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After Trump-Backed Candidate Wins Nomination, Georgia Governor's Race Becomes Historic 'Battle of the Bases'

Controversial candidate Brian Kemp won the GOP runoff on Tuesday. He will face progressive Democrat Stacey Abrams in November, who could be the nation's first black female governor.

Brian Kemp
Georgia Republican gubernatorial runoff candidate Brian Kemp during an election night party on Tuesday.
(AP/John Amis)
Georgia voters now have a choice for governor as stark as any in the country this year.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a self-described "unapologetic conservative," rode an endorsement from President Trump to a come-from-behind victory in the Republican runoff on Tuesday. He now faces former state House Democratic leader Stacey Abrams, an unabashed progressive and the first black woman nominated for governor by a major party in any state.

The two illustrate how their parties are currently shifting.

Kemp gained national notoriety with ads featuring him holding a shotgun and saying, "I got a big truck just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take 'em home myself." He is a strong supporter of gun rights and has said he would sign a religious freedom bill, a version of which term-limited GOP Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed in 2016 out of concern that it would allow discrimination against LGBT people.

For her part, Abrams has embraced a progressive agenda of expanded access to health care, criminal justice reform, raising the minimum wage and increased spending on education and other programs. The two hold polar-opposite positions on issues ranging from abortion to voting rights.

"I look at it as shaping up to be a battle of the bases," says Kerwin Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University.

Both sides are coming out swinging, hoping to energize supporters and convince independents that the other candidate is unacceptable. At a rally Saturday with Vice President Mike Pence, Kemp said, "Georgians are sick and tired of these politically correct liberals like Stacey Abrams who are offended and outraged by our faith, our guns and our big trucks."

For their part, Democrats didn't wait to delight in repeating statements made in recent days by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Kemp's runoff opponent, who said that Kemp was unacceptable and can't win in November.

"We agree with each of them -- the other one's unfit to serve," says DuBose Porter, who chairs the Georgia Democratic Party.


Beaten by Trump and Tapes

Kemp took just 26 percent of the vote in the first round of Republican primary voting in May, finishing second behind Cagle, who took 39 percent. But Cagle's runoff campaign was dogged by one mistake after another. 

His first big problem was that Clay Tippins, a former Navy SEAL who was the fourth place finisher in the primary, secretly taped Cagle when he was asked for his endorsement. Tippins released portions of the recording to the media in two deadly doses.

The first caught Cagle admitting that he had supported an education bill that he called "bad public policy" in order to keep education interest groups from spending millions on behalf of the third place GOP finisher, former state Sen. Hunter Hill. A week later, another portion emerged from Tippins' vault, with Cagle saying, in effect, that the primary race was all about pandering.

"This primary felt like it was who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest," Cagle said on the recording. 

Cagle ran into other problems, including accusations that he'd gotten a sweetheart deal on a condo from a lobbyist. But he appeared to be rebuilding his campaign and received Deal's endorsement last week.

The governor's support, however, seemed to bring Trump off the sidelines. The president tweeted his endorsement of Kemp last Wednesday, a message he repeated through Election Day.

"Brian Kemp will bring the kind of leadership to the statehouse that President Donald Trump has brought to the White House," Pence said during Saturday's rally.

Given the staunch support for Trump among Georgia Republicans, Cagle couldn't stop his downhill slide. Kemp won easily, beating Cagle by better than a 2-to-1 margin amid light turnout. 

"The people who are turning out to vote Tuesday, they're not just diehards, they're the diehards of the diehards," says Tharon Johnson, a Democratic consultant.

Even before the returns were in, Republicans had a unity event scheduled for Thursday. Kemp will have to win over supporters of Cagle, who at one time seemed like a sure thing and had the backing of much of the state's business community.

"A generation ago, Democrats were dominant, but every once in a while they'd lose an election they should have won because they could not reunite after the primary runoff process," says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. "That's a possibility, that Republicans will not be able to get everybody back in the big tent."


Abrams' Chances

Democrats have not won an election for governor in Georgia since 1998. A Survey USA poll released last week showed Abrams trailing either Kemp or Cagle by two percentage points. 

But it's possible those numbers could shift.

That poll assumed that African-Americans will make up 24 percent of the electorate in November. In fact, they've cast closer to 30 percent of the vote in recent Georgia elections -- even before there was a chance of electing Abrams to be the state's first black governor (and nation's first black female governor). 

"One thing Stacey Abrams brings to this race that Democrats haven't had for a while is that she [gets] Democratic voters excited, with a chance to bring them out statewide," says Swint, the Kennesaw State professor.

Abrams has made the idea of appealing to minorities and other core Democratic voters an essential part of her strategy. Five years ago, she founded the New Georgia Project, which has registered tens of thousands of African-American voters. 

“We are going to inspire voters who, for the first time, see their values in the candidate, and see the investment follow those values,” Abrams told Rolling Stone this week. "I'm not going to spend a disproportionate share of our resources trying to convert Republican-leaning voters when we can invest in lifting up the voices of those who share our values."

In the Democratic primary, Abrams easily defeated former state Rep. Stacey Evans, the type of more moderate, white candidate that Georgia Democrats have frequently nominated in the past.

"She did an exceptional job of motivating the base in the primary and she's got to double down on that strategy," says Johnson, the Democratic consultant. "But motivating the base will not be enough to get her to 50 percent plus one."

Abrams will also have to appeal to suburban moderates, Johnson says, particularly college-educated women who may not support Trump and find Kemp, who is white, to be a polarizing figure. Inspiring the party's progressive base while also being alluring to centrist voters will be a difficult needle for Abrams to thread. 

Democrats note that Hillary Clinton beat Trump in Cobb and Gwinnett counties, populous suburbs of Atlanta that the party had failed to carry in presidential contests since favorite state son Jimmy Carter was on the ballot back in 1976. But Democratic hopes of turning the Atlanta suburbs blue were disappointed in a high-profile special congressional election last year. Democrat Jon Ossoff raised a record $30 million but nonetheless lost to Republican Karen Handel.

The state as a whole is less Republican than the Ossoff-Handel district. Still, Abrams may have a hard time wooing voters in the suburbs.

"I don't know what Abrams is going to say to suburban voters that's going to be very appealing to them, frankly," Swint says. "Republicans will be all too happy to portray her as a Bernie Sanders type."


Attacks From Both Sides

The Republican Governors Association released an ad attacking Abrams on Tuesday, calling her "the most radical liberal" ever to run for Georgia governor. 

Democrats are hoping that members of the business community will be put off by Kemp's emphasis on social issues and sit on the sidelines, if not actively support Abrams.

"Throughout this campaign, Brian Kemp has pushed a divisive agenda that would endanger the state's economic climate and hurt Georgia families," Elisabeth Pearson, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said in a statement. "If Brian Kemp becomes the next governor, Georgia will be closed for business."

Countless media features about Abrams have already touted her as the "future" of the Democratic Party, representing the attempt to energize the party's core supporters by presenting candidates who look like them and embrace liberal positions. Other Democratic candidates from Colorado to Maryland are taking similar tacks. 

Johnson notes that Abrams' profile will help attract funding from out-of-state donors, helping to cut the GOP's traditional financial advantage. She raised nearly $3 million between April and June alone.

But Georgia remains a red state. Whether Abrams can prevail there will provide a good test of how far the progressive appeal will reach this year.

"In order for her to win," Swint says, "she would need a titanic blue wave."

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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