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Democrats dissect why Stacey Abrams lost her bid for governor

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For many Democrats, Georgia has come to symbolize the party's future. But last week one of its brightest stars, Stacey Abrams, lost her second bid for governor against Republican incumbent Brian Kemp. Only one statewide Democrat remained standing on election night, Senator Raphael Warnock. And he still has to win a runoff against Republican Herschel Walker. Now Democrats are starting to dissect what happened with that key race still looming. WABE's Sam Gringlas reports from Atlanta.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: In 2018, Stacey Abrams narrowly lost her bid to become the first Black woman governor in the country, no less in a state that had been dominated by Republicans. Four years later, Abrams came up short again against Republican Brian Kemp.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STACEY ABRAMS: We may not have made it to the finish line, but we ran that race.

GRINGLAS: But this year, the Abrams campaign lost by a much bigger margin, more than seven points compared to just over 1% last time.

TAMMY GREER: Could it be that perhaps it was too insular? Let's just run the same playbook from four years ago, and that's going to work.

GRINGLAS: That's Tammy Greer, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University. Unlike 2018, the White House is now occupied by a Democrat. And President Biden's popularity has sagged in Georgia, partly because of inflation. Kemp constantly emphasized his handling of the state's economy from reopening businesses early in the pandemic to pausing the state gas tax amid rising prices.

THARON JOHNSON: Governor Kemp being an incumbent was going to be very difficult to beat.

GRINGLAS: Tharon Johnson is a Democratic strategist.

JOHNSON: He ran a very disciplined campaign. His message was very succinct. I can repeat it because he kept saying it over and over.

GRINGLAS: Kemp's focus on economics may have helped win some independent voters, but demographer Fred Hicks says the turnout rate also dropped from 2018.

FRED HICKS: You know, it wasn't that you saw a whole bunch of Democrats in the metro area vote for Brian Kemp, but they did not come out and vote.

GRINGLAS: The Black and Hispanic turnout rate fell from the last midterms. It's too early to know exactly why, but Professor Greer thinks Democrats didn't do enough direct voter contact. She believes they assumed Georgia's growing diversity would carry them more than it did.

GREER: There was a complete hubris to the demographic shift, huge hubris.

GRINGLAS: The Democrat who got closest to winning beside Warnock was Jen Jordan. She was the nominee for attorney general. This week her team's been closing up campaign headquarters.

JEN JORDAN: Signs are getting packed up. We've got the whiteboard that was kind of all the messaging and strategic stuff that's been wiped clean.

GRINGLAS: Like Abrams, Jordan talked a lot about abortion rights, but Jordan made it the centerpiece of her campaign. She says it did move the needle, just not enough.

JORDAN: I don't think that the really negative impact of the law has really kind of bubbled to the surface yet. I think there was kind of a disconnect, right?

GRINGLAS: And in Georgia, it was harder for Democrats to paint their opponents as extremists on democracy. In fact, the incumbents here, like Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, expressly refused Trump's demands to overturn the 2020 election.

GREER: While other states' Republicans were very involved and were loud and proud in terms of their connections to Trump, really, the opposite was happening here.

GRINGLAS: As Democrats regroup, some also wonder what the losses mean for the party's bench. Abrams has been seen as a top talent, but she's now lost twice statewide. The Abrams campaign didn't respond to a request for comment. Lis Smith, a top staffer on Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign, says building Democratic power can take many forms, like Abrams' decade-long project to make Georgia competitive.

LIS SMITH: There are many different avenues where these talented people like Stacey Abrams, Beto O'Rourke in Texas can direct their energy. And we need to stop acting like holding elected office is the only thing that matters in politics.

GRINGLAS: For now, Democrats and Republicans say they're focused on the Senate runoff next month. For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTAY SAVAGE SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.