Brian Kemp’s main line of attack against Stacey Abrams, his black Democratic opponent in the Georgia governor’s race, is to frame her as a radical and an extremist. The phrase, “Too extreme for Georgia,” features in at least three of Kemp’s televised attack ads — one accusing Abrams of supporting “government-run healthcare” and two more claiming she opposes crackdowns on human traffickers and sexual predators. (All three claims are misleading, and Abrams has leveled allegations similar to the latter against Kemp.)
Kemp’s attempt to cast Abrams as an extremist — in contrast to himself, the normal and reasonable one — reflects a disturbing, if common, conception of extremism. By this definition, policies like automatic voter registration and ending cash bail are extreme, while pushing for an anti-immigrant police state and the race-based allocation of voting rights are not. Kemp’s success in November will hinge in large part on whether Georgians see this definition as credible.
Kemp is a candidate whose brand of “politically incorrect” conservatism prompted him to run an ad boasting about his “big truck” for “[rounding] up criminal illegals.” The line may have seemed tongue-in-cheek at the time, but the platform informing it is anything but. Kemp’s “Track and Deport” plan for dealing with illegal immigration would tighten the grip of terror in which Georgia already holds its undocumented population, implementing an “immediate deportation” policy and launching a database for tracking and cataloguing immigrant crime, to name just two of its core elements.
These proposals may seem radical as outlined — even as the Trump-propelled Overton window shifts to render them not just broadly acceptable, but desirable (Kemp has a narrow lead over Abrams in the latest polls; Trump, of course, was elected president of the United States on related promises). But even short of holding the governorship, Kemp is working to implement his proposals. He is Georgia’s Republican secretary of state and “a remarkable architect of voter suppression.” Since 2012, he has overseen the cancellation of over 1.4 million voter registrations and nearly 670,000 in 2017 alone.
This is especially significant in a state where race largely determines partisanship. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Kemp’s office has more than 53,000 voter registration applications on hold today. Nearly 70 percent of the stalled applications were filed by black voters — and, statistically, were likely Democrats. Many are being held due to the state’s “exact match” policy, which requires information on applications to exactly match that on file with the Georgia Department of Driver Services or the Social Security Administration.
According to the report, a mistake as innocuous as a dropped hyphen in a last name could prompt a registration hold. Voters with stalled applications can still cast provisional ballots in the upcoming election, but whether those votes count is subject to review. This is the second time in almost as many months Kemp has made national headlines linked to efforts that might curb black voting power. In August, an election official recommended by Kemp’s office sought to close seven of nine polling locations in rural, majority-black Randolph County. After an outcry and Kemp’s own eventual rejection of the plan, it was scrapped.
But such failure has been uncommon. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 has prompted a resurgence of voter suppression attempts across the country, including the Georgia law that introduced “exact match.” That such measures have been accepted by some Americans as remotely reasonable is partly due to a racist status quo they’ve been conditioned to expect. In Georgia, the bar is low due to decades of racist disenfranchisement — a reality affirmed less by the 15 years of uninterrupted Republican rule in the statehouse than by the nearly 250 years of white rule it preserved.
Every governor in Georgia history since 1775 has been a white man. The vast majority have presided over either a slave state or a Jim Crow kleptocracy; anti-black voter suppression has been key to this system’s maintenance. Segregationist Eugene Talmadge was not being cute when he declared, during his 1946 run for gubernatorial reelection, “If I get a Negro vote, it will be an accident.” He won the primary vowing to oppose federal anti-segregation rulings, and after successfully urging white supporters to purge black voters from eligibility via an obscure law that let citizens challenge other citizens’ right to vote. Election rules that gave disproportionate weight to white rural county ballots cemented his victory — even as 98 percent of black voters backed his reformist opponent.
“Despite their triumph, white supremacists saw that their worst fears were being fulfilled by the increased black vote,” wrote historian Donald L. Grant in The Way It Was in the South, presciently.
Given this history, it’s a short order to be cast as a black extremist in Georgia. Simply being black and voting was extreme not so long ago, and Abrams’s candidacy has been buoyed by a dramatic mobilization of black voter activity in the face of nationally recognized suppression tactics. Her platform advocates for protected abortion rights, Medicaid expansion, and vetoing gerrymandered congressional districts — policies well outside the bounds of accepted Republican normalcy. Georgia is still 61 percent white, and a convincing 73 percent of white voters backed the Republican candidate in the last gubernatorial election. For Georgians of all races, the parameters of what is considered normal have been shaped by the reality and continuity of who’s making the rules.
But wholesale acceptance of Kemp’s terms is not preordained. That he’s polling in a dead heat with Abrams suggests his lead is precarious. Defeating him and upending years of white and Republican rule in the state will require massive black voter turnout and more than a little good luck. But it also means recognizing that extremism is relative. Or, to repurpose Dr. King’s words, “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”