Abrams’ Loss: Some Thoughts

Yesterday Vincent Fort tweeted this question about whether there should be leadership change with the GDP regarding the lack of turnout in the election. At the time, I put aside the Republican-led and passed SB 202 that restructured voting in Georgia, creating new hurdles for turning in mail-in ballots. Here I will elaborate on my subsequent tweet thread you can find here. My thread was in response to the tweet, and to a friend and previous contributor to Peach Pundit’s article from George Chidi in the Intercept. You should read all of the above. The reality is, this isn’t just a problem of the party- this was also a challenge of the campaign itself. Rather than moving forward and the candidate becoming more relatable, it seemed to an outsider (me) that the campaign became more introverted and distant. I felt like I kept waiting for an invitation to ‘c’mon in’ that never came. 

First and foremost: Nikema Williams should not be both my Congressional member and the leader of the GDP. These are two separate full-time and very demanding jobs- they should not be aligned. To be candid, I don’t blame her- I blame the GDP leadership as a whole and across years for this being a possibility. It’s not just dumb to divide this time, it makes folks question the motivations for various choices made in both professions. This is fixable. Change it and you will have greater success.

George asserts that politics here are tribal, and less about policy. Yes, and later (accurately and with a bite that I can almost hear) “As long as Georgia is split down the middle, we will be preyed upon by consultants as locusts in the grain.” Yep-a word image that takes me back to catching grasshoppers in the weeds as a child on my grandparents’ farm. Could someone hire writers like him for the copy for the Abrams campaign? While this tribal aspect of Georgia is nothing new, it seems that the campaign didn’t do what it should have- dug deeper and gotten to know those voters they were vying over. It’s a small enough number that a well-funded campaign should have been able to door-knock it and survey it for meaningful data that should have informed messaging and responses. The Abrams campaign was well funded- no question there- so the inability to hire enough ppl to meaningfully connect with voters (and send that feedback up) should have happened. I’m puzzled as to why it didn’t. 

Moreover, this campaign should have delved deeper into Abrams as a person. We should know enough about Abrams that voters should have felt like she was a friend we could invite into our homes. Where is her family story? Where are the images of her voting with her family? Where are the images of her family reunions that make her more approachable to Georgians as a person? While I can appreciate the approach for a professional Black woman to want to present herself as well-dressed and interacting with voters on their front porches, the campaign never invited us to the metaphorical kitchen table, where serious discussions of family matters happen. This was a missed opportunity. I think it’s super cool she’s a Trekkie, and there’s no question her intelligence is off the charts- but the empathy that she also maintains with each person when she speaks with them is something voters needed to see. 

I have met with Abrams on a few occasions. We aren’t besties, yet I know enough to say that she can be both personable and create a safe space for vulnerability that is captivating and meaningful to the person with whom she speaks. She isn’t just whip-smart, she speaks to people in one on one’s in meaningful enough ways that she makes them feel seen. She certainly did me- and the experience wasn’t faux humility or even the real humility exhibited by Jack Kingston and Dan Cathy when they walk up, shake hands, and introduce themselves to people in rooms full of people who show up to hear them. Both of these interactions have happened to me, and I can assure you- the humility of these men is VERY real. 

I mention this because it isn’t a skill that can be taught or even marketed. It is a social skill that one has or has not. It’s retail politics at its best. Old school; Huey Long stuff. In Abrams, she has it combined with a razor-sharp intellect that allows her to connect her knowledge to problem-solving for the people she interacts with- anyone who meets her can see that. Only, they didn’t meet her. Her campaign seemed to miss every opportunity for a meaningful human connection along the trail. She made lots of speeches, had receptions, and there were meetings (I have friends on the campaign) that did a lot of top-down stuff- but the connecting to people that makes folks want to vote for you just didn’t happen. 

I wish we could have been invited to Abrams’ kitchen table. I think we would have had meaningful conversations that illustrated she’s got it. And if anyone laments the worn aspect of seeing women in the kitchen as a trope- I get it. I also hate that when I write to a readership of you all who are predominantly white, middle class, and male, I have to couch women’s identities in terms of their relation to an ‘other’, but I’m here to bring a message, so bring it in terms I think you can understand, I shall. And as a long-time friend who happens to be a Black male lobbyist told me: “abortion isn’t a kitchen table issue in Georgia”. It’s true. In the patriarchal society in which we reside, we sweep this issue under the rug because it makes us uncomfortable. We like thinking of women in terms of motherhood and wife- neither of which Abrams is- and traditional folks think of abortion only as a sad thing that has to happen when someone’s daughter has made a ‘bad choice’, was ‘too loose’, or someone’s wife tragically must end a pregnancy. 

