Why Abrams is making a beeline for GOP territory in Georgia

Stacey Abrams speaks to a crowed gathered at Nabila's Graden restaurant in Fitzgerald, Georgia, Thursday, August 23, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Stacey Abrams speaks to a crowed gathered at Nabila's Graden restaurant in Fitzgerald, Georgia, Thursday, August 23, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Fitzgerald – The crowd swelled outside from Nabila's Garden Restaurant in downtown Fitzgerald to hear Democrat Stacey Abrams speak, and the hundreds crammed inside the Egyptian-owned soul food place craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the candidate for Georgia governor.

After she gave her stump speech, some in the throng stuck around for as long as 30 minutes waiting patiently in line for a selfie with the candidate. Many had driven in from nearby places like Tifton, Douglas and Abbeville on Thursday to hear her speak.

“I just told Billy, I’d give her $1,000 if she could win. We are so sick of Donald Trump,” said Henry Hodge, a 76-year-old retiree, pointing at his friend Billy Prescott. “They just want to divide people and pit one group against the other.”

Abrams’ strategy to win Georgia’s race for governor in November depends on energizing Democratic voters who rarely cast ballots in midterm elections, and that means mining for votes in rural counties like the one surrounding Fitzgerald that have long been Republican strongholds.

She visited a handful of those ruby-red areas this week as part of an ongoing jobs tour across the state, and at each one she stuck to broader economic themes she hopes will mobilize voters. She pledged to bolster the healthcare system, boost public school funding and increase jobs training programs.

“Georgia has done well in a lot of things, but we’ve left too many people behind, and I want to be the governor who helps them catch up,” said Abrams.

Kemp’s campaign aims to win troves of votes in these rural areas, which Trump won by dominating margins. He’s touted the president’s endorsement at every turn, and said his pledge to cut taxes, limit state spending and cut regulations would help revitalize struggling communities.

He’s also tried to remind Republicans in those areas of her progressive stances on social issues, such as her call for new gun restrictions and her pitch to amp up healthcare, which he said will inevitably lead to higher taxes.

Abrams has responded by focusing on her proposals – and rarely mentioning Kemp by name. 

At a meeting in with the Lowndes County Chamber  in Valdosta, smack in the middle of a county that Trump won by nearly 60 percent of the vote, Abrams focused on her plan to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Republicans have resisted expanding the program over concerns it’s too costly in the long run, and Kemp has said there’s no reason to pump more state money into a “failed” program. Abrams, though, has pitched it as a method to fight the opioid crisis, save lives and shore up rural hospitals vital to south Georgia’s economy.

As she wrapped up her comments, Jan Brice breathed a tiny sigh. An executive with the South Georgia Medical Center, she had a pointed question to Abrams: “All that sounds great, but are you talking about raising taxes?”

“You don’t have to raise taxes to do this,” she answered. “Our issue isn’t resources, it’s priorities.”

Abrams ticked through new "streams of revenue" Georgia is developing – namely, a 2018 law that will let the state collect taxes on sales from internet retailers who currently don't tally the levies. That's enough, she said, to pay for her pre-K program and the up-front costs of expanding Medicaid.

“Some of these things haven’t been done not because we don’t have the resources, but because we don’t have the will,” she said.

Brice pronounced herself satisfied: “That was a good answer,” she said with a chuckle.

Abrams then headed to Valdosta State University, where more than 100 people packed a town hall meeting – and hundreds more cheered outside as Abrams addressed them from a loudspeaker tacked to her SUV.

Inside the auditorium, she answered what's become a near-ritual question about her stance on firearms by outlining a policy that includes a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. And she repeated that she's open to casino gambling, so long as proceeds help fund a needs-based version of the HOPE scholarship.

Her pitch is resonating with some voters not used to the attention – at least not since the last statewide vote four years ago.

Abrams likes to tell the story about an 8-year-old boy who grabbed her hand in Sandersville because he didn’t believe a high-profile politician would visit. He wouldn’t let go, even as she took the stage.

“There’s not a lot out there to get us excited any more,” said Rosia Knighton, a 71-year-old preacher who drove in from Tifton to hear Abrams.

“But here’s the blatant truth: Trump does nothing for me. And if there’s a candidate who will stand up for the right thing – and stand against him – that’s the one for me.”

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