Republican Brian Kemp’s dominating victory sets the stage for a supercharged November matchup for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams that revives a long-running feud between two candidates who both “unapologetically” appealed to their parties’ bases.
The showdown assures that Georgia will become a proving ground for the 2020 presidential election, a race that will attract droves of attention, high-profile visits and record-breaking spending as Republicans try to fortify long-held territory and Democrats hope to demonstrate the state is prepared to flip.
At the center will be President Donald Trump, who has already gone to bat for his handpicked candidate. He praised Kemp’s “very big win” Wednesday and urged him to beat his “crime loving opponent.” Abrams answered with a string of Democrats who defeated Trump-supported candidates.
As bitter as the nomination contests were, the general election will herald a new phase of nastiness. Two partisan groups — the Republican Governors Association and Democratic Governors Association — have already traded attack ads pummeling each candidate.
The contest is only set to sharpen the vast gulf between the two Georgia parties, already wider than it’s been in decades.
Kemp trounced Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle by maneuvering to his right on every major policy divide, and his provocative ads with guns, pickup trucks and explosions emphasized that message. “Yep, I just said that” became his tag line.
Abrams used a similar strategy to appeal to core Democratic supporters, abandoning the centrist approach of her party predecessors and instead energized her backers with more liberal policy positions on guns, taxes and criminal justice.
The two are starkly opposed on just about every major issue, setting up a test of ideals in Georgia. The two candidates have pined for this matchup, and the competition will certainly draw on the deep-seated animosity between them.
“Make no mistake: There’s a crystal clear contrast as we go forward,” said Kemp, whose campaign will rapidly expand for the November contest. “This is a fight against Stacey Abrams and her radical backers.”
‘A Trump party’
The runoffs provided a cutting reminder of the polarized November race that’s to come.
Kemp won all but two counties on his way to capturing 69 percent of the vote, carrying even the lieutenant governor’s home turf of Hall County by double digits. Abrams had an even bigger win in May over her opponent, Stacey Evans, with 76 percent of the vote.
In each case, the candidate who listed toward the center was hammered. And those who were endorsed by party leaders dominated. Abrams enjoyed support from many of the biggest Democratic names, while Trump’s late endorsement of Kemp sealed Cagle’s fate.
An internal ballot-tracking poll from Cagle’s campaign showed his numbers fell off a cliff after Trump endorsed Kemp a week ago. The secretary of state won about 58 percent of the in-person early vote — largely before Trump’s support — and 75 percent of the vote on Election Day.
“I don’t want to hear anyone ever say our president isn’t popular,” said Brandon Phillips, the Cagle deputy who once led Trump’s Georgia operation. “It’s a Trump party. Get on board or get out of the way.”
Democrats are joyful at the chance to present their diverse ticket, which features two women at the top of the ballot — Abrams for governor and Sarah Riggs Amico for lieutenant governor — as a counterweight to a Republican slate that features mostly white men in the highest-profile contests.
“There’s something for everybody to love in the Democratic ticket. We’ve got two incredibly smart women who will raise more money and run incredibly strategic races,” said Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president. “People are going to see a tide turning like they’ve never seen before.”
The marquee matchup pits two candidates who have warred with each other for a half-decade, but their most ferocious clashes involve voting rights.
Kemp, who has overseen Georgia elections since 2010, supports strict voter ID laws to prevent what he called the threat of illegal voters casting ballots, though his office has repeatedly said there are no instances of “illegal votes” in Georgia.
Abrams, who built a national profile running a voter registration group, says laws requiring that people show photo identification at polling places could disenfranchise minorities, the disabled and the elderly, though the requirements have not appeared to cause a drop among minority voters.
On just about every other policy, too, there’s a diametrical divide.
Abrams backs new gun control measures and staunchly opposes the National Rifle Association. Kemp wants to expand gun rights, brandishes a shotgun pointed toward an actor in his ads, and wrote an open letter urging the NRA to endorse him.
Abrams’ top policy priority is an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and she said she would reverse an income tax cut to help fund the program. Kemp calls such an expansion too costly for Georgia, and he wants to impose a spending cap to discourage more government spending.
Abrams wants to protect abortion rights, and her promise that the issue “will be a central facet of this campaign” helped her earn Planned Parenthood’s endorsement. Religious conservatives flocked to Kemp after he vowed to sign the nation’s “strictest” abortion laws.
And Abrams supports eliminating cash bail for poor defendants, ending capital punishment and decriminalizing some marijuana offenses. Kemp favors tough-on-crime drug laws and backs a public safety package that includes higher police pay and new anti-gang initiatives.
The chasm between the candidates will surely come into sharper relief as November nears. Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston was a Cagle supporter who worried that the GOP infighting would weaken either candidate. But he said there’s a limit to those fears.
“Abrams is out of touch. When she became the darling of the national Democrat left, that gets her money, that gets her attention,” said Kingston, who long represented a Savannah-based district. “But it won’t get her votes.”
Democratic state Rep. Scott Holcomb said Kemp will have his own trouble bringing in votes with a campaign that “has looked more like it was a tryout for a spot on a failed reality TV show than to lead our state.”
“And he can’t run on his record,” Holcomb said. “He has none.”