RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump will give his second State of the Union address tonight, and, as is custom, the party not in power will get a chance to present a rebuttal. Usually, that person is someone currently serving in elected office. This year, though, Democrats have chosen Stacey Abrams, who is nationally known for losing the governor's race in Georgia last fall. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Emma Hurt reports.
EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Usually, when politicians lose an election, they give a concession speech with polite congratulations to the victor. Stacey Abrams never gave that speech. She gave this one, 10 days after an election that was too close to call for some time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
STACEY ABRAMS: So let's be clear. This is not a speech of concession because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that.
HURT: Among her reasons, her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, oversaw their election as Georgia's secretary of state and refused to recuse himself. Abrams also accused him of voter suppression, which he denies. Kemp won by 55,000 votes, the narrowest race in years in what's been a heavily Republican state.
JOHN LEWIS: I think it'd make a great deal of sense.
HURT: That's Georgia Congressman John Lewis on why he thinks Abrams was chosen by Democratic leadership. She's a new face and voice, he says, who has been fighting for voting reforms.
LEWIS: And making it easier for everybody to participate in a democratic process and that all of the votes should be counted.
HURT: And that's become a national issue that's also gotten partisan. House Democrats have introduced a major voting rights bill known as H.R.1. Abrams has been working to register voters for years. Her campaign claims it built an unprecedented get-out-the-vote infrastructure. Allegra Lawrence-Hardy was Abrams' campaign chairwoman.
ALLEGRA LAWRENCE-HARDY: The future was coming and she saw it before a lot of us did and to really build that infrastructure. And it's that momentum that we're harnessing that really is applicable nationwide.
HURT: And even if she didn't succeed this time, Abrams' campaign is a model for Democrats, says Andra Gillespie. She teaches political science at Emory University.
ANDRA GILLESPIE: The fact that she came as close as she did suggests that her strategy has some merit to it and if it didn't succeed this time, that perhaps it would succeed for Democrats in the future.
HURT: But still, Abrams is a unique choice. She's the first black woman to give the response, and that's not an accident, says Lewis.
LEWIS: It was the black women that tend to turn out higher, and I think it would play a role here in Georgia, throughout the South and throughout of America.
HURT: Putting more representative leadership forward is key for Democrats, says Tharon Johnson, a longtime Democratic strategist here.
THARON JOHNSON: I think that Senator Schumer, Speaker Pelosi have read all the polling and all the memos that I've read and that is is that if we're going to win back the White House in 2020, we've got to do some things differently.
HURT: By appealing to a broader slice of the electorate, Abrams was able to outperform past Democratic candidates who were white. Again, Andra Gillespie.
GILLESPIE: So she basically dispelled any sort of fear that a strong black candidate can't be competitive as a statewide nominee for office.
HURT: Tonight's response comes as Abrams faces a big decision about her own political future. Will she challenge Republican Senator David Perdue in 2020 or wait for a rematch with Governor Kemp? She's given herself till the end of March to decide. For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STACEY ABRAMS WIN")
JAY ROCK: (Rapping) Get out and vote, get out and vote, get out and vote, yeah. Get out and vote, go ahead, hit up all them polls, yeah. Stacey, you either with her or against her, though. Just vote for Stacey, not that other bro. Win, win, win, win, win.