Stacey Abrams’ media blitz openly campaigning for a spot alongside presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden on the presidential ballot in November has some political insiders nervous. That she’s tossing aside revered tradition by campaigning publicly for the spot has them furious. The Washington Examiner dismissed Abrams as “entitled.” Democratic Rep. William Clay called her media campaign “inappropriate.”
Abrams is catching fire because there is a certain subset of our political insiders who fetishize process over progress, and tradition over turnout. The resistance to a public campaign for the vice presidency is a relic from America’s earliest days as a republic.
But it’s important to know that in those days, things were very different. Back then, campaigning for public office was considered a shocking breach of social protocol—political office should be an honor bestowed on a statesman, the thinking went, without the use of tactics as plebeian as persuasion.
Of course, the prohibition on public campaigning didn’t stop folks like Thomas Jefferson from mounting the aggressive, behind-the-scenes campaigns that enabled his political dominance. Jefferson and our founders leveraged allied newspapers, surrogates, and pressure campaigns to put their names forward for service in much the same way candidates do today.
That kind of coy pageantry still has fetishists among Democratic elites, but 18th century political theater is a bad fit for a distinctly 21st century political movement. Abrams’ unapologetically media-driven campaign for the vice presidency isn’t just eye-catching; it represents a better, more transparent, more honest party politics.
Let’s get a few things out of the way. Abrams is ambitious. Abrams is comfortable with you knowing she’s ambitious. And Abrams doesn’t have patience for political pageantry that she feels has been used to exclude women—especially women of color—from seeking the highest political offices.
“It would be doing a disservice to every woman of color, every woman of ambition, every child who wants to think beyond their known space for me to say no or to pretend, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want it.’ Of course I want it,” Abrams said on The View in February. “Of course I want to serve America. Of course I want to be a patriot and do this work. And so I say yes.”
When describing her openness about seeking the vice presidency, Abrams borrows from the language of YouTubers and the world of social media virality. “I try to be straightforward because while we hope the work speaks for itself, sometimes the work needs a hype man,” Abrams said during her appearance on The View. “I learned early on that if I didn’t speak for myself, I couldn’t tell the story.”
Critics may call her consistent press appearances ambitious, but a growing number of Democratic voters find her honest and qualified. A poll from the highly respected group Data for Progress released at the end of March found Abrams was the most popular choice for Biden’s running mate.
Abrams is perhaps the Democratic Party’s most experienced organizer and advocate at a time when the party is desperately seeking a unity issue to mend the wounds of another bruising primary cycle. Due in part to the coronavirus, the Democrats are finally coalescing around an issue that unites every demographic in the party: voter protection. Well, given her experience in Georgia in 2018, Stacey Abrams knows something about Republican voter suppression efforts.
This confluence of events—that the Democrats need a proven organizer who is also capable of exciting the base and turning out voters on the key issue of voter protection—seems designed for Abrams. It also says something important about her political instincts.
Abrams started the voting rights organization Fair Fight when voter protection issues were just returning to the list of Democratic priorities. The success of her model not only pushed the party forward on voter protection—its organizing and litigation efforts prevented a purge of over 26,000 voters from Georgia’s voting rolls. While others have campaigned on Sunday talk shows, Abrams and her team have been strengthening voting rights against Republican assaults.
"I am very self-aware, and I know that my résumé is usually reduced to 'She didn't become the governor of Georgia,” Abrams said recently. But her state political career—rising to become minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives—offers Biden an unexpected asset: a chance to rebuild the crumbling relationship between the federal government and the states.
Donald Trump’s catastrophic mismanagement of America’s coronavirus response has led to a breakdown in trust and cooperation between the federal government and state governors. The federal government now seems more like a rival than an ally in state coronavirus relief efforts, with Trump leaving governors to find their own path during this generational crisis.
Abrams understands how state governments function. She is closer to the experience of negotiating with governors and state legislatures than any other prospective vice presidential candidate. A Biden administration could easily deputize Abrams as the White House goodwill ambassador to Democratic and Republican governors neglected and abused under Trumpism.
First Abrams needs to win—and she’s putting the strength of her organizing network to the test with a bold, public-facing campaign for the vice presidency. By putting her organizing work front and center, Abrams is building a grassroots campaign that seeks to split the power to choose a running mate between Joe Biden and the Democratic base.
That no other Democrat seriously attempted this strategy before is a fantastic example of how stale thinking has become among Democratic political elites. Abrams won the first-mover bonus with her innovative approach, and it clearly caught more traditional VP contenders off guard. Amy Klobuchar is attempting to keep pace with a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but no other candidate seems as comfortable owning their ambition as Abrams.
Stacey Abrams has shown creativity, boldness, and courage in bucking long-held political traditions to make her case for the vice presidency. Those are values Americans can rally behind during this time of unprecedented political and economic uncertainty. Abrams will bring them back to the vice presidency.