs; one study found that a third of first-time political candidates have zero staffers, and another 40 percent only reported one to three people on their team. It’s not enough to have a charismatic leader to win races — you need organizing. Aw-shucks failson George W. Bush didn’t win two terms against all odds because he got lucky, after all. He had big-brained cronies like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove playing as Scottie Pippens.
Without a gameplan, the progressive left has been mired in existential fights, especially with the electoral college, gerrymandering and well-trod voter suppression tactics tilting the scales against them. As political scientist and author David Faris told me in 2018, significant blame falls on Democrat leadership failing to change the playbook, choosing instead to trust old institutions. “The institutions create disjuncture between what the people seem to want according to how many people vote for the various candidates, and the actual results of our elections,” Faris explained. “That’s the fundamental unfairness Democrats have to address the next time they get into power.”
In light of that, the rise of Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was so powerful because it reaffirmed to us that despite the insular nature of D.C. and the ruthless old guard that reigns supreme in American politics, a young, smart idealist without formal experience could join Congress and make legitimate waves. But the story of AOC is a rare one, and it’s not rare because we’re lacking young, smart idealists that want to crash a very stuffy party. It’s rare because of how the cards are stacked, and Abrams is one of the first progressives to show how replacing the deck is as critical a goal as anything else.
“It will not happen in a single Biden administration. It will not happen in a decade,” she told Politico. “But we can lay the foundations and we can make aggressive progress because the most important part of the demographic changes we are seeing is that they’re not going to stop.”
What Abrams is doing is nothing new, nor particularly revolutionary. But her fresh, committed gameplan has sparked the lightbulbs over a lot more heads. No matter what happens in Georgia, the stunning change from 2016 has proven that Abrams is a new superstar of political assists and defense. Such is the power of a Scottie Pippen, showing the squad how to run the floor so that everyone can thrive.