Georgia Tech students, crammed into a crowded classroom, cheered as John Legend ticked off Stacey Abrams’ talking points. Hours later, hundreds of her supporters who shelled out at least $100 a pop filed into a fundraising concert hosted by the entertainer.
Across the state, her Republican opponent Brian Kemp was quick to draw a contrast between Abrams’ star-studded supporters and his visits to dirt-road farms and humble barbecue joints in rural parts of the state.
It was a reminder that Abrams is not afraid to embrace A-list types to wage her race for governor — even if it gives her GOP adversaries some flashy new ammunition.
She has openly touted her fundraisers with New York billionaires and Hollywood celebrities in a way that Georgia Democrats in the past have tried to avoid, exposing her to attacks from Kemp and his allies portraying her as a “radical” lacking in Georgia values.
“I’d rather be here in Haralson County than San Francisco or wherever,” Kemp said during a rally in Bremen, where hundreds gathered into a farmhouse to hear him speak. “This is what drives me — to put Georgians first, ahead of the people in California who use Stacey Abrams to get what they want.”
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For Abrams, however, the use of celebrities is part of her strategy to appeal to young voters who rarely get involved in midterm elections. She said she’s willing to risk attacks from Kemp and other Republicans in exchange for a chance to attract voters who otherwise have tuned out the race.
In a recent interview, she said she had no problems being visible about seeking cash and support from high-powered politicians and donors in other states. So far, she’s raised more cash from outside Georgia than from in-state donors, and that money has helped her flood the airwaves with her message.
“I am very comfortable having national conversations. Because I want New York to bring their money to invest in Georgia. I want California to continue sending all the movies they can to the state,” she said. “Because that’s how we build the economy of Georgia, but it’s also how we build the reputation of Georgia as a force to be reckoned with.”
Attention versus ‘elitist’ label
She’s tested that approach throughout the race, starting with a string of endorsements from Democratic stars vilified by Republicans, such as Hillary Clinton and U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, and a plunge into the late-night TV circuit.
And she’s peppered her extensive travels throughout Georgia — she has visited all 159 counties and has completed a string of visits pegged to her health care and economic policies — with out-of-state fundraising treks.
A swing through New York last week took her to an Emily’s List luncheon with former Mayor Mike Bloomberg and dessert with Gov. Andrew Cuomo before a fundraiser for her on billionaire Barry Diller’s yacht.
This week, she’s brought some of the star spotlight to Georgia. Days before Legend’s visit, she marched down Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood with rapper Yung Joc as part of a get-out-the-vote registration drive.
“It’s important for young people to vote,” said Johnny Martinez, the co-owner of two Edgewood bars who organized the event. “Democracy only works if you’re involved. No one wants to wake up to another November morning like we did two years ago.”
The strategy has its risks. Although Democrat Jason Carter was careful to carve out his own identity from his famous grandfather in the 2014 race for governor, Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign painted him as a lefty patsy propped up by spending from “Hollywood stars and labor bosses” with help from Jimmy Carter.
And in last year’s epic special election for the 6th Congressional District, Jon Ossoff got heaps of national attention when actress Alyssa Milano offered to drive voters to the polls — but also vilification from Republicans who slammed him for relying on help from “Hollywood elitists.”
Meanwhile, Republicans who use the same tactic often don’t face the same blowback.
Ossoff stayed largely silent when President Donald Trump and a cast of other GOP figures streamed to Karen Handel’s side last year. And Abrams’ campaign has not loudly criticized Vice President Mike Pence, who is set to make his second visit for Kemp next week.
That may be in part because Democrats are wary of energizing wavering Trump supporters. But it may also reflect the polarizing nature of Trump’s presidency — voters are growing numb to political tactics that would have been off-limits not so long ago.
Keith Mason, a veteran Democratic operative, noted how former Gov. Roy Barnes was so wary of being tied to national Democrats that he met with peach farmers and law enforcement officers in rural Georgia eight years ago when President Barack Obama visited the state.
“But because Trump trumps everything, because he drives these midterms, Abrams and other Democrats can do things we couldn’t do before,” said Mason, a former top aide to Zell Miller who has no role in Abrams’ campaign.
Then again, even if Abrams hadn’t tied herself to her party’s elite, Kemp’s attacks may still be the same.
“It is a typical tactic that both parties have utilized in their ad materials for the last 30 years,” University of Georgia political scientist Audrey Haynes said. “You take a ‘bad’ and put it next to the candidate and all that symbolic bad is transferred to them. It’s like standing next to Satan.”
Abrams, for her part, credits her ability to generate out-of-state cash and interest to a “national understanding that we can no longer count on Congress to implement federal legislation and promote our values.”
“And therefore,” she added, “there is a national investment on governors that we haven’t seen, particularly on the Democratic side.”
‘A good messenger’
The rapturous audience that Legend drew at Tech’s campus was filled with exactly the type of voters Abrams has long targeted: left-leaning Georgians who typically wouldn’t vote in midterm elections.
That description perfectly fits 20-year-old Tytianna Harshaw, who called Legend’s visit an “epiphany” for her because she hadn’t planned on voting.
“I was just so distracted by my classes and having two jobs,” said Harshaw, who now plans to vote for Abrams — and volunteer for her, too. “Actually sitting and listening to him speak today, I learned more about things going on in Georgia that I was not aware of.”
That’s exactly what Legend was going for. He said in an interview that he became fast friends with Abrams when they crossed paths in New York and California, and that he wanted to rev up voters in Atlanta who normally might ignore this race.
“When you bring in a celebrity, it attracts more people to the message,” he said. “The message is the most important thing. And the message is let’s get out and vote and let’s tell our friends. I’m a good messenger for that.”
All this is music to Kemp’s ears. He mocked Abrams for cavorting with superstars while he was trekking through small towns in the western stretch of the state, and he repeatedly brought up her support from wealthy left-leaning donors such as George Soros and her Thursday fundraising trip to the Bay Area.
“My opponent is out there in San Francisco while I’m here,” Kemp said Wednesday at a farm equipment supplier in Leesburg. “She’s running a national campaign to be governor of Georgia. She’s not listening to you. She’s listening to socialist billionaires.”
That line of attack struck a chord, too, with Hank Ashmore. The Newnan retiree showed up to a Kemp campaign stop wearing a pro-Trump T-shirt he made himself, and he got visibly animated when talking about Abrams’ high-profile help.
“All those celebrities upset me. Of course they do,” he said. “They are trying to buy the election.”
It’s a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Recent AJC stories have examined Kemp’s finances and Abrams’ position while in the state Legislature as a leading collector of per diem. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.