George on Georgia – Does Stacey Abrams want to win?George Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse
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The polls for Raphael Warnock look good. The polls for Stacey Abrams look bad. And I look … perplexed.
Abrams, to be blunt about it, does not appear to be running a race she wants to win.
Or maybe I’m projecting. Self-sabotage will be the name of my autobiography if I ever get around to writing it. But I’m absolutely not the only person wondering about this. Today, you’re reading the primal scream of a dozen political operatives who have spoken to me off the record about the lethargy of her campaign relative to the last four years of the War in Georgia.
The U.S. Senate race is a reminder that we’re still facing off in Georgia like Sherman and Johnston. I was looking at the cross tabs on the Warnock race a few days ago, and I think Warnock wins this two times out of three right now – not a slam dunk, but an advantage. And, perhaps, that is because Walker is a goatse gif made flesh, something you know you don’t want to look that is sprung upon you by people with a dark sense of humor and malevolent intent.
Gary Black, Herschel Walker’s primary challenger, probably would have been competitive right now. Just sayin’.
Walker is a practical joke the hard right played on Georgia. His winning or losing is less relevant to Trumpists other than degrading the electoral process and delegitimizing competent governance as a political ideal, the better to agitate for violence later. Walker is adrift in a sea of his own bad decisions. If you told me he doesn’t want to win, I’d believe you.
And yet, that election is being fought for all the marbles.
I’m staring at yet another mendacious ad attacking Warnock about “reckless spending,” trying to figure out who thought an eight-figure ad campaign with this message would be motivating, and who they think they’re targeting. Warnock out raised every candidate for public office this year, and five days from now we will see some eye-popping figure from his campaign that will leave advocates of campaign finance reform like myself sputtering like a doodlebug.
Let me just say as an aside that Warnock is perhaps the most important theological critic in American history – short, perhaps, of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. himself – of prosperity gospel. And he holds the record for raising money in a U.S. Senate campaign. It is a divine irony.
In the polling, we find a consistent gap between Abrams and Warnock of between five and ten points. One out of twenty – perhaps one out of ten – Georgia voters are going to pull the lever for Warnock and then pull it again for Gov. Brian Kemp. (If you are an Abrams-Walker voter, I want to meet you and I would like to steal your Lucky Charms.)
Keep in mind that there is some possibility that is hard to measure ahead of things, that a decisive number of women are simply lying about their political intentions – conservative Republican pro-lifers in public who will vote pro-choice when no one is looking. The 59-41 referendum vote two months ago in favor of keeping abortion legal in Kansas – only a few weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade – speaks to this possibility. Polling had conservatives winning that vote by a few points.
But the gap between Abrams and Warnock might be our measurement of what’s left of Georgia’s political flexibility. Our politics are calcified. Most people aren’t even open to listening to a political argument from someone they’re not already predisposed to consider because the basis for trust has eroded so completely. The question, as Abrams gleefully demonstrated four years ago, is one of turnout.
The knock on Abrams early in the campaign was that she took her time announcing her candidacy and didn’t really bother campaigning before March, spending more time raising money in New York and California than returning phone calls in Macon and Medlock Bridge. Abrams is a political superstar. Never mind the Star Trek appearance – which as a fellow nerd, I can get behind – she can raise a million dollars in a couple of days.
But I am seeing few signs of the jet-fueled turnout machine for her campaign. Some of that can be attributed to the lingering aftereffects of the pandemic. Free labor – even paid labor – simply isn’t as available.
Instead, Abrams is giving us sensible policy positions and a pithy line or two here or there. She is giving us appearances on the street at Pride and in front of Jeezy’s crowd at OneMusicFest downtown, telling people she wants to decriminalize weed. Which is good! It is moral and decent and popular. And it is not blaring at me every time I turn on the TV or sign into my phone or ping Instagram, the way the Walker vs. Trainwreck war is raging.
Abrams has the same problem that President Joe Biden did two years ago. It is one thing to win, and another thing to govern. The skills necessary to govern well correlate poorly with the skills needed to win an election. The louder and stupider our politics become, the harder things are to govern. This outcome is a deliberate strategy of the right, to render America ungovernable as long as it is not in command. We have been soaking in cutthroat hyperbole for a generation. It’s toxic. It is also what we have become accustomed to.
The quiet fear among political observers on the left is that Abrams doesn’t want to win ugly … or lose ugly … because win or lose, as long as she doesn’t beclown herself, she has a pretty good life waiting for her when this is done. I hasten to remind people that Abrams’ record in office was marked by bipartisan negotiation and a focus on bread-and-butter matters of good governance. She is not a culture warrior.
Abrams is running a campaign that is trying to send a signal amid the madness that she will be sane if elected. It is the same campaign Hillary Clinton ran in 2016.
Perhaps my fears here are unreasonable. The last four years of Georgia politics have been an interminable, howling hell of record-setting fundraising and wall-to-wall advertising. Anything sensible would look sedate in comparison.
But … that’s what it took. It took hell. War, as Sherman said, is hell. Stacey Abrams is not giving us hell.
– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and a veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.
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