Republican Brian Kemp is running for Georgia governor. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A Georgia gender gap: Kemp aims to appeal to women with new policies

A nine-figure push to increase teacher pay. An ad featuring a terrified mother worried about sex offenders near her son’s school. A constant refrain about security and crime crackdowns.

Republican Brian Kemp is racing to change his image to appeal to more moderate-leaning women — and distance himself from the hard-right persona he cultivated during the primary.

The pickup trucks and shotguns that peppered the TV ads that helped him win the GOP nomination are long gone, replaced by soft-focus images of his wife, Marty, leafing through photo albums extolling her husband’s honesty.

And these days when Kemp is asked about Donald Trump, a president who was elected with the biggest gender gap ever recorded, he’s more likely to expound on his family life and his record as secretary of state than anything that’s happening in Washington.

He’s feeling the pressure from Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is competing to be the state’s first female governor. She leads him among women by 11 percentage points, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released this month, and her campaign believes she has room to expand that margin.

That’s one reason he’s swung his message sharply from social issues, such as gun rights expansions and new abortion restrictions, that dominated the primary and toward education policies that got less attention earlier this year.

The $600 million proposal he unveiled Tuesday to increase public school teachers’ pay by $5,000 a year was his biggest effort yet to appeal to the center.

“This is affordable and prudent,” Kemp said. “It’s an investment in our educators that’s an investment in our future.”

Poll conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It’s part of a two-track goal to avoid alienating conservatives who gave him a dominating win in the July runoff while also presenting a friendlier image to women in the middle of the electorate.

“Those issues that he talked about in those primary ads are still important to the Republican base. They’re not going away,” said Loretta Lepore, a veteran Republican strategist. “But he’s now talking to women who are centrists and moderates, and you do that by talking about the issues that matter to them: education, the economy and health care.”

He’s got some work to do. Take Shirley Rose-Kamick, an Acworth retiree who admits she’s no fan of either candidate — but that she “just can’t stand Kemp” because of a stance on firearms that includes a call for a sales tax holiday for guns and ammunition over the July 4 holiday.

“He’s trying to appeal to suburban women with his wife up there talking about how he’s a good father and good husband,” Rose-Kamick said. “That doesn’t make you a good candidate — there are plenty of good fathers out there that would make terrible governors.”

Two openings

Abrams is eager to press her advantage. She’s focused her campaign on a mix of progressive issues and mainstream policies that include a call for new gun restrictions and a vow to expand the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act — both issues that resonated with a majority of women in the AJC poll.

She’s also picking her spots to more aggressively criticize Trump, who has largely been absent in her recent campaign messaging, perhaps out of fear of transforming the race into a referendum on the president’s performance.

That’s changed over the past week in the fallout over the sexual assault allegations against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, when Trump said if the assault “was as bad as she says,” then Christine Blasey Ford should have immediately filed charges.

Calling Trump’s remarks appalling, Abrams joined a chorus of critics from both political parties who feared the president’s words could further stigmatize victims. She was echoed by dozens of prominent Georgia Democratic women who called on Kemp to “immediately retract” his support for Kavanaugh.

The secretary of state, meanwhile, senses an opening of his own. He increasingly emphasizes a criminal justice initiative that would devote more law enforcement resources toward combating a “crisis” in gang violence.

And he’s moved away from critiques of Abrams’ debt to the Internal Revenue Service and toward attacks on her criminal justice policy — particularly her decision in 2017 not to vote on a measure that allowed prosecutors to charge people soliciting a victim of sex trafficking with stiffer violations.

Abrams said through a spokeswoman that she opposed that 2017 measure because it limited the discretion of judges, and she’s touted other votes in support of tough new penalties on sex crimes and a Safe Harbor fund to help sex trafficking victims.

But the Georgia GOP has reinforced those barbs with an ad blanketing metro Atlanta airwaves featuring a young mother lacing into Abrams’ stance on the sex offender crackdown after she drops her young son at school.

“I don’t know what Stacey Abrams was thinking,” she says, looking straight into the camera. “But I do know she’s too extreme for Georgia.”

That type of contrast appeals to Carol Johnson, a Clarkesville resident who’s hungry for a laserlike focus on policy in the race’s closing weeks.

“I’m not really into people’s background. Everyone has backgrounds, and I’m really tired of people’s sob stories,” Johnson said. “We all have to make it with what we’ve got.”

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