In 2020, Georgia became the ultimate battleground state with a very close presidential contest and two Senate races that went into overtime and ultimately decided control of the chamber. The tradition continues this year with another close and crucial Senate race featuring incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker.
But for aficionados of high principle and hardball tactics, the race to watch is the rematch of Republican governor Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams. Kemp is a hard-core conservative and veteran vote suppressor who survived a purge attempt by Donald Trump earlier this year, while Abrams is a nationally renowned voting-rights champion who came very close to winning four years ago in the most successful Georgia Democratic gubernatorial campaign of this century. The two pols represent polarized and evenly matched parties in a state that has turned from red to purple thanks to demographic change. Abrams has helped build a powerful coalition of Black voters aligned with white moderates in the rapidly growing Atlanta suburbs, and Kemp, the product of an older Georgia in the iron grip of exurban and rural conservatives, has fought her every step of the way. It’s likely Georgia is in the process of turning blue, but the peculiar forces in play in this midterm election could give the GOP a reprieve. It will probably come down to which party best mobilizes its base in November.
Without question, the Abrams-Kemp contest is a grudge match between candidates with a lot of history together. During and prior to their 2018 race, Kemp exploited his position as secretary of State to purge voter rolls and close polling stations aggressively, while running a savagely ideological campaign as a “politically incorrect conservative” backed by Trump. After his very narrow win, Abrams was so angry at his abuse of office that she refused to officially concede (though she did not contest his right to serve as governor).
There’s not much question that the desire to eject Kemp from the governor’s office and a career-long goal of gaining either the governorship or the presidency impelled Abrams to pass up some tantalizing opportunities. She could easily have won a Senate nomination in 2020 to face David Perdue (Jon Ossoff ran instead and won), and no one batted an eye when she was spoken of early in the cycle as a possible presidential or vice-presidential candidate. After deservedly getting significant credit for building the voter-registration and vote-turnout machine that allowed Democrats to make such impressive gains in 2020, she was the uncontested choice for a second gubernatorial nomination.
Going into 2022, Democrats were looking forward to popping popcorn and enjoying a Republican civil war as Trump (infuriated by Kemp’s co-certification of Biden electors and his refusal to buy into MAGA election conspiracies) talked former senator Perdue into a primary challenge to the sitting governor. At first, Perdue looked formidable, but in the end, Kemp absolutely demolished him by nearly a three-to-one margin, carrying all of Georgia’s 159 counties. Indeed, Georgia Republicans under Kemp’s leadership administered Trump’s worst setbacks of the entire primary season, as Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (hated even more than Kemp by MAGA folk) and two other statewide Trump targets won their races. The very size of the beatdown minimized any intraparty grudges as Perdue quickly endorsed Kemp, Trump kept his mouth shut, and Republicans united by respectful fear of Abrams closed ranks.
While the usual smears of Abrams as a hustler (a charge levied at all Black pols in the Deep South with no evidence deemed necessary) and an extremist (belied by her very mainstream platform) are a regular feature of the GOP campaign in Georgia, Kemp has drawn on assets beyond thinly veiled appeals to racism and sexism and a surprisingly united party. The state’s booming economy and burgeoning revenues have allowed Kemp and the legislature his party controls to enact voter-pleasing measures like tax cuts and a gasoline-tax suspension. He has also tried to blunt one of Abrams’s signature issues, Medicaid expansion, by obtaining a waiver from the Trump administration (and successfully defending it in court against efforts by the Biden administration to revoke it) in a small expansion of health-care services tied to work requirements. Kemp’s job-approval ratings have generally been above water, though not by much.
Abrams has supplemented her generally moderate 2018 platform by calling for legalized sports betting to help fund public-education improvements, building on the successful legacy of the late Zell Miller’s lottery-for-education initiative back in the 1990s. And she is definitely trying to capitalize on the backlash to the Dobbs decision by emphasizing her commitment to abortion rights and attacking the “heartbeat” law Kemp signed in 2019 and quickly began to enforce, banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy and giving fetuses certain legal rights.
But while both candidates are pitching swing voters on their specific policy proposals, the contest is essentially a battle of base mobilization in a deeply polarized state. A recent poll of the contest by Quinnipiac made that clear:
Republicans (98 - 1 percent) back Kemp, while Democrats (97 - 2 percent) back Abrams. Independents are split, with 50 percent backing Abrams and 48 percent backing Kemp.
Nearly all likely voters (94 percent) who support a candidate in the race for governor say their minds are made up about how they will cast their vote, while 5 percent say they might change their minds before the election.
That’s a narrow band of persuadable voters in a race Qunnipiac called nearly even (with Kemp leading by two points) among likely voters generally.
Abrams is building on her renowned voter-registration and turnout efforts, along with those deployed (especially by Ossoff) in the 2020 Senate races to break a long Georgia Democratic losing streak in general-election runoffs that place a premium on turning out voters. Kemp’s backers believe they would have won those runoffs had Trump not discouraged Republican base voters by calling the state’s Republican-run election machinery “rigged.” They hope to match or surpass Democrats in getting out the vote in November.
Early in the cycle, it looked as if Kemp would benefit, like all Republicans, from a stiff midterm breeze favoring the GOP. That has, for the moment, all but dissipated, leaving these two very effective pols to slug it out in a relatively even landscape tilted just a bit by Kemp’s powers of incumbency. Unlike Kemp’s ticket mate the GOP Senate nominee Walker, who has been dodging debates with primary opponents and general-election rival Warnock all year (though he has finally agreed to one), Kemp and Abrams agreed early on to two televised debates in October. They certainly know each other’s strong and weak spots extremely well.
Kemp enters the home stretch as a very narrow betting favorite, but don’t count out Abrams, already the most successful Democratic gubernatorial candidate of this century, whose candidacy will likely generate the kind of enthusiasm that only people whose rights are endangered can show to their champion.