ATLANTA – In 2018, Brian Kemp spent much of his campaign for Georgia governor in Stacey Abrams’ shadow as the Democratic Party star tried to become the nation's first Black female governor.
In the end, he won narrowly anyway.
Then, halfway through his term, the Republican governor became the target of Donald Trump’s wrath when the defeated president threatened retribution after Kemp certified Democrat Joe Biden’s slate of presidential electors in Georgia.
But not only did Kemp maintain support among most Republican voters while defying Trump, he seems to have only grown stronger heading into his rematch with Abrams. Now he wields the power of incumbency and a record that includes tax cuts and teacher pay raises.
He has also drawn the praise of national Republicans for the campaign he has run while Abrams has struggled to capitalize on the star power that once had her as a possible running mate for Biden or even a candidate for president herself.
“A lot of people didn’t know who I was,” in 2018, “and I was defined by a candidate who had twice as much money as I did and had the national media in her pocket,” Kemp said after one fall campaign stop. “I never could really fight through that. It’s a different story now.”
The result is a confident candidate who hopes to win more than 50 percent of the vote and build substantially on the 55,000-vote margin he held in 2018, enough to avoid a runoff by fewer than 20,000 votes.
“Four years ago, Democrats were almost staging a revolution for the first African American woman governor,” said Mark Rountree, a Republican pollster, describing a campaign fought on Abrams’ terms. Now, he said, she must react to Kemp: “I’d argue that it makes Stacey Abrams very small compared to who she was and how she ran four years ago.”
Abrams, who remains an unquestioned party leader in Georgia and influential Democrat nationally, is still a powerful draw. She's outraised Kemp $85 million to $60 million through the end of September. But her inner circle acknowledges a fundamental shift from 2018.
“We’re in a midterm with a Democratic president, a climate that is really brutal," campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said in an interview. “People are exhausted. This is a powerful incumbent who’s gotten a boatload of federal money.”
The only way to run against an incumbent, she said, is “running scared.”
Kemp blends a sales job on his record with withering attacks on Abrams. He promotes the multiple tax cuts he’s signed and the multibillion-dollar surplus on the state's balance sheet. He claims vindication for his decision to resist mask mandates, school closures and business lockdowns early in the pandemic, making sure to blast “Ms. Abrams and the radical Democrats” for taking a different approach.
The governor even embraces Abrams’ national brand and fundraising prowess, reminding supporters that his rival considered the possibility of becoming Biden’s running mate in 2020. One of his most reliable applause lines: “Make sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be our governor — or our next president.”
For her part, Abrams has a broad menu of ideas for spending the state surplus. She wants more raises for law enforcement and teachers. As in 2018, she proposes expanding Medicaid under the 2010 national health insurance overhaul. Georgia remains one of the few states, all Republican-led, not to expand the program, forgoing billions of dollars for its public and private health care systems over time.
Abrams criticizes Kemp’s tax cuts for being tilted to the wealthy. “Millions ... for them. A debit card for you,” one of her latest ads says. Her campaign aides note, sometimes with frustration, that Kemp takes credit for a Georgia economy boosted by ample federal spending during the pandemic. Trump and Biden each signed packages that steered direct support to businesses and individuals. Notably, Kemp singled out Democrats’ March 2021 measure as wasteful.
Similarly, Kemp dismisses Abrams’ spending plans as excessive and certain to require tax hikes, though independent analysis confirms that Abrams’ could deliver her promised agenda under the existing tax laws.
As a rejoinder to Kemp's talk of “radical Democrats,” Abrams has tagged her opponent as an “extremist” on guns and abortion. She cites Kemp signing a 2022 law making it legal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit and a 2019 law banning abortions in the state after the sixth week of pregnancy, before many women know they’re pregnant. The latter statute, which Kemp signed in 2019, went into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade, a nearly 50-year precedent that legalized abortion nationwide.
And she continues to criticize Kemp for signing a sweeping overhaul of state election law that she once characterized as “Jim Crow 2.0" because it could make it harder for some Georgia voters to cast ballots.
Rountree, the Republican pollster, said Abrams should distill her assertions into a clear reason voters should change governors. “She’s quibbling over how to spend a state surplus and then reacting to national issues like abortion that are presented to her,” Rountree said.
But Groh-Wargo said the campaign's research shows that abortion is an animating issue for voters, particularly among Democrats who are normally unlikely to vote and even Republicans who favor abortion rights.
Groh-Wargo said also Abrams faces the burden of trying to break two historic barriers in a state that has known nothing but white men in the governor's chair. “We’re not only doing the work to confront those biases, we’re giving voters what they want and need to make a decision,” Groh-Wargo said, explaining why Abrams explains in detail what she'd do with the job.
If Kemp has a hidden vulnerability, it would be the Republicans who won't forgive him for his opposition to Trump. Trump endorsed former U.S. Sen. David Perdue over Kemp in the GOP primary, trying to make good on his post-2020 threats. Kemp thrashed Perdue with 74% of the primary vote, and Trump has been silent on Kemp since.
The question is how many of Perdue’s 262,000 primary supporters refuse to back Kemp over Abrams, either sitting out the governor's race or giving their votes to the Libertarian Party nominee, potentially forcing a runoff by pulling Kemp below a majority.
“There are plenty of Republicans still mad at Kemp,” said Debbie Dooley, an early tea party organizer and Trump ally. “I'll never vote for him.”
But Dooley conceded that Abrams herself is a coalescing force for Kemp. So much so that some Republicans marvel that Kemp, once expected to have a bruising primary fight, could be the heavyweight who carries the GOP ticket, rather than the beloved-but-embattled former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker, who is running for the Senate against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
“There’s a whole lot of people who are glad their kids were in school not wearing masks,” said Martha Zoller, a conservative radio host in north Georgia. “I think we're going to see how strong Brian really is.”
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