March 30, 2023

ATLANTA (AP) — In 2018, Brian Kemp spent much of his campaign for governor of Georgia in the shadow of Stacey Abrams as the Democratic Party star sought to become the country’s first black female governor.

In the end, he narrowly won.

Midway through his tenure, the Republican governor became the target of Donald Trump’s anger when the defeated president threatened retaliation after Kemp certified Democrat Joe Biden’s presidential election list in Georgia.

But not only did Kemp maintain the support of most Republican voters as he defied Trump, he appears to have only grown stronger on his way to his rematch with Abrams. Now he wields incumbent power and a record that includes tax cuts and pay increases for teachers.

He has also received praise from Republicans nationals for the campaign he has waged, as Abrams struggled to capitalize on the star power that once held her as a potential running mate for Biden or even as 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 and had the national media in his pocket,” Kemp said after an autumn campaign halt. “I never really struggled through that. Now it’s a different story.”

The result is a confident candidate who hopes to win more than 50 percent of the vote and build substantially on the 55,000 ballot he had in 2018, enough to avoid a runoff with fewer than 20,000 votes.

“Four years ago, the Democrats almost staged a revolution for the first African-American female governor,” said Mark Rountree, a Republican pollster, describing a campaign that was conducted on Abrams’ terms. Now, he said, she has to respond to Kemp: “I would say it makes Stacey Abrams very small compared to who she was and how she walked four years ago.”

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Abrams, who remains an undisputed party leader in Georgia and an influential Democrat nationally, is still a strong draw. She has raised Kemp $85 million to $60 million by the end of September. But her inner circle recognizes a fundamental shift from 2018.

“We’re in an interim period with a Democratic president, a climate that’s really brutal,” campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said in an interview. “People are exhausted. This is a powerful incumbent who has been given a boatload of federal money.”

The only way to compete with a sitting one, she said, is to “run scared.”

Kemp combines a sales job on his record with scathing attacks on Abrams. He promotes the many tax cuts he has signed and the billion-dollar surplus on the state’s balance sheet. He claims justification for his decision to resist mask mandates, school closures and business closures early in the pandemic, ensuring that “Mrs. Abrams and the Radical Democrats” for a different approach.

The governor even embraces Abrams’ national brand and fundraising ability, reminding supporters that his rival was considering the possibility of becoming Biden’s running mate in 2020. One of his most trusted lines of applause: “Make sure Stacey Abrams isn’t our governor.” becomes — or our next president.”

Abrams, for its part, has a wide range of ideas for spending the state surplus. She wants more pay increases for law enforcement officers and teachers. As in 2018, she is proposing to expand Medicaid under the 2010 National Health Insurance Review. Georgia remains one of the few states, all Republican-led, not to expand the program, costing billions over time. dollars for its public and private health care systems.

Abrams criticizes Kemp’s tax cuts for shifting them to the rich. “Millions… for them. A debit card for you,” says one of her latest advertisements. Her campaign staff, sometimes frustrated, note that Kemp is taking credit for a Georgia economy boosted by ample federal spending during the pandemic. Trump and Biden each signed packages sending direct aid to businesses and individuals. Notably, Kemp called the Democrats’ March 2021 measure as wasteful.

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Similarly, Kemp dismisses Abrams’ spending plans as excessive and certain to require tax increases, although independent analysis confirms that Abrams could deliver on its promised agenda under existing tax laws.

In response to Kemp’s speech about “radical democrats,” Abrams has labeled her opponent an “extremist” on guns and abortion. She cites Kemp signing a 2022 law that would make it legal to carry a concealed weapon without a license and a 2019 law banning abortions in the state after the sixth week of pregnancy, before many women know they are. be pregnant. The latest statute, which Kemp signed in 2019, came into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, a nearly 50-year precedent that legalized abortion nationwide.

And she continues to criticize Kemp for signing a sweeping revision to the state election law she once characterized as “Jim Crow 2.0” because it could make it harder for some Georgia voters to vote.

Rountree, the Republican pollster, said Abrams should distill her claims into a clear reason why voters should switch governors. “She bickers about how to spend a state surplus and then responds to national issues like abortion that are put before her,” Rountree said.

But Groh-Wargo said the campaign’s research shows that abortion is a vital issue for voters, especially among Democrats who normally won’t vote and even among Republicans who support abortion rights.

Groh-Wargo said Abrams too must face the burden of trying to break through two historic barriers in a state that has known nothing but white men in the governor’s seat. “We’re not just doing the job of tackling 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’s dealing with. would do the job.

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If Kemp has a hidden vulnerability, it’s Republicans who won’t forgive him for resisting Trump. Trump backed former US Senator David Perdue over Kemp in the GOP primaries, in a bid to live up to his post-2020 threats. Kemp defeated Perdue with 74% of the vote and Trump has been silent about Kemp ever since.

The question is how many of Perdue’s 262,000 primary supporters refuse to back Kemp over Abrams, either sit out the governor’s race or give their votes to the Libertarian Party candidate, potentially forcing a runoff by bringing Kemp under a majority.

“There are still plenty of Republicans mad at Kemp,” said Debbie Dooley, an early tea party organizer and Trump ally. “I will never vote for him.”

But Dooley admitted that Abrams himself is a coalescing force for Kemp. So much so that some Republicans are astonished that Kemp, once expecting to have a heart-pounding fight, could be the heavyweight carrying the GOP ticket, rather than the beloved but embattled former football star Herschel Walker of the University of Georgia, running for the Senate against Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock.

“There are a lot of people who are happy that their kids didn’t wear masks at school,” 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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