What is Stacey Abrams going to do next?
It didn’t take long, after Abrams’ work to expand Georgia’s Democratic electorate translated to a near-miss campaign in the state’s gubernatorial election, for that question to loom over the early phase of the 2020 Democratic primary for president. The intrigue went into overdrive with a tweet suggesting she might seek the nomination herself, and with her team insisting that nothing, including a run for the US Senate seat occupied by Georgia Republican David Perdue, is off the table. On Wednesday, she did another round of TV to say again: Her options are open.
The possibility, though, that people are most obsessing over right now: whether or not she’s going to team up with Joe Biden.
Rumors of Biden and Abrams talking about a joint ticket at the start of a potential Biden presidential campaign have been rampant over the last week after the two met for lunch. Aides to both have publicly denied that a “grand plan” exists.
But the whispers haven’t died out. Two sources familiar with the matter say that, no matter what others say, Biden’s team has pitched Abrams on the idea of being Biden’s running mate at the outset of a 2020 campaign. Those sources said the idea was brought up to attract high-level operatives and donors. Neither source was aware of Abrams’ response, nor whether she was currently considering the proposition.
Abrams on Wednesday told CBS News that she and Biden “talked about a lot of things,” but the vice presidency “was not the core issue.”
“If you’re thinking about the presidency as Joe Biden, you have to be thinking about a black woman as your running mate,” said one high-level Democratic operative.
Biden spokesperson Bill Russo in an email reasserted that the rumors are not true. “I publicly denied that these discussions took place the other day, as did her team,” he said. Pressed further, Russo said, “All I’m saying is that the rumor that it was discussed in their lunch or between our teams was false. I’ve said as much and as has her team. I won’t comment on anything hypothetical about his plans.”
Only Abrams and Biden “know what the discussion was,” Abrams’ spokesperson Lauren Groh-Wargo told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday, but she added that, to her knowledge, there was no deal, no pitch, no conversations between staff.
Two sources close to Biden’s political team told BuzzFeed News that Biden also plans to meet next month with Andrew Gillum, the former mayor of Tallahassee who was Democratic nominee for Florida governor in 2018. Russo declined to comment on that, and a Gillum spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Abrams left the door open to any outcome for her political future on Wednesday. She said on The View that she didn’t know if she would run herself, but had “options” she didn’t realize before. “Running in the primary to be vice president is very different than someone who has been selected by the party to be the nominee, asking you to serve as a partner. And I am open to all options,” she said.
Biden was spotted, at the same time Abrams was in New York, at a hotel in Times Square where employees on Wednesday said he had been a frequent guest — he was spotted working out there wearing a T-shirt with the word “running” on it. He has for weeks said that he would make his 2020 decision “soon.” But he is not expected to speak at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network annual conference next week, its organizers said. The event, which is doubling, as it does in presidential years, as a Democratic candidate cattle call, will be attended by Abrams, who is speaking the first day.
Abrams felt the intensity of the backlash to the initial Axios report on a team-up, a half-dozen of her friends and advisers said. But by saying Wednesday, including on The View, that she wouldn’t “run for second place,” Abrams appeased those allies who view her as overqualified to be Biden’s running mate and reframed such an arrangement, were she to be involved, as a decision she’d make of her own agency, rather than be used as a political cudgel for a candidate many of her allies believe is too old and out of touch with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Abrams’ unifying national political message — one about Democrats not having to choose between speaking directly to marginalized groups and nonmarginalized groups — is tailor-made to bridge America’s political divide. And she is talking about the presidency openly in that context, talking about the country’s “capacity for cohesion.”
Her solution to Democrats’ problem is not new; it’s how she ran for governor, and remembrance of her big, diverse crowds, especially the white Georgians she attracted to her movement, is a collective glimpse at what she and Biden could bring to a ticket. She told CBS that she spoke to Biden about that message. “There’s this false dichotomy right now that you can either talk about those who are left out or you talk about those who feel like they’re being left out, but you can’t talk about both,” she said. “And I think that one of the vibrant parts of our conversation was that I believe you can talk about identity and that means you can include everyone — everyone wants to be seen, and the best politicians are the ones who can bring people together not by pretending we all have the same issues but by recognizing the obstacles that some of us face and the opportunities that all of us want.”
Allies inside Abrams’ circle are pushing back at the idea that the talk of running as Biden’s VP is taking away Abrams’ agency and sense of personal identity. Abrams has traversed the country in recent weeks, speaking to groups and private gatherings about her political philosophy and recapping her 2018 race sounding presidential. Soon, she’ll travel to Ohio and will be interviewed by writer Connie Schultz. Her team loved a tweet by Schultz, saying people should “dispense with talk of gimmickry or Biden ‘using’ Stacey Abrams. Such framing disrespects her. If ever there were a person in charge of her own life, it is Stacey Abrams.”
