WASHINGTON – Democrat Stacey Abrams, the party's pick to rebut President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech Tuesday night, slammed the commander-in-chief for causing the partial government shutdown that left hundreds of thousands of federal workers without pay for 35 days this year.
"The shutdown was 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," she said, in remarks given after Trump concluded his speech. "Making livelihoods of our federal workers a pawn for political games is a disgrace."
Back on the national stage after gaining a wide following during her close, but unsuccessful bid to become the first black woman governor in the nation, the Georgia Democrat took aim at Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress for not doing more to help the nation's poor and disadvantaged.
"In Georgia and around the country, people are striving for a middle class where a salary truly equals economic security," she said. "But instead, families’ hopes are being crushed by Republican leadership that ignores real life or just doesn’t understand it."
Abrams spoke for nearly 11 minutes from Atlanta in front of a well-choreographed assembly of supporters who nodded their approval at the mention of key issues but were mostly faceless as they stood in the receded background.
She ticked through a litany of Democrats' differences with the president, including gun control, the Republican tax cuts, immigration, climate change and the border wall.
After nearly making history in November, the former Georgia state lawmaker was chosen by Democratic leaders in Congress to deliver the party's official response to Trump's State of the Union speech.
It's tradition that the party not occupying the White House is given a chance to rebut the president's speech. Abrams was chosen to deliver the response by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who called her a "great spokesperson (and) incredible leader (who) has led the charge for voting rights."
The charismatic Abrams came up short in her bid to become the first black woman governor in the nation, losing to Republican Brian Kemp in a nationally watched race tinged with issues of race and charges of voter suppression. Although she lost to Kemp, Abrams came within 2 percentage points of winning in a strongly Republican state in the Deep South.
Before she gave her remarks, Aaron Kall, debate director at the University of Michigan, said Abrams will have her work cut out for her to avoid the pitfalls of those who have given responses in the past.
"A successful speech would exponentially increase Abrams' national profile and potentially provide a rocket launch to a potential 2020 Georgia senatorial campaign," said Kall, author of "The State of the Union is . . .: Memorable Addresses of the Last Fifty Years." "There have been three times a State of the Union address responder has gone on to become president, which shows this tough assignment sometimes pays dividends."
Nearly half of Americans – 45 percent – had never heard of Abrams heading into her speech, according to a CNN poll released Monday. Of those who have, 23 percent view her favorably, 15 percent view her unfavorably and 16 percent had no opinion. The poll of 1,011 respondents has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said on "Meet The Press" Tuesday evening before her remarks that he was anticipating an uplifting speech from Abrams.
"I'm hoping she will also say we have got to work to take on the corruption of our constitution through gerrymandering, voter suppression, the dark money that is destroying we-the-people government," he said.
Abrams did. During her speech, she passionately spoke about voter suppression.
"This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country," she said.
By picking Abrams, Democratic leaders are steering clear from any announced or potential 2020 presidential candidates whose choice might have been seen as playing favorites.
That didn't keep several of them, including Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris, from tweeting their support of Abrams on Tuesday.