WASHINGTON – Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams has a lot going for her: a national following, a profile as an up-and-coming face of the party, and a real shot at higher office.
But can she beat the curse?
Abrams has been tapped to deliver the Democrats’ official response after President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, a tradition afforded the party not occupying the White House. But the high-profile assignment the former gubernatorial candidate is taking on has been known to damage political aspirations.
“You’re following a president, which oftentimes is not an easy act to follow,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institute in Washington.
In 2009, then-Louisiana GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal – and rising political star – was skewered for his wooden delivery after Barack Obama’s address. His 2016 run for president fizzled months before the first primaries.
In 2013, Sen. Marco Rubio’s case of severe cotton mouth prompted the Florida Republican to fumble for a nearby water bottle – all while keeping his eyes oddly fixed on the camera during his response to Obama’s speech. The “water bottle moment” lit up Twitter and prompted a “Saturday Night Live” sketch and became a source of ridicule during his presidential run in 2016.
In 2017, former Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear drew internet snickers by declaring in his speech after Trump’s address that he was “a proud Democrat, but first and foremost, I am a proud Republican, and Democrat and mostly, American.” Beshear, who had won plaudits for twice winning gubernatorial contests in a red state, has been rarely heard from since then.
“The setting is also so much less impressive than the State of the Union,” in which the president addresses a joint session of Congress, Hudak said. “And those optics can really add layers to the way in which a speech is perceived.”
Millions of Americans followed Abrams and her spirited campaign last year to become the nation’s first black female governor. Her near-win in November (she lost to Republican Brian Kemp by 1.4 percentage points) was viewed as even more remarkable given that she ran in a deep red state.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who invited Abrams to make the response, cited her resonance among working-class families and priority on voting rights as reasons for selecting the former state legislator who is expected to challenge Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., in 2020.
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Abrams said she plans “to deliver a vision for prosperity and equality, where everyone in our nation has a voice and where each of those voices is heard.”
The concern for Abrams is less an awkward stumble or verbal gaffe than being tagged as part of inside-the-Beltway Democrats and the problems in Washington after an unpopular government shutdown, said Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic member of the Ohio State Senate who now teaches at American University’s school of public affairs.
Trump won Georgia in the 2016 presidential election and is likely to win again in 2020. If Abrams is on the ballot, what she says Tuesday to a national audience could reverberate in the Peach State next year, Cafaro said.
Abrams’ appearance “is more advantageous for the Democratic Party (than Abrams herself) because it provides the narrative the Democratic Party wants to show: inclusiveness, opportunity, diversity, gender equality, someone who’s outside the Beltway, someone who’s already rocked the boat more along the lines within the progressive wing of the party.”
Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., who gave last year’s generally well-regarded response, offered some friendly tips to Abrams via Twitter, encouraging her to “Be yourself, you’ll crush it.”
Even if she stumbles, it’s not necessarily disastrous.
In 1985, before the responses were given by a single person immediately after the speech, then-Arkansas Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton moderated an awkward version of a focus group to rebut Ronald Reagan’s speech in 1985. Eight years later, he was giving his own State of the Union to Congress.
And Rubio rebounded from what could have been a career-defining blunder by performing well in the 2016 presidential campaign. He also playfully chided Trump for a similar gaffe in 2017.
Hudak, the Brookings expert, said responses to the State of the Union are so fraught with peril that the best ones tend to be those nobody recalls.
“It’s a sort of weird premise in our politics,” he said. “But it’s one of those rare occasions when, politically, the best thing you could do is not be remembered.”