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Reuters/Chris Aluka Berry
On the big stage.
NO ROOM FOR ERROR

Will Stacey Abrams avoid the State of the Union response jinx?

By Heather Timmons

Stacey Abrams, a tax attorney and daughter of a Methodist minister, earned a reputation in Georgia’s state legislature as so fair and detail-oriented that political rivals would bring her their bills to troubleshoot for legal issues.

Tonight (Feb. 5), she’ll essentially troubleshoot the Donald Trump presidency, delivering the Democratic response to his State of the Union address. Abrams, a skilled and passionate orator, may be addressing more than 40 million Americans from metro Atlanta tonight. She will be surrounded by “activists, labor leaders, health care professionals, educators, entrepreneurs, and voters who struggled to vote in 2018 or who watched their communities struggle to vote,” as well as her family, her press office said.

Abrams’s future in American politics could hinge on her doing well on this big stage. The live event has been fraught with mishaps for members of both US parties in recent history.

Bobby Jindal

Then governor of Louisiana, Jindal was the Republican party’s rising star before his goofy 2009 response to Barack Obama’s State of the Union that was widely panned by commentators across the spectrum, from Jon Stewart to Fox News. The speech torpedoed any 2012 presidential hopes he may have had.

Michele Bachmann

The Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party star’s 2011 response to Obama was marred by her addressing the wrong camera towards the end:

Bachmann eventually she found pilloried herself on Saturday Night Live.

Marco Rubio 

The Florida senator’s clumsy reach for a water bottle during a 2013 response completely sidetracked his message.

The New Yorker dissected it mercilessly:

By the eighth minute, he seemed to have adjusted, and it looked as if he might push through to the end. But then, three minutes later, he made a gamble and reached for a water bottle offscreen: he lurched down to his left and fumbled a bit, making a terrifyingly intimate moment of eye contact with the audience before taking a quick sip from an unfortunately tiny bottle and then ducking to put it back.

Joe Kennedy

The Massachusetts Democratic congressman was picked to give last year’s response in part for his eloquent defenses of US civil liberties in the Trump era. His speech was remembered for his excessive Chapstick use, however.

“For all the hoopla and the big national audience, even presidents are fortunate if a phrase or an idea clicks with the public,” as Politico wrote in 2014. But in the SOTU response, “make a stylistic blunder…and it’s all anyone will recall.”

Why Stacey Abrams for the SOTU rebuttal?

Abrams represents an anomaly among the designated responders to the annual presidential speech. Responses have ranged from individual politicians to TV-show style roundtables (like this 1985 response to Ronald Reagan emceed by Bill Clinton). Abrams will be the only speaker in the event’s 53-year history who isn’t holding office at the time. And she will be the first African-American to deliver the rebuttal.

The distinction is part of the reason that she was chosen—Abrams, many Democrats believe, should be governor of Georgia. She lost by 55,000 votes. It was the closest Georgia governor’s race in 50 years . Allegations persist that her opponent, the state official who was in charge of Georgia’s elections even as he was running in one, suppressed tens of thousands of votes, particularly in African-American neighborhoods. Georgia isn’t the only state where Democrats are alleging Republicans are practicing voter suppression—easier registration and eliminating gerrymandering are big parts of their push for asserting voters’ rights.

Stacey Abrams’ part in the fight

Fair Action Fight, a political action committee Abrams started, is suing Georgia’s election board for denying US citizens the right to vote. The board “unconstitutionally purged the rolls of nearly 10 percent of Georgia’s registered voters,” the lawsuit claims, used “inconsequential typographical mismatches” to deny people the vote, relocated polling places and under-staffed others.

Abrams and Democrats are framing it as a patriotic issue. America is “a mighty nation because we embedded in our national experiment the chance to fix what is broken,” Abrams said in her powerful concession speech in November, and “to demand fairness wherever it can be found.”

Abrams is writing her speech herself, an aide says. She’s expected to talk about Medicaid expansion and more funding for public schools, and, as she said last week “deliver a vision for prosperity and equality, where everyone in our nation has a voice and where each of those voices is heard.”

Whether that comes across to American voters or not may depend on something as ridiculous as making sure she’s got a glass of water handy.

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