The reality is that in Georgia, we have 11 counties without a hospital- in the tweet I said 11 counties without an ob-gyn- there is something like 82 counties without an ob-gyn, but 11 counties within our state that don’t have a hospital. And in those counties, sisters, daughters, and mothers (see what I did there, in terms of others?) will die because we neither have healthcare that sees them as a viable life apart from the babies they carry nor do we have the resources in those counties to ensure they can quickly, easily and inexpensively receive medical care that will sustain healthy pregnancies. Following decades of abstinence-only education, I find it so odd that Republican state legislators keep voting for budgets that defund rural hospitals where they say they value human life so much and do so little to educate kids on how that life is created. The mental gymnastics required for these things to be held at the same time is bewildering to me.

But this reality also isn’t new growing up in Walton County, there was a center in Monroe (if I remember correctly) where young women could go and get pelvic exams and birth control without a parents’ consent. I think it was called the Teen Scene or something like that. I had friends who thought this was morally wrong and others who patronized the center. I remember taking a friend for her annual exam when we were 16 or 17 so she could get her birth control filled. In a rural area, there’s a lot of hunting and fishing to do, but often people do what they would in any other space with time on their hands, and I was (and continue to be) grateful for centers like these that meet the needs of women who want to have some bodily autonomy. But this wasn’t something talked about openly in most circles. I can remember talking about it with friends in class at the time and my parents thought it was a wise resource to have. Fascinatingly, my deeply conservative father has always been in favor of birth control as a means of deterring what he felt was a life-altering event in a woman’s life, impacting her economically and socially. 

I wish the Abrams campaign had spoken about abortion in these terms. I see so many of my friends- white women with privilege- sharing on Facebook now about their terminated pregnancies and the profoundly personal stories of why they chose the birth control they did to preserve their lives and make sure their pregnancies were planned, intentional, and their children were fully embraced. I wish women didn’t have to bare their souls like this, but I’m grateful for those who’ve been willing to do it. Remove the veil and let the truth set us free.

Many men I deal with in politics (Republicans and Democrats) of a certain age will talk openly about these things- they’ve seen how important reproductive healthcare is in the lives of the women around them. They aren’t heartless and they aren’t unaware. But there remains this shame and veiling of these family issues that are unhealthy for us all. I write and talk openly about these things, and I pray those conversations become more common and healthy, yet they aren’t now, and Democratic campaigns in Georgia should recognize this- not lament it. 

Of economics and empathy…These men of a certain age understand the economics of pregnancy. Most folks do. So why oh why didn’t the Abrams campaign talk about this? Why didn’t the campaign talk about the economics of growing up in rural Georgia or urban spaces without public transportation or well-managed education funding for schools where education and opportunity are tied to economic success? How most Americans’ debt is medical debt– more than student debt- and in Georgia, the Governor has only marginally expanded Medicaid. The whole blaming of Old Georgia Baptist closing because of the lack of Medicaid expansion was pure political opportunism. But the closing of rural hospitals in Georgia is not. The fact that Taliaferro County has around 1,300 people in the midst of all their fields and no hospital meant that their school building has a clinic on site. I don’t understand why these things aren’t discussed more in Democratic campaigns. It’s right in front of us and to not mention these things smacks of an elitism prevalent in both parties.

The reality is that this is a threading of a needle of empathy to which all Georgians can relate. We can also relate to the loss of loved ones whether you were standing in the rain in church yards burying your dead, or returned this year to place stones on the markers of friends who passed in the pandemic. Kemp’s viable economy cost us lives, and the flippancy about this valuing other humans in rural circles speaks to the hypocrisy of the shock expressed around shootings in the metro area. Rural or urban, both are examples of how we somehow value the dollar, individual freedoms, and the need to be right, more than life. It is staggering how little we seem to care for others in each space yet I think reminding each other of this is necessary and calls us to remember our shared humanity.

The prevalence of mental illness in our circles is also something to which every Georgia family can relate. Every Georgian family has those we commonly refer to as the ‘black sheep’, or the ones that are ‘a little different’ in them. This isn’t foreign, it’s simply discussed in coded language to soften the impact. Right or wrong, this passive communication is a language in and of itself in the South. I hate it, for the emotional labor it places on the shoulders of those who navigate it, but to ignore this method of communication is blindingly stupid. 

