One after the other, Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp gave their sharpest economic pitches Tuesday to a room of business and political leaders looking for answers in an edgy political environment.
Abrams talked about her opposition to “religious liberty” measures, touted her plan to boost k-12 school funding to help more struggling schools and trumpeted her core campaign promise to expand the Medicaid program.
Kemp tried to woo the Georgia Chamber of Commerce crowd by promising to enact new tax cuts, set a state spending cap and keep an open mind to infrastructure projects.
And both aimed to win over mainstream voters who haven’t found a home yet after bruising nomination contests where each ran aggressively to their party’s flanks — Abrams as an “unapologetic progressive” and Kemp as a “politically incorrect conservative.”
That was the primary — where base-pleasing issues energize voters — but this is the general election campaign. And while neither is reversing his or her policies on major divides, they both are emphasizing a broader message geared toward the middle of the electorate.
That’s why Kemp laced his remarks with frequent mention of Gov. Nathan Deal — who enjoys solid approval ratings from both sides of the aisle — and introduced a new brand for himself: “a tell-it-like-it-is business guy.”
And Abrams has ratcheted up her focus on “solvable problems” she’s outlined since entering the race, such as increasing healthcare spending and boosting the economy. While she doesn’t shy away from left-leaning stances she staked during the primary, she also often talks about her reputation for working with Republicans.
To reinforce her case, she drew laughter when she mentioned her high ratings from both the Georgia Chamber and a coalition of labor groups. Said Abrams: “It confused everyone.”
Still, the polarizing nature of the nationally watched campaign loomed over event, which was studded with leaders from both parties.
Abrams panned Republicans for failing to secure more federal funding for Georgia by expanding Medicaid, which Deal and other GOP leaders have dismissed as too costly in the long run.
And Kemp took a direct shot at Abrams, a former state House minority leader whom he called an “incredibly smart and savvy” politician who wants to take Georgia down a “remarkably different path.”
“Let’s be honest, we do not need higher taxes and bigger government in Georgia,” said Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state. “We don’t need to stop the progress that we’ve had for 16 years.”
After the event, Abrams’ campaign manager said Kemp’s attack was meant to distract from her “cradle to career” policies aimed at fostering a more diverse economy.
The chamber event, which drew hundreds, served as an important moment for corporate leaders who have scrambled to recalibrate their decisions after many picked Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle to win the race.
Many of those well-connected lobbyists and business owners flooded his campaign with contributions — Cagle’s $10 million haul far surpassed his rivals — even if they felt betrayed by some of his positions.
And after he was trounced by Kemp in last month’s GOP runoff, they began looking for a new home. One sign that the search remains unsettled: The Georgia Chamber of Commerce refused to endorse, even after picking sides in a range of down-ticket races.
For Luke Thompson, a Newnan real estate agent, it was a rare venue to hear about economic development policies that can get the short shrift on the campaign trail.
“I want us to be able to attract people here,” Thompson said. “We have a lot of good things to offer, and we definitely have to have good infrastructure.”
Kemp and Cagle share the same stances on many policies, including those that unnerve some business organizations. They both pledged to sign “religious liberty” measures — which have drawn opposition from major business leaders in the past after seeing boycotts and other protests tied to such legislation in other states — and they backed the move to scuttle a tax incentive for Delta Air Lines.
Kemp steered clear of those edgy topics at the meeting and instead focused on his plan to cut taxes and limit state spending. When he invoked a controversial campaign ad, chuckles echoed through the cavernous Macon convention hall.
“I know that many of you have seen my chain saw, but let me tell you, it’s more than a campaign prop,” Kemp said, promising to cut regulations.
The bulk of his message focused on his private-sector background as he tried to connect with the crowd by talking about the ups and downs he’s faced as a real estate developer during the Great Recession.
Sprinkled throughout his comments was praise for Deal, who endorsed Cagle before the runoff but backed Kemp shortly after his victory. He talked about the governor’s “remarkable” accomplishments strengthening Georgia’s economy over two terms.
“As governor, I will carry on Governor Deal’s legacy,” Kemp said. “But make no mistake, I will not rest on his laurels.”
Abrams’ highlighted a pragmatic streak that threatened to haunt her during the primary but could become one of her most powerful weapons in the general election.
That included her work with Deal on a 2011 overhaul of the HOPE scholarship that was the target of intense attacks from her primary opponent but she’s now using as an example of bipartisanship.
And she frequently invoked her plan to expand the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, including when she was asked about her plans to help struggling rural communities.
“For those of you who think Medicaid expansion is a loss, I will tell you it’s a leader,” Abrams said. “For Georgia this is an economic opportunity the likes of which we will not see again.”
She drew her biggest applause, however, when she highlighted her opposition to religious liberty measures, which set off one of the most polarizing fights in Georgia even before Deal vetoed a version of the legislation in 2016.
Supporters say such legislation would protect people of faith from government intrusion, as well as strengthen legal protections for opponents of gay marriage. Abrams is aiming straight for voters who worry that it amounts to legalized discrimination and could tarnish the state’s reputation.
“We cannot be a state that tells people they are not worthy of being here, that legalizes discrimination,” Abrams said. “No bill will cross my desk that makes it hard to do business in Georgia.”
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Staff writer Bria Felicien contributed to this article.