Stacey Abrams will make history Tuesday night when she delivers the Democratic response to the State of the Union as the first African-American woman to give the formal response to a president’s address.
The selection of Abrams, a Democratic rising star who gained national attention after losing a tight gubernatorial race in Georgia during the 2018 midterms, breaks from the tradition of having an elected member of the House or Senate give the opposition party’s much-watched response.
The move also highlights the power Democrats believe Abrams holds to connect with a diverse electorate in a moment in American politics enveloped by the complexities of gender and race.
“I think that selecting Stacey Abrams was really a brilliant choice by Democratic leadership,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.
“She is someone who represents a lot of what the party is looking for right now: someone to talk passionately and organically about issues of justice and equality or inequality, and someone who also has real appeal in places where Democrats have struggled lately.”
Democrats are also keenly aware of the power of mobilizing African-American voters across the country — a factor that gave Sen. Bernie Sanders a boost in his presidential campaign in 2016 and hampered Hillary Clinton’s run. And when Democrats took back the House in the midterms, exit polls showed black women voted for Democrats at higher rates than any other group.
In traditionally red, southern states like Alabama, where 98 percent of black women voter brought Democrat Doug Jones over the victory line in 2017, or in Georgia and Florida, where both Abrams and Democratic candidate for Florida governor Andrew Gillum came close to victories in 2018, Democrats continue to see the impact of connecting with the black community.
For some onlookers, Abrams, who was the first African-American woman to be nominated for governor by a major political party and the first woman to lead a party in the Georgia Statehouse, also represents someone from outside the nation’s capital and removed from ongoing partisan gridlock.
“She’s someone who is outside the beltway and kind of above the fray from what’s going on in Washington,” said Capri Cafaro, the executive in residence of American University’s School of Public Affairs.
“It is top of mind for Democrats to have someone who reflects the current diversity of the Democratic party, someone who is known because of the last election cycle but isn’t being hemmed in by being in government,” Cafaro said, suggesting that by picking someone who isn’t rooted to D.C. could make her seem “closer to the people.”
While the 2020 election is still 637 days away, Hudak also said it was likely a factor in the Democrat’s selection process because of the growing number of elected Democrats who have either announced or speculated about a possible presidential run.
Hudak said that if any of the popular elected Democrats who may be wading into the 2020 waters were selected, “the Democratic leadership would look like they’re playing favorites.”
“Stacey Abrams isn’t going to have to worry about internal House politics or internal Senate politics. She can go out and five an inspiring speech that introduces herself to a national audience and lays out a Democratic vision for public policy in the future,” Hudak said.
The tradition of having a member or members of the opposition party respond to the State of the Union started in 1966, according to House of Representatives records, and in recent years, the performances that tend to stand out do so for negative reasons.
Hudak said that because the speech is seen to be fairly low-stakes, especially when the speaker is not a currently elected official, it could be used as a springboard instead.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s arguably successful response to President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address sought to turn the page on his presidency and look towards the future -– one she said would be brighter under a Republican president. The response helped raise her national prominence and ultimately she became President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the U.N, a position she resigned last year.
“We don’t really remember most opposition responses because they don’t make news, but that means if someone does make news in a positive way if someone does deliver just a groundbreaking speech, it is elevated all that much more,” he said.