ATLANTA (AP) — In 2018, Brian Kemp spent much of his campaign for Georgia governor in the shadow of Stacey Abrams as the Democratic Party star bid to become the nation’s first black female governor.
In the end, he still narrowly won.
Then, midway through his term, the Republican governor became the target of Donald Trump’s wrath when the defeated president threatened retaliation after Kemp certified Democrat Joe Biden’s list of presidential voters in Georgia.
But not only has Kemp maintained the support of most Republican voters while challenging Trump, he appears to have only grown stronger ahead of his rematch with Abrams. Now he wields the power of tenure and a record that includes tax cuts and teacher salary increases.
He also drew praise from National Republicans for the campaign he ran while Abrams struggled to capitalize on the star power that once had him as a possible running mate for Biden or even presidential candidate 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 who had the national media in her pocket,” Kemp said afterward. an autumn campaign. stop. “I was never really able to fight against that. It’s a different story now.
The result is a confident candidate who hopes to win over 50% of the vote and significantly build on the 55,000-vote margin he held in 2018, enough to avoid a run-off of less than 20,000 votes.
“Four years ago, Democrats were almost staging a revolution for the first African-American woman,” said Mark Rountree, a Republican pollster, describing a campaign run on Abrams’ terms. Now, he said, she must react to Kemp: “I would say that makes Stacey Abrams very small compared to who she was and how she ran four years ago.”
Abrams, who remains an undisputed party leader in Georgia and an influential Democrat nationally, is still a strong draw. It topped Kemp by $85 million to $60 million through the end of September. But his entourage recognizes a fundamental change compared to 2018.
“We’re halfway through the term with a Democratic president, a climate that’s really brutal,” campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said in an interview. “People are exhausted. He’s a powerful incumbent who got a boatload of federal money.”
The only way to run against an incumbent, she said, is to “run scared.”
Kemp mixes sales work on his record with murderous attacks on Abrams. He promotes the multiple tax cuts he signed and the multi-billion dollar surplus on the state balance sheet. He claims vindication for his decision to resist mask mandates, school closures and business closures at the start of the pandemic, making sure to blast “Ms. Abrams and the Radical Democrats” for embracing a different approach.
The governor even embraces Abrams’ national brand and his fundraising prowess, reminding his supporters that his rival was considering the possibility of becoming Biden’s running mate in 2020. One of his loudest lines of applause reliable: “Make sure that Stacey Abrams will not be our governor — or our next president.
For his part, Abrams has a wide range of ideas for spending the state surplus. She wants more raises for law enforcement and teachers. As in 2018, she is proposing to expand Medicaid as part of the 2010 National Health Insurance overhaul. Georgia remains one of the few states, all Republican-run, not to expand the program, waiving billions of dollars for its public and private healthcare systems over time.
Abrams criticizes Kemp’s tax cuts for being tilted toward the wealthy. “Millions… for them. A debit card for you,” says one of its latest advertisements. His campaign aides note, sometimes with frustration, that Kemp takes credit for a Georgian economy boosted by large federal spending during the pandemic. Trump and Biden each signed packages that directed direct support to businesses and individuals. Notably, Kemp called the Democrats’ March 2021 measure a waste.
Likewise, Kemp dismisses Abrams’ spending plans as excessive and certainly requiring tax hikes, although independent analysis confirms that Abrams could deliver on his promised agenda under existing tax laws.
In rebuttal to Kemp’s speech about “radical democrats,” Abrams called his opponent an “extremist” on guns and abortion. She cites Kemp signing a 2022 law making 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 pregnant. . The latter law, which Kemp signed in 2019, came into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade, a nearly 50-year-old precedent that legalized abortion nationwide.
And she continues to criticize Kemp for signing a sweeping overhaul to the state’s election law that she once called “Jim Crow 2.0” because it could make it harder for some Georgia voters to vote.
Rountree, the Republican pollster, said Abrams should distill his claims into a clear reason why voters should change governors. “She quibbles about how to spend a state surplus and then reacts to national issues like abortion presented to her,” Rountree said.
But Groh-Wargo said campaign research shows abortion is a hot topic for voters, especially among Democrats who are normally unlikely to vote and even Republicans who favor human rights. abortion.
Groh-Wargo said Abrams also faces the burden of trying to break down two historic barriers in a state that has known only white men in the governor’s chair. “We’re not just doing the work to confront those biases, we’re giving voters what they want and what they need to make a decision,” Groh-Wargo said, explaining why Abrams goes into detail about what she would do with work.
If Kemp has a hidden vulnerability, it would be the Republicans who would not forgive him for his opposition to Trump. Trump backed former U.S. Senator David Perdue against Kemp in the GOP primary, trying to follow through on his post-2020 threats. Kemp beat Perdue with 74% of the primary vote, and Trump has been silent on Kemp ever since.
The question is how many of Perdue’s 262,000 core supporters are refusing to back Kemp over Abrams, either abstaining from the gubernatorial race or giving their votes to the Libertarian Party nominee, potentially forcing a runoff in pulling Kemp below a majority.
“There are a lot of Republicans still mad at Kemp,” said Debbie Dooley, an early tea party organizer and Trump ally. “I will never vote for him.
But Dooley conceded that Abrams herself is a coalescing force for Kemp. So much so that some Republicans are marveling that Kemp, who once expected to have a deadly main event fight, could be the heavyweight carrying the GOP ticket, rather than the beloved but beleaguered former football star of University of Georgia, Herschel Walker, who is running for the Senate against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
“There are a lot of people who are happy that their children are in school without wearing a mask,” said Martha Zoller, a conservative radio host from northern Georgia. “I think we’re going to see how strong Brian really is.”
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