Earlier this year I sat with my husband in a room full of Southern state legislators listening to Vince Gill speak eloquently of how his beloved brother had a terrible automobile accident and ‘was never the same. He spoke with such deference, vulnerability, and in such soft tones to speak his truth about his brother’s struggle with mental illness that we all know in our own families that when he sang out the familiar verses of his Go Rest High On That Mountain, it was like a releasing of a bow- and the arrow unquestionably hit its mark, no matter the depth of bourbon in those glasses around us. He spoke in terms Southerners know- redemption, grace, understanding even when it’s hard, and the completion of a life that will be deeply missed. 

That lump in your throat when you listen to that song is what I would call empathy. 

This is human, and all cultures recognize it- Southerners just have a way of softening one up to make you feel cozy before making a finer point. While Vince Gill is just as WASPy as I am, the stories of resilience threaded through Tracey Chapman’s Fast Car are equally moving- and beckon to remember the Great Migration within America (Chapman is from Cleveland) while white folks like me can relate to challenges of class, limitations of small spaces, and the need to break free. The Abrams campaign missed an opportunity in empathy that could call us to be better people- reminding us of shared human experiences while exposing cultural realities of race, gender, and sexual orientation that could have taken Kemp’s lead. And I want to say that I HATE that women and people of color have to work that much harder to overcome white folks’ propensity for voting for yet another average white man for Governor, but this again is the reality in which we live. 

I don’t write the rules, I just try to learn what they are and play the best I can with the hand I’m dealt. I chose some 20 years ago to stay and work here within my home state because I know that if I left like many others do in Georgia, it’ll remain unchanged. 

What Georgians do like, is a story of resilience and images that turn stereotypes on their heads. A LOT of us could relate to Stacey Evans’ intro telling the story of her coming of age. A LOT of folks could relate to Warnock, walking the dog through the neighborhood. Or his story of growing up in the projects in Savannah to then leading Dr. MLK Jr.’s church. These images are evocative, and remind Georgians of the pillars of American beliefs in hard work, overcoming obstacles, and a modern-day Cinderella myth we love to believe, even in late-stage capitalism. The Abrams campaign didn’t deliver messages like this except in the campaign (that I remember), other than the story of holding the tension between her brother who has been incarcerated while dealing with his mental illness while also thinking of her nephew who serves in law enforcement. The aforementioned are meaningful stories with images-like a Black man walking a dog- that turn stereotypes on their heads. I will never forget the In a Box campaign video of Darius Foster in 2014, which spoke directly to these and introduced the public to the man. I hope if Abrams runs again (and I hope she shall), she will pull the creative people behind these videos in to do hers. 

I will remind folks that Johnny Isakson ran 3 unsuccessful campaigns before he made it to Congress. Maybe the third time’s a charm for her as well. Who knows?

What I do know is that there was no lack of money or resources that could have enabled a win here. We can attribute the loss to the DPG if we wish, but frankly, I lost faith in their viability many years ago. I never understood why DuBose was at the top for so long, but no one listens to me on either side, either way, right? I’m too liberal for Republicans and too conservative for Democrats. 

I’m that independent voter who went from split ticket to single issue this time around. I happen to also be a white woman. Abortion and the economy mattered to me, and I voted for Abrams while other split-ticket voters sided with Kemp. I understand why my gay/ lesbian friends, my friends who aren’t white, feel hurt by their peers’ votes for people who create a policy that directly strips their rights. This is the way I feel as well. It’s really difficult to understand why Kemp is ‘good enough’ but Abrams never shall be to so many white men who say race and gender don’t matter. I’m not saying one has to overcome unconscious bias to win, but I think you can speak to it in ways that aren’t putting it directly into words. Images help. There are very few images of Governor Kemp without his family surrounding him on the campaign trail. In contrast, there are very few images of Stacey Abrams with her mother, father, and siblings around her. Would this have clinched the victory for her? Maybe not, but it wouldn’t have hurt her either. Speaking about one’s own life experience is always powerful and oftentimes invites others to relate. This is the biggest challenge I saw around the Abrams campaign.  I would say it speaks to why folks didn’t turn out. She wasn’t the candidate folks could see sitting at their kitchen table. And until a campaign can move her metaphorically from the front porch to the kitchen table, she will always come up short.

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