The Republican runoff for governor is over and now republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Kemp is preparing to take on Democrat Stacey Abrams in the race for governor.

Photo: � 2018 Cox Media Group.
Photo: � 2018 Cox Media Group.

Opening maneuvers: Kemp attacks, Abrams avoids 'fisticuffs’ 

Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp are polar opposites on many of Georgia’s biggest policy clashes. And so are their approaches to the general election.

Since wrapping up the GOP nomination, Kemp has tried to frame Abrams at campaign stops and on social media as a “radical liberal” who will drive a socialist agenda. He’s pummeled her on national TV as a manifestation of California and New York values.

But rather than counter with criticism of her own — as she has often done during a years-long feud with Kemp predating their gubernatorial rivalry — Abrams has taken a different sort of tack.

After a parade of Georgia GOP officials assailed her, she steered attention to her infrastructure proposals. When President Donald Trump called her Kemp’s “open border, crime loving opponent,” she focused on a small business financing program. At a town hall meeting in Dalton, there was hardly a mention of her opponent, Georgia’s secretary of state.

Abrams has already mapped out a different strategy than past Georgia Democratic standard-bearers by embracing progressive issues. 

Now she’s also betting that, at least in the opening weeks, she can sharpen that contrast by not directly engaging her opponent.

Their dueling philosophies came into the forefront over the weekend. In appearances on Fox News and at Erick Erickson’s Resurgent Gathering in Austin, Texas, Kemp repeatedly criticized Abrams as he touted his anti-gang initiatives and his stance on illegal immigration.

And his campaign seized on Abrams’ remarks in Dalton criticizing a controversial initiative that lets sheriff’s deputies help enforce federal immigration laws. At the town hall, she said the 287(g) program “terrorizes families” and that it could prevent some who are in the country illegally from reporting crimes.

“Shame on Stacey Abrams,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said. “The people terrorizing families are the criminals and gang members she’s defending, not the brave law enforcement officers she’s tearing down.”

An Abrams spokeswoman, Abigail Collazo, said Kemp’s team was “desperately spreading false information” and pointed to his opposition to a minimum wage for law enforcement officers. 

“Brian Kemp opposes a minimum wage for the same police officers he pretends to defend,” she said. “Meanwhile, Stacey Abrams believes in a living wage for every Georgian and has spent months traveling the state to share her plans to bolster our economy."

But the candidate hasn’t swung back, instead emphasizing her statewide tour that focuses on economic issues such as her opposition to “divisive” legislation that she warns could jeopardize Georgia business recruits.


That strategy was front and center during Abrams’ visit to Detroit to speak at the annual National Association of Black Journalists conference, where she told the audience that she refused to engage in a bitter back-and-forth with Kemp.

“If you’re running against someone, then the candidates fight fisticuffs, sling insults at each other, then the entire story is about why this person is worse than someone else,” she said.

“While my opponent has spent the last week since his election slinging insults at me,” Abrams said, “I’ve been going around the state talking about jobs, criminal justice and education.”

Kemp, meanwhile, stepped up his efforts to portray her as out-of-touch.

“Stacey Abrams is very articulate, very smart,” he said on Fox News. “But she just has radical views on wanting to grow government, raising taxes, trying to have these big government policies that didn’t work in the Barack Obama administration and are bad for Georgia.”

Kemp took the same bare-knuckled strategy against Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, swinging and swiping at him throughout the nine-week runoff. He had good reason: Cagle unloaded virtually every insult at his disposal against Kemp, including a particularly brutal closing ad painting Kemp’s record as “20 years of failures.”

Abrams, too, is no stranger to razor-edged tactics. She claimed her primary opponent, former state Rep. Stacey Evans, supported a plan to “auction off our public schools” — and slapped her with an ethics complaint.

She may soon return to that approach: The rhetoric seems certain to ratchet up as November nears and a contest that’s already seen as a warmup to the 2020 presidential election attracts even more attention, cash and pressure.

‘See through’

Still, it’s a surprising tack for a candidate who has sparred, bitterly, with Kemp over voting rights issues long before they ran for the same office. Democrats, however, say she could benefit, at least in the short term, from the above-the-fray mentality.

“She’s establishing herself early on as the adult in the race who is looking to improve the lives of all Georgians,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “And she will introduce herself to Georgians by demonstrating that she’s the only credible choice as a leader for this state.”

Her allies are also filling the void. The Democratic Party of Georgia has let loose with daily attacks on Kemp, trading biting words - and ethics complaints - with the Georgia GOP over the last week. 

Kemp is not likely to let up. He’s hoping to energize conservative voters by reminding them of Abrams’ support for new gun control measures and abortion restrictions, among other divisive social issues.

“She can’t really respond because she knows what he’s saying is correct,” said Julianne Thompson, a Republican operative. “She said she’s running a very progressive campaign, but now she’s trying to run to the center — and I think voters are going to see through that.”

For now, though, Abrams seems unlikely to directly counter Kemp — or his top ally. Asked in Detroit about Trump’s criticism of her platform, she said the attacks won’t “influence my approach to this campaign at all.”

“It is irrelevant to me what happens at the White House, what he says or even what is said against me,” she said, “as long as I’m doing the jobs of talking to people about me and why they should elect me.”

 Read more recent AJC coverage of the Georgia governor’s race:

 Why tariffs and a trade war could loom large in Georgia elections  

 Abrams, Kemp allies trade ethics complaints about app, funding  

Why Metro Atlanta needs to more about Brian Kemp - fast

 Next Georgia gov will face new push for $3B+ in casino projects  

 The Jolt: Lay off Stacey Abrams’ finances, warns GOP lawmaker  

 Obama versus Trump in Georgia? Ex-president lines up behind Abrams  

 Georgia governor’s race could look a lot like 2020 presidential contest  

 Amazon HQ2 decision looms as Georgia governor’s race set  


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.

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Staff writer Maya Prabhu contributed to this article