2022 midterms

Why Is Stacey Abrams Running Behind Brian Kemp?

Georgia gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp in 2018 in Atlanta. Photo: John Bazemore-Pool/Getty Images

Going into the 2022 midterm election cycle, one of the most anticipated contests was the grudge rematch between Georgia Republican governor Brian Kemp and Democratic superstar Stacey Abrams. And even though the midterms were expected to tilt red (as they generally do when there is a Democrat in the White House), you had to like Abrams’s chances. Ahead of the May primary, Donald Trump had caused a nasty rift in the state Republican Party with his attempt to get revenge on Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who together certified Joe Biden’s Georgia win in 2020.

But the Georgia 2022 primary didn’t go as expected. Kemp routed Trump’s candidate, former U.S. senator David Perdue, and Raffensperger won without a runoff as well. Trump accepted his defeat and shut up about Georgia GOP perfidy, and Kemp rolled into the general-election campaign with a united party, a robust fundraising machine, a better-than-average state economy, and a big state-budget surplus.

Obviously, Georgia Democrats got some breaks as well with an issue landscape being reshaped by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, lower gasoline prices, and some Democratic productivity in Congress. But now, less than a month before Election Day, most (if not all) polls are showing the real barn burner in Georgia being the Warnock-Walker Senate race, not Kemp-Abrams. The RealClearPolitics polling averages give Kemp a five-point lead and a majority of the vote (Georgia famously requires general-election runoffs if no candidate wins over 50 percent). And in terms of Democratic morale, it’s worth noting that the latest edition of the poll most Georgians hear about, conducted by the University of Georgia for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is showing Kemp up by ten points (51-41).

So what’s going on in this governor’s race? Is Abrams really trailing significantly, and if so, why might that be? Here are some factors to consider.

Standing up to Trump was a good look for Kemp.

Governors have a lot of power to shape events in ways that make them relatively popular, and Kemp has moved very aggressively to take advantage of his position. Earlier this year, he pushed significant and broad-based tax cuts and a major teacher pay raise through the Republican-controlled legislature and suspended collection of the state gasoline tax repeatedly (the latest extension lasts through Election Day). He’s also conducted a narrow expansion of Medicaid services tied to a work requirement in an effort to preempt one of Abrams’s major talking points (Georgia’s failure to take advantage of the Obamacare Medicaid expansion).

Kemp’s prior image as a dour, abrasively partisan, and ideological figure (or as he liked to call himself in 2018, a “politically incorrect conservative”) was also softened by his successful defiance of Trump. While Kemp did not go as far as Raffensperger in attacking the ex-president over his efforts to tamper with the 2020 results, he didn’t kiss his posterior, either, which gave him some crossover appeal among Democrats and independents and a new image as a “moderate” that would have been considered preposterous in 2018. Polls consistently show Kemp winning a small but crucial share of Georgia’s Black electorate. The latest Journal-Constitution poll gave Kemp a 54 percent job-approval rating.

Abrams is perceived as “too national” for a state race.

While Kemp has very much taken care of business in Georgia in the last couple of years, Abrams may be negatively (if marginally) affected by her national fame. You might think she’d get credit from the folks at home for passing up opportunities to run for president or the U.S. Senate in 2020 and instead running for governor again in a perilous midterm. But there is a perception you hear from Georgians that she’s “too national” in her interests and perhaps too interested in pleasing national Democrats (not the kiss of death it used to be in the Deep South, but still not ideal).

Abrams is still getting pounded by Republicans for refusing to formally concede in 2018, though she did not in any way try to impede Kemp’s accession to the governorship and made it clear she was simply protesting the ongoing conflict of interest represented by his refusal to step down as secretary of state during the gubernatorial election along with his regular voter-suppression tactics. The attacks are clearly intended to show Abrams as a grandstander who is as unwilling to accept defeat as Trump.

It also hasn’t helped that Abrams gave up her state legislative gig to run for governor the first time around. She hasn’t had the day-to-day presence in Georgia politics that was available in her earlier race.

Polls may be underestimating Abrams’s ground game.

On the eve of the 2018 election, Trafalgar Group, one of the pollsters showing Kemp well ahead this year, had the Republican leading Abrams by 12 percent. He won by 1.4 percent and missed being knocked into a runoff by an eyelash.

Abrams made her bones in state and national politics as a voting-rights advocate and an extraordinary organizer of voter registration and turnout. It wouldn’t be surprising if pollsters using likely voter models based on prior voting conduct might miss some of the newly registered or newly mobilized voters she’s attracted. And this year, past registration measures could create a broader base for Democrats (and particularly Abrams) to exploit, particularly given the experience Democrats gained during the spectacular turnout operation that won two U.S. Senate seats in January 2021.

One imponderable at this juncture is whether the 2021 election law that Kemp and Republicans rammed through the legislature will inhibit Democratic voter-mobilization efforts or instead supercharge them, as it was considered a calculated insult to Black voters especially.

It should also be noted that not every poll is giving Kemp a robust lead. A new survey from Quinnipiac has the race functionally tied, with Kemp at 50 percent, Abrams at 49 percent.

The election might not end on November 8.

If polls are in fact overestimating Kemp’s standing, or if the race tightens, it’s worth remembering that Abrams may have a second bite at the apple in a December runoff, as nearly happened in 2018. Libertarian candidates in Georgia consistently win a few percentage points in statewide races (Shane Hazel is that party’s candidate for governor this year). And while the conventional wisdom used to hold that Republicans had a decisive advantage in general-election runoffs, that did not prove to be true in January 2021. Hypothetical 2022 dual runoffs involving Senate and gubernatorial candidates (on the same date, December 6, per the new Georgia election law) could be as big a deal as the 2021 runoffs.

Candidate debates are still ahead.

The Abrams and Kemp campaigns have agreed to two televised candidate debates on October 17 and October 30. While such events aren’t often game-changers, it will give Abrams a good chance to challenge Kemp on a number of issues he’d prefer not to discuss. The same Journal-Constitution polls that show Kemp leading by ten points also show sizable majorities of voters agreeing with Abrams’s positions on abortion, guns, and legalized casino gambling to benefit education. The incumbent has backed himself into an extremist corner on all these issues, and his “moderate” image could take a battering with enough exposure.

More polarization could tighten the race.

There is a small but significant sliver of voters now telling pollsters they intend to vote for Raphael Warnock and Brian Kemp. Typically partisan polarization strengthens at the end of a high-profile general-election contest these days. If so, that could benefit Abrams (and perhaps Herschel Walker, though he has some unique problems of his own).

The bottom line is that it’s still too early to place bets on the Georgia governor’s race.

More on the 2022 midterms

See All
Why Is Stacey Abrams Running Behind Brian Kemp?