Abrams is not on Georgia Senate ballot, but she’s a focus of race

It made for an unusual political spectacle in a campaign full of them: Gov. Brian Kemp’s most prized political appointee is under political attack for consorting with his most hated rival.

And on Wednesday, at a campaign stop at an upscale Cuban eatery in Gwinnett County, the governor was asked what he thought of images linking U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler to Stacey Abrams, whom he narrowly defeated in 2018.

“People need to get the whole picture of that. There’s plenty of pictures out there of her opponent with Stacey Abrams, even hugging him,” Kemp said. “We’re eight months past her being in the Senate — I’d urge all Georgians to look at her voting record. She’s stood up and fought hard for our people.”

Abrams, the former Democratic leader in the Georgia House, is not on the 2020 ballot, of course. She runs a small orbit of groups aimed at expanding voting rights and securing an accurate U.S. census count as she gears up for a likely rematch against Kemp in 2022.

But Loeffler and her top Republican rival in the November special election, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, are just as likely to bring up Abrams on the campaign trail as the Democratic contenders in the race. Their campaign ads, too, are filled with grainy images of Abrams.

Her constant presence in the Republican back-and-forth is a testament to her enduring force in Georgia politics — and a reminder of how deeply unpopular she remains among the core conservative Republicans that Collins and Loeffler are courting.

That was evident earlier this week, when Collins highlighted Instagram video his campaign surfaced of Loeffler embracing Abrams at midcourt of an Atlanta Dream game weeks before the 2018 vote. It’s a clip that Collins’ campaign is poised to promote through the November special election.

In the video, an announcer is heard introducing Abrams as the Democratic nominee for governor and a “civil rights champion with a proven track record of fighting for public education, voting rights and Medicaid expansion.” A pro-Abrams sign passes in front of the camera during the clip.

‘Boots on a cat’

“Kemp chose Kelly because she was a self-funding moderate who could appeal to liberal voters. That strategy fell apart when Doug got in the race and they’ve had to remake her as a conservative,” Collins spokesman Dan McLagan said. “It’s like putting boots on a cat — nobody thinks it’s a cowboy, and the cat is obviously confused.”

Loeffler’s campaign has pushed back, evoking Collins’ long friendship with Abrams — a relationship cultivated while both served in the Georgia Legislature that inspired a Collins-like character in one of her romance novels.

“Look, I stood on a basketball court one day. He worked with her behind the scenes in the state Legislature for a decade,” Loeffler said. “He’s trying to distract from his record. It’s true that I’m the true conservative in this race.”

She’s also devoted a portion of her ad campaign to TV spots featuring images of Collins and Abrams embracing — and asserting the two voted together more than 300 times while both served in the Georgia Legislature.

The vast majority of those votes involved mundane and noncontroversial issues that passed by large margins. But her campaign has also singled out several votes in its attacks, such as one that highlights Collins’ support on the Transportation Investment Act of 2010.

It was an initiative backed by Republican leaders and business boosters that eventually paved the way for regional referendums of a 1% sales tax to finance infrastructure projects and road improvements.

State Democrats and other Loeffler critics said her remarks smacked of hypocrisy. In 2012, she and other sports executives were quoted supporting the metro Atlanta referendum as a much-needed economic development incentive to recruit more business.

As for Abrams, she’s not staying on the sidelines. She was the earliest and most influential Georgia supporter of the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor and first-time candidate who is the Democratic establishment’s pick in the crowded race for Loeffler’s seat. Other Democrats include educator Matt Lieberman and former federal prosecutor Ed Tarver.

“While flattering, the Republican candidates’ obsession with Stacey Abrams as their top campaign issue ignores the urgent public health and economic crises facing Georgians,” said Seth Bringman, Abrams’ spokesman.

“No matter what you see in silly GOP ads, Leader Abrams has only one friend and ally in the race,” Bringman said, “and it’s Rev. Raphael Warnock.”