October 29, 2018 Madison - GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp smiles as he talks with his supporters (from left) Meg Hawkins, Lisa Talaga and Lauren Talaga at Amici Madison Restaurant during The Georgia Republican Party "Road to Victory" Bus Tour on Monday, October 29, 2018. Georgia’s gubernatorial candidates are spending the final days of the race traveling across the state in search of votes. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Expect a softer tone from Kemp at first major speech 

Athens - If Gov.-elect Brian Kemp wants to distance himself from the incendiary political attacks he unleashed during his campaign, his first major speech since his victory offers him a chance to do so.  

The Republican is set to address lawmakers Tuesday at the legislative biennial in Athens, and he’s likely to strike a vastly different tone than he did during the divisive race against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Kemp’s allies say he won’t depart from his stance on key policy debates, from guns to “religious liberty,” but that he’ll signal a more conciliatory approach to the lawmakers he’ll need to corral to pass his agenda. 

This sort of shift is expected after a race decided by such a narrow margin. But it was no given -- particularly because Kemp has sent mixed signals since his victory. 

During the 10 fraught days after the election but before Abrams abandoned her bid, Kemp’s campaign sent the same blaring all-caps press releases attacking “radical” Democrats it did before the vote. 

And after she ended her bid, Kemp followed his victory by pledging to carry out his conservative campaign vows and stocking his new transition team with well-known Republicans. 

But he also extended an olive branch to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms – perhaps the state’s most prominent Democratic official – by walking to City Hall last week to try to defuse tensions that erupted between the two over the summer. 

For some Democrats, the softer tone from Kemp won’t be enough after he spent the last year railing against Abrams and her “radical backers” – and warned they wanted to take Georgia down a path toward socialism.

Several Democratic lawmakers have pledged to boycott the event, saying they won’t forget his “hateful” rhetoric during the campaign and don’t want to lend legitimacy to him by attending his first address. 

But the party’s leaders have not joined that call, and several prominent Democrats discouraged others from taking part at a heated closed-door caucus meeting.

“If you’re not on the table, you might be on the menu,” said Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving legislator in Georgia.

“There can be some disagreement, and I’m sure there will be. But you can’t express that disagreement unless you participate.”

About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He joined the newspaper...