Democratic Party rising star Stacey Abrams sharply criticized the Trump administration and Republican leadership on Tuesday night in her response to the President’s State of the Union address.
Speaking just after President Donald Trump finished his own speech, Abrams called the recent partial government shutdown, which became the longest in US history, “a stunt engineered by the President.”
“Just a few weeks ago, I joined volunteers to distribute meals to furloughed federal workers. They waited in line for a box of food and a sliver of hope since they hadn’t received a paycheck in weeks,” Abrams said. “Making livelihoods of our federal workers a pawn for political games is a disgrace.”
Abrams called the shutdown “a stunt engineered by the President of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people — but our values.”
The 45-year-old narrowly lost a gubernatorial bid in the reliably red state of Georgia last fall, but rose to national prominence in the process. She made history as the first black woman to give the Democratic response to the State of the Union.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer offered up effusive praise for Abrams when they announced she would give the party’s rebuttal to the President.
“Democrats are thrilled that … Abrams will be delivering the Democratic response to the State of the Union,” Pelosi said in a statement, saying Abrams “embodies the American Dream, and her powerful message of progress for all is deeply needed during this time for our country.”
The party’s decision to elevate Abrams on the national stage comes amid speculation that she may run for a Senate seat in 2020.
Abrams met separately in January with Schumer and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to discuss a possible 2020 Senate run, a source familiar with the meetings told CNN last month.
Abrams has said herself that she plans to run again for elected office.
After her gubernatorial defeat, she told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” that she does “intend to run for office again,” though she said, “I’m not sure for what and I am not exactly certain when.”
There are risks that come with delivering the State of the Union response, and there have been memorable stumbles in the past for other rising stars who delivered their parties’ rebuttals.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was widely mocked after he awkwardly reached down to take a sip of water while delivering the GOP response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union in 2013. The moment — and the memes it led to — ended up overshadowing Rubio’s message.
Abrams faced intense scrutiny when she in giving her address, and her performance could impact her future political prospects.
She jokingly referred to the now-infamous Rubio moment in recent comments ahead of her speech as reported by Axios, saying, “The first thing I’m going to do is hydrate.”
Abrams also acknowledged the pressure and high stakes.
“I’m terrified,” she told Axios. “Not because I might make a mistake, but because so many want the opportunity to rebut what they’ve seen over the past few years.” She added, “My responsibility is to not only give voice to those who don’t believe they’ve been seen or heard, but to offer remedies … and do that all in 10 minutes.”
The message Abrams delivers comes at a time when the Democratic Party continues to grapple with whether and how it can make inroads in rural parts of the country and Southern states, both of which have become Republican strongholds, ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Despite Abrams losing her gubernatorial bid, Democrats have drawn encouragement from how close and competitive the race ended up.
Abrams told Rolling Stone in an interview, “My opponent did not outperform Republican presidential candidates. I did. I outperformed Democratic presidential candidates, and what that signals is that this is a competitive state.”
Abrams has also described her campaign as a unifying force, recently writing in Foreign Affairs that it “built an unprecedented coalition of people of color, rural whites, suburban dwellers, and young people in the Deep South by articulating an understanding of each group’s unique concerns instead of trying to create a false image of universality.”
Abrams ultimately lost by less than 2 percentage points to her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, just narrowly missing the threshold for forcing a runoff (that would have required holding Kemp, who finished with 50.2% of the vote, under 50%).
Voting rights ended up as a focal point of the race, which ended on a contentious note.
When she ended her campaign, Abrams delivered a series of sharp criticisms of Kemp, who she had previously described as an “architect of voter suppression.”
Kemp, who served as Georgia secretary of state, resigned from his position the day after the contest, amid criticism of his handling of Georgia’s elections — including ballot rejections and malfunctioning voting machines — and a series of lawsuits.
Before her gubernatorial bid, Abrams held the position of minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives.
After the election, she launched a voting rights organization and has continued to speak out on that issue.