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Friday September 20th, 2019 2:22PM

Abrams to 2020 Democrats: Go after 'unlikely' voters

By The Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's Stacey Abrams dove headlong Monday into Democrats' debate over how to win in 2020, urging her party's leaders and presidential candidates to treat her diversifying state as a key battleground and replicate nationwide her 2018 effort to bring new minority and young voters to the polls rather than chasing white voters the party lost long ago.

Abrams, who lost the Georgia governor's race by 1.4 percentage points but set a state record for Democratic votes, made her case Monday in a letter and strategy memo obtained by The Associated Press and sent to top Democratic presidential candidates, national party committees and key strategists and groups on the left.

"Democrats, let's do better and go big," Abrams wrote, arguing that her historic bid to be the first black female governor in U.S. history wasn't the sole driver of her near-win. "I am not the only candidate who can create a coalition and a strategy to win this state," she wrote, adding that "any decision less than full investment in Georgia would amount to strategic malpractice" and arguing that her 2018 coalition of nonwhites and whites from the cities and suburbs is the blueprint "to compete in the changing landscape of the Sun Belt."

The assertions from Abrams and her campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, highlight a fault line for Democrats. Some party leaders want to focus on flipping white voters who helped Trump flip Great Lakes states including Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Others want to drive turnout across Democrats' growing base of minority voters and college-educated whites in the suburbs and cities, constituencies that could put states like Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona in play, while also helping in the Upper Midwest.

Georgia has added 2020 emphasis because both of its Senate seats are on the ballot, including a surprise special election because Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson is retiring.

Groh-Wargo did not put a price tag on a 2020 campaign in Georgia, but noted the combined Democratic investment in Georgia last year was $42 million, compared to $70 million in Ohio and $32 million in Iowa, where Democrats lost statewide midterm races two years after Hillary Clinton lost to President Donald Trump by nearly double-digit margins.

Abrams' play Monday also underscores her rising influence in the party. She was a rock-star candidate against now-Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican. After her loss, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York tapped her to deliver Democrats' response to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address and tried unsuccessfully to coax her into challenging Republican Sen. David Perdue in 2020.

In recent months, Abrams has met personally with at least nine Democratic presidential candidates and launched a drive for voter protection hotlines in 20 states, while enjoying speculation that she'll be on any nominee's short list for vice president — particularly if former Vice President Joe Biden, a 76-year-old white male, wins the nomination. Central to Biden's pitch is his perceived appeal with white moderates and swing voters who voted for Trump in those Midwestern battlegrounds.

In the packet sent Monday, Abrams took pains to say she doesn't want to "diminish the importance or winnability of any state," and the memo, which Groh-Wargo wrote, said Democrats should reject "false choices" between chasing white Obama-Trump voters and Democratic-leaning minorities who are considered unlikely voters.

But the documents laid out in detail the case that Democrats' greatest potential gains are found in the latter groups, particularly in Georgia.

In 2018, Abrams got 1.92 million votes, about 45,000 more than Clinton in 2016, but 60,000 shy of Kemp's 1.98 million. That continued Democrats' upward trends in a state where Republicans had been winning statewide races by about 200,000 votes, with the GOP's presidential totals stabilizing between 2 million and 2.1 million since 2008 while Democratic totals climbed.

The shift is mostly about demographics: The state's nonwhite population is growing faster than its native white population. Georgia's electorate, for example, is now about a third African-American, a higher proportion than any of the perennial presidential battlegrounds.

Groh-Wargo wrote that Abrams was able to take advantage because the campaign spent time and money reaching Democratic-leaning residents who aren't regular voters. With new registrations since 2018, Groh-Wargo put that number of such voters for 2020 at 1.7 million — more than six times the GOP's typical advantage in Georgia and about 28 times larger than Abrams' margin of defeat last year.

The universe of truly persuadable "swing voters" in Georgia, Groh-Wargo wrote, is about 150,000. Groh-Wargo said the campaign spent money targeting those voters, but not as much as in traditional campaigns that would have relied heavily on expensive television advertising in the Atlanta market.

Meanwhile, urban and suburban whites in Georgia have trended to Democrats — a combination of new residents moving in and some realignment, as in other states, among college-educated white women disenchanted with Trump. Rural whites have moved even more overwhelmingly to Republicans. But in aggregate, Groh-Wargo, that means Abrams still garnered more of the white vote in 2018 than other recent Democrats at the top of the ticket.

The takeaway for national Democrats, Groh-Wargo said, is that campaign messages, infrastructure, advertising and one-on-one outreach cannot be focused on a narrow universe of swing voters and erstwhile Democrats who aren't coming back.

"Democratic committees, consultants and the media do not factor unlikely voters into their polling, strategy and prognostications, effectively making their analyses by re-litigating the prior election as if nothing had changed in the electorate since," she wrote.

Abrams herself added a bottom line: "We can win Georgia, and we can win across the nation in 2020."

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Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .

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