Abrams’ big national TV moment: A political perk with pitfalls

Democratic candidate for Georgia Governor Stacey Abrams smiles as she speaks during an election-night watch party Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Atlanta.
Democratic candidate for Georgia Governor Stacey Abrams smiles as she speaks during an election-night watch party Tuesday, May 22, 2018, in Atlanta. AP

Stacey Abrams is due for a prime-time television appearance filled with potential and fraught with peril, one that could make or break the next chapter in former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate’s political career.

Abrams has been tasked to deliver the Democrats’ response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union message Tuesday.

The job is a high honor — a prime-time speaking role usually given to someone considered a rising star on the national political stage. It’s also high anxiety, a nationally-televised moment where overly-glossy lips, extreme thirst, or a wooden performance can instantly make someone a meme or stall and even crash her political trajectory.

Abrams will go before a camera Tuesday night as she mulls when and what office she’ll seek after losing her bid to become the nation’s first African American female governor in a bitterly-fought contest against Republican Brian Kemp that captured national attention.

“This is a huge opportunity for her to really,really insert herself into the national narrative,” said Dan Sena, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s executive director during the 2018 elections. “This just puts her in a really prime position to capitalize, not only Georgia, but also sort of a larger national opportunity.

”But those opportunities could get quashed by a poor or quirky performance. The history of presidential speech responders is filled with clunkers.

“Absolutely, there is a downside,” Sena said. “Anytime you do a national anything there is a downside to it.”

The first televised State of the Union response was in 1966 when Republican congressional leaders offered an alternative view after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson spoke.

For years, the response was largely a way for opposition leaders to offer their views. But it has turned into a vehicle for a launching pad for party stars — or deflating them.

In 1996, Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas was the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination. But his wooden response raised questions about his stamina. Dole would go on to win the nomination but lose the White House to incumbent President Bill Clinton.

Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal didn’t recover after his widely-panned, deer-in-the-headlights 2009 response to then-President Barack Obama’s speech. Jindal’s presidential run in 2016 went nowhere.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, was dogged by his 2013 response performance. Rubio reached for a water bottle during his talk, a gesture that comedians — and his rivals — won’t let him forget to this day.

Television viewers had trouble paying attention to Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Massachusetts, when he gave the Democratic response to Trump’s speech last year because of his extremely shiny lips, which he blamed on applying too much lip balm.

Kennedy tweeted some friendly advice to Abrams Monday: “Misplace your chapstick.”

Many Democrats and other Abrams supporters say they are confident that she’ll deliver a strong performance Tuesday night. If anything, they’re more curious about where her response could take her — perhaps to the U.S. Senate or White House in 2020 or the Georgia governor’s mansion in 2022.

Abrams, who lost to Kemp in red state Georgia by less than 55,000 votes, vowed in December that she’ll seek elective office again but hasn’t said for what. State and national Democrats say she could take on incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue in 2020, be in the mix for the Democratic vice presidential nomination, or wait for a rematch against Kemp.

In the meantime, Abrams, a former Georgia House Democratic leader, is keeping visible through her work with Fair Fight Action, a group that’s challenging the state’s election system.

Abrams sparred with Kemp, who oversaw Georgia’s election system as secretary of state, over voter registration and access, particularly among African American voters.

“I think that Stacey Abrams will do herself well and just if she runs for the United States Senate or if she waits and runs against Brian Kemp,” said Bakari Sellers, a CNN analyst and former South Carolina Democratic state representative. “As long as she doesn’t just gulp down water and she’s mindful of her ChapStick, she’ll be fine.”

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she doesn’t know what Abrams wants to do politically, but predicted the Democratic response speech Tuesday will help her get there.

“There are great things coming from her in the future,” Fudge said. “I don’t know what they are, but she will not go away quietly.”

McClatchy’s David Lightman, Alex Roarty and Ben Wieder contributed to this story.
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.