Abrams, whose team said she is still weighing what to do next, declined an interview for this story.
Nearly a dozen political strategists, party insiders, and people familiar with her thinking who have spoken with her in recent weeks told BuzzFeed News that though they have no personal knowledge of her plans, they don’t expect her to run for Senate or for president. Many people close to Abrams are incredulous that a bid to unseat Perdue, whose seat she passed on running for in 2014, was suddenly of interest to a woman who has consistently expressed zero desire to be a US senator. Abrams, a meticulous strategist, spent a decade executing her 2018 plan to run for governor, leading people who know her to doubt she would put together a hastily assembled Senate or White House run now.
Neil Sroka, the national spokesperson for Democracy for America, called Abrams’ “we all do better when we all do better” message “perfectly resonant” with Democratic politics. He said Abrams’ understanding of the importance of that style of campaigning and her commitment to building her campaign to reflect it was the reason his progressive organization endorsed her early in her 2018 primary fight.
“That strategy pays dividends beyond just the new American majority because it gets lots of people excited about the possibilities of multiracial, inclusive populism that’s built into it,” he said.
That level of praise from left-leaning groups could lift Biden, should he decide to run for president and bring her onto his ticket. Just this month, Democracy for America’s chair told BuzzFeed News that “The reality is that Biden’s time is passed.” Some of Abrams’ former staff and advisers are indifferent about the latest round of speculation linking her to Biden; the idea that Abrams might get notice as a running mate for a top-tier candidate is not exactly revelatory, they say.
But other people in Abrams’ orbit are frustrated by a sense of unfairness over the Abrams–Biden whispers, with some feeling as though Abrams should run herself. (Perhaps in a nod to those supporters, Abrams suggested Wednesday that such an arrangement would not diminish her accomplishments, but highlight and accentuate them.) Those people, who did not want to go on the record, said that Biden’s age, checkered history on criminal justice, and his treatment of Anita Hill, make him unfit for the office of president.
“What makes it particularly exploitative is that Biden couldn’t be bothered to endorse Stacey in the gubernatorial primary,” one adviser told BuzzFeed News, echoing a sentiment that a move to add Abrams to a ticket at an early stage would signal desperation. “Now he wants her to save his ass. That’s some serious entitlement.” During her campaign for governor, national Democrats flocked to Georgia to campaign for her, but Biden did not after a scheduling snafu. “I’d be surprised if she does that,” another aide told BuzzFeed News about the idea of a team-up.
“There’s no doubt that the fact that some of the reaction even from people all over the country and from people in her own circle gave Stacey pause,” said one close ally.
Some of Abrams’ supporters are also frustrated with Biden’s Tuesday night comments about the Hill hearing, where he said Hill “paid a terrible price” during Clarence Thomas’ 1991 confirmation hearings, and “she was abused for the hearing. She was taken advantage of. Her reputation was attacked. I wish I could have done something.” Biden was the chair of the Senate committee that held the hearing.
“Stacey Abrams has spoken and said the VP discussion is ‘pure speculation,’ so I’ll take her word for that until further notice,” said Atima Omara, a political consultant and vice chair the DNC’s Women’s Caucus. “What Joe Biden or his advisers shouldn’t be doing is speaking for black women or other women candidates about their intentions. He should be focused on his campaign and the real concerns of women today and addressing his actions in the past.”
Abrams’ allies remain confident she will make the right decision for herself and Georgia — even if that means saying “yes” to Biden, while others believe she should not put her credibility on the line and risk her future by potential representing a roadblock to other black candidates in the race. “She has earned the right to have the freedom to make her own choices but at the same time she understood how it reads to people of color,” another Abrams ally said. “She doesn’t want to lose people of color when she just got them.”
Predictably, Biden’s black American allies are thrilled with the idea of making Abrams their preferred candidate’s running mate from day one, even though it’s rather early and unclear how such an entry would impact friends in the race who helped campaign for her in 2018. One top Democratic operative who will support Biden if he enters the race said Abrams would still be positioned to run again for governor in 2022 if the former vice president doesn’t become the nominee.
Abrams is using the increased media attention on her planning and the Biden talk to pull back focus on her message, and to open up a conversation about her book, which is being reprinted this week in a new edition.
“I talk about the fact that we make mistakes based on the information we have at the time, and one of our responsibilities is to create space for people to understand that mistakes happen and you can grow,” Abrams said Wednesday to CBS News. “And what I hope anyone running for president will do is acknowledge mistakes made, y’all about what you’ve learned, and then apply those new lessons to how you intend to lead.”
Abrams’ next move will likely be unprecedented, no matter what she decides, given her place in the party after last year’s run. She’s approaching the political moment with innovation, on her own terms, and with her own style.