More than a dozen Democrats are vying to take on President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. It’s not yet clear if Democrat Stacey Abrams will be one of them, though she tweeted today that “2020 is definitely on the table.”
On Monday, she talked to the PBS NewsHour’s White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where she avoided confirming or denying whether she will run for the highest office this cycle. She also suggested that Democratic challengers focus less on the current occupant of the White House and more on the policies that the party stands for.
Abrams, Georgia’s 2018 Democratic nominee for governor, came about 50,000 votes short of winning in the traditionally Republican state, and many Democrats have pointed to her campaign as a potential roadmap for engaging new voters. In the months since, Abrams’ influence and vocal advocacy for voting rights has vaulted her to new heights in national politics. She was chosen by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to deliver the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address, becoming the first black woman to do so.
Here are some of the highlights from Monday’s conversation:
In her forthcoming book, “Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change,” Abrams writes about a spreadsheet of goals she began in college and has periodically updated.
When Alcindor asked her about what the spreadsheet says for 2020, Abrams laughed off the speculation.
“You think you’re clever,” Abrams said. “I see you, Yamiche.” Abrams has previously said she will make a decision about her political future by the end of March or early April.
She said she saw her task as “to make certain a Democrat is elected, not only to the White House but that we have Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the House.”
If Abrams sticks to the plan in her spreadsheet, she said “2028 would be the earliest I would be ready to stand for president because I would have done the work necessary to be effective in that job.”
For the dozen Democratic candidates so far who have declared their intentions, Abrams offered this advice: “Beating Donald Trump is the wrong mission. When you focus on your enemies you are ignoring your allies.”
“Trump is symptomatic of the problem,” Abrams said. “He is not the problem.”
Abrams was the first black woman to be the nominee of a major party for governor and has spent much of the past decade registering minority voters. She dismissed criticism from some who say Democrats are talking too much about race in politics.
“It’s disingenuous for us to pretend that race isn’t embedded in the way we construct our politics as a nation,” Abrams said, pointing to the institution of slavery, and the rise of the KKK and white nationalism.
What’s different is the people “whose identities have been sublimated for the last 400 years finally have enough amassed power to do something about it.”
She also offered sharp criticism for the president’s rhetoric and actions in office.
“Do you think Trump is a racist?” Alcindor asked.
“Yes,” Abrams said. “I think he’s racist. I think he’s xenophobic. I think he’s homophobic. I think he has disdain for anything that he considers different than the norm.”
Abrams, who won more than a quarter of white voters in Georgia — 4 percent better than Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign two years earlier — said she talked about the same issues with white and black voters, including the economy, education and law enforcement.
“People care about their lives. They don’t care about your party,” Abrams said. “They care about whether or not you see them, do you value them, are you willing to invest in them.”
Alcindor noted that Abrams writes in her recent book that “affairs of the heart perplex” her. The NewsHour correspondent asked if that is still the case.
Abrams recalled the moment when two different dating services denied taking her on as client due to her weight.
“Part of how we are judged, part of our successes are often driven by how we are perceived, but also what our access is. And I am a very confident person,” Abrams said. “But, when you hit a moment of frailty, having someone reinforce that frailty, and tell you they won’t take your money–it makes it hard to incentivize yourself to try.”
Abrams said her appearance has been routinely criticized on the campaign trail.
“I was told I had to change my hair, my weight, that I was too dark, that I needed to dress differently. Oh, and my teeth, I had to fix my teeth. There was nothing about me they liked,” she said. “What I decided when I ran for office was that I was not going to change who I was because that’s what’s made me who I am.”
Abrams concluded with a piece of advice: “Ignore those who would tell you you are less than. And focus on being the best you you can be.”
After Abrams lost in November, she founded Fair Fight Georgia to advocate for election reform, combat voter suppression and turn out minority voters.
“We have to talk about voter suppression all the time. Conservatives talk about voter fraud all the time [so] we believe it’s true even though they have not a single shred of evidence.” In contrast, Abrams said, “We know voter suppression is real because most of us have faced it.”
Abrams said her gubernatorial campaign focused on making sure all voters knew their vote was important.
“If you’re in a marginalized community, you’ve seen politicians come and go, and your life does not get better. Therefore you need to be persuaded the whole system matters,” Abrams said.
She said she did not assume “black people were going to vote for me because I’m black.”
But campaigning door-to-door and focusing on voter turnout is expensive, which is “why politicians don’t do it,” Abrams said. “They do not invest because they think it’s inefficient to try to talk to everyone. What’s inefficient is losing.”
Matt Loffman is the PBS NewsHour's Deputy Senior Politics Producer
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