Abrams blasts Trump in Democratic State of the Union response

Stacey Abrams used the Democratic State of the Union response Tuesday to blast President Donald Trump for the 35-day partial government shutdown, calling it a stunt that “defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people — but our lives.”

Abrams, who narrowly lost a bitter contest last year for governor of Georgia, used the nationally-televised address to not only criticize Trump and his policies, but to jab Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his recent verbal assaults on a House Democratic voting rights and election bill that he has labeled a Democratic “power grab.”

“This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country,” Abrams said. “We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counter is a “power grab.”

McConnell, R-Kentucky, has led the charge against the Democratic House bill that seeks to repair the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court fractured in 2013. The bill would also make Election Day a federal holiday, require presidents and vice presidents to release their tax returns, and restore voting rights to certain felons who have served their time.

McConnell has lambasted the bill on the Senate floor as a partisan “power grab.”

“Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real,” Abrams said. “From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”

To Democrats, Abrams represents both a dream deferred and a rising star. To Republicans, she is a vanquished foe whose political moment has passed — even if she refuses to recognize it.

Abrams was aiming to take a step to further stardom Tuesday night in delivering the Democratic response. The Yale-educated lawyer and former Georgia state House Democratic leader was the first African American woman and non-sitting public official to deliver a rebuttal to a presidential address.

She used the moment to reintroduce herself to a nation that watched the hotly-contested and racially-charged election in red state Georgia between her and eventual winner Republican Brian Kemp. The Mississippi-born daughter of United Methodist ministers told her family story Tuesday and returned to one of her signature political themes: Voting rights.

“I think she sounded like a person who is very seriously eying a political future,” said Frank Sesno, director of the George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and a former CNN Washington bureau chief.

Abrams appeared to avoid the familiar perils that have plagued previous State of the Union responders like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, former Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Massachusetts, said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center of Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

“This was a fully competent job,” Thompson said. “Are we going to be quoting from it 100 years from now? No. But are we going to be doing ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketches about it? Probably either, and maybe that’s the best you can ask for.”

Sesno found, “She delivered her speech with expression, with a smile, in a conversational way. Brevity was her writing companion. She kind of came back to values and she wove them together touching on a number of constituencies: farmers, small businessmen, domestic workers.”

Abrams, who sought last year to become the nation’s first African American female governor, turned most of her attention to Trump. She described how, during the shutdown, she volunteered to distribute meals to furloughed federal workers while “they waited in line for a box of food and a sliver of hope since they hadn’t received a paycheck in weeks.”

“Making their livelihoods a pawn for political games is a disgrace,” Abrams said with a multiracial, multicultural crowd of people standing in the background.

“The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people — but our values, she said.

In the nearly three months since she lost to Kemp, Abrams has become a very public reminder of the battle over voting rights and voter fraud that surfaced during the bitterly-fought campaign.

Georgia became the epicenter of the skirmish with many Democrats and other Abrams supporters claiming that Kemp stole the election as he purged hundreds of thousands of mostly-minority voters from the rolls while Georgia’s secretary of state. The office oversees elections.

“Everyone knows that the race she ran was exemplary and that but for irregularities...she would be the winner,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Georgia, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Republicans call Democrats’ stolen election claim sour grapes and brand Abrams a sore loser for refusing to recognize Kemp’s win as legitimate.

“Despite a Republican victory last fall, Abrams continues to show up on the big screen,” said Georgia Republican Party Chair John Watson. “Three days before Election Day in November 2018, Stacey Abrams said she believed the election would be fair. Then when she lost the Georgia governor’s race to Brian Kemp she refused to concede because she did not like the outcome.”

Abrams, after a failed attempt to force a runoff against Kemp, acknowledged that he won the election, but she defiantly refused to call the end of her campaign a concession speech.

“Make no mistake, the former secretary of state was deliberate and intentional in his actions,” Abrams told supporters on November 17. “I know that eight years of systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment and incompetence had its desired affect on the electoral process in Georgia.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee unveiled a 30-second spot on YouTube and Twitter Tuesday that uses video clips to jab at her not conceding the election and suggest that she supported undocumented immigrants voting.

“A failed candidate with failed ideas: Stacey Abrams perfectly represents how painfully out-of-touch House Democrats are with everyday Americans in 2019 and why their agenda is too extreme,” Christopher Martin, director of rapid response for the House Republican Conference wrote in an email Tuesday.

Georgia’s Republican Party panned Abrams’ performance Tuesday night, saying in an email that she’s “just trying to stay relevant so she can run for any political office possible. We need more leaders focused on getting results, not another failed candidate looking for their next election.”

The Republican rhetorical attacks are perhaps an early salvo in a 2020 Senate race that could pit Abrams against incumbent Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia. Abrams has vowed to run for elective office against but hasn’t said which one.

Several Democrats inside and outside Georgia are urging Abrams to run for the Senate rather than wait for 2022 for a rematch against Kemp.

William Douglas covers Congress and politics regionally for McClatchy. A University of South Carolina alum, he’s also covered the White House and State Department in his stint in Washington. He’s co-host of McClatchy’s Majority Minority podcast.