2022 midterms

Why Brian Kemp Easily Defeated Stacey Abrams This Time

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Brian Kemp easily defeated Stacey Abrams in the Georgia governor’s race with the Republican incumbent running far ahead of his Democratic challenger in the midterms rematch of their contest four years earlier.

This race really never stopped being run after the two candidates faced each other in 2018 with Kemp winning the closest Georgia gubernatorial general election since, well, ever; he won 50.2 percent to Abrams’s 48.8 percent, barely clearing the threshold to avoid a runoff. Abrams, a former legislative leader and voting-rights activist, famously did not formally concede in protest of alleged voter suppression by Kemp, who refused to step down as secretary of state while running for governor; she did not, however, protest Kemp’s installation as governor or challenge his legitimacy to serve.

Abrams quickly became a national Democratic icon, delivering the party’s official response to Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address and publicly mulling a 2020 presidential run (after turning down what would have been a certain 2020 U.S. Senate nomination). No one was surprised when she announced a 2022 gubernatorial candidacy, and she quickly cleared the Democratic field.

Kemp wasn’t so lucky. In 2020 he and Republican secretary of state Brad Raffensperger enraged Donald Trump by certifying Joe Biden’s Georgia presidential victory and then refusing insistent MAGA pressure to back the “stolen election” fable. The vengeance-minded former president wound up recruiting formidable primary opponents for Kemp (former senator David Perdue) and Raffensperger (Congressman Jody Hice) and several other Georgia Republican officeholders. But Team Kemp crushed Team Trump in the May 2022 primary, and far from being a vulnerable politician from a divided party, Kemp entered the general election as an incumbent governor enjoying a budget surplus and able to distribute goodies to a grateful electorate. A long-time meddler in Georgia politics, Trump stayed far away.

The Abrams-Kemp contest was somewhat asymmetrical. For her part, Abrams drew on her many years of voter registration and voter mobilization work to spur enthusiasm and raised more than enough money for a successful campaign. She put together a voter-pleasing platform and message emphasizing issues on which she was strong and Kemp was weak, including Medicaid expansion, gun violence, and most of all abortion rights. But Abrams had to overcome an identification with the national Democratic Party, even as Kemp had already made his bones as being independent of his party’s MAGA extremists and was focused on popular state initiatives including tax cuts, gas-tax suspensions, and teacher-pay increases.

Kemp led every public poll after June, compiling much better job-approval numbers than President Biden, with whom he and his surrogates incessantly identified Abrams. It got to the point where journalists in Georgia and nationally became fascinated by “Kemp-Warnock” voters, and Republicans wondered if the governor could do something to help his beleaguered ticket mate Herschel Walker (they did not campaign together).

Why Brian Kemp Easily Defeated Stacey Abrams This Time