The race for governor between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp is a warmup for the 2020 presidential election and a historic test of whether Georgia is a battleground state in President Donald Trump’s bid for a second term.
The duel between the two longtime rivals is poised to attract tens of millions of additional dollars, visits from a constellation of political stars and even more attention from national media casting the race as a litmus test for the presidential contest over the next 100 days.
The candidates have little choice but to nationalize the race. Kemp won a landslide victory over Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle last week thanks to Trump’s endorsement, and the president and other leading GOP figures have a direct stake in making sure Kemp prevails in November.
And a growing cast of potential Trump opponents are beating a path to Georgia to support Abrams, mindful that the state could be a key factor in the 2020 presidential primary and balance out the party’s struggles in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — Hillary Clinton’s “blue wall” that crumbled in 2016.
The dynamic is sure to inflame an already-supercharged matchup between two candidates who are on opposite sides of most every major policy debate and have stoked a bitter rivalry for years, using each other as foils to raise campaign cash and energize their bases. Already, this contest is the most expensive race for governor in state history.
“You’re going to see people from all walks of life, from Hollywood to Washington to New York, down here campaigning for Ms. Abrams — and you’ll probably have some of the big Washington guys come down here campaigning for Brian,” former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland said.
“If I was Ms. Abrams, I would try to get some of those folks to stay outside Georgia,” the Republican added.
That’s not going to happen. The heart of Abrams’ strategy is to embrace her party’s left-leaning base rather than stick to the more centrist approach that Georgia Democrats long relied upon.
A growing cast of Democratic heavyweights have already lined up behind Abrams, who has cultivated a celebrity status of her own as she competes to become the nation’s first black female governor. Most of the party’s biggest names have endorsed her, and some visited even before she locked up her party’s nomination.
“Electing her to be the governor of the state of Georgia will be an incredibly important statement about who we are as Americans,” said U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, one of the potential presidential contenders who backed Abrams. “It will demonstrate we have so much more in common than what separates us.”
In a recent visit to Atlanta, Harris sent a crowd of more than 100 Abrams backers into a tizzy when she offered a four-word counsel: "Make sure she wins."
That won’t be easy. Georgia Democrats last won a governor’s race in 1998 with Roy Barnes, and their most recent U.S. Senate victory belongs to Zell Miller in 2000. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate carried the state was Bill Clinton in 1992, and even he didn’t win a majority of the vote.
Democrats see the pendulum swinging back. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal won re-election with about 53 percent of the vote in 2014, and Trump carried the state with about 50 percent only two years later, losing the long-held GOP bastions of Cobb and Gwinnett counties in the process.
Their strategy this cycle hinges on motivating Democratic voters who rarely cast ballots, in part because centrist politicians don’t excite them. Up and down the party ticket, nominations went to progressives who embrace gun control, abortion rights and Medicaid expansion. Leading the charge is Abrams, who has long maintained that Georgia Democrats’ longtime statewide strategy of trying to persuade independents and suburban Republicans to switch parties is outdated and ineffective.
“There’s a large number of sporadic voters that will turn out to vote if they are engaged properly,” said Tharon Johnson, who headed Barack Obama’s southern regional strategy in 2012. “The Abrams campaign had a laserlike focus on these sporadic voters and turned them out in the primary win for her.”
If Abrams wins, he said, it will cement Georgia as a key battleground in 2020. But even if she loses, he said, “it will put Georgia in the conversation around battleground state strategy” for the presidential vote.
Republicans will relentlessly tie Abrams to national Democrats unpopular with conservative and swing voters, echoing a line of attack that hamstrung other recent candidates. Jon Ossoff didn't campaign with his party's liberal heavyweights in last year's nationally watched battle for the 6th Congressional District, but he was still constantly framed as a puppet of U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. And Jason Carter, the party's 2014 nominee for governor, steered clear of Obama when he visited shortly before the vote, but Republicans still portrayed him as a "longtime friend" of the then-president.
The attacks have already started. The Republican Governors Association debuted a 30-second spot on the night of the runoff that showed Abrams sandwiched between Hillary Clinton and Pelosi.
“We don’t want to give the Democrats any crack in our armor to think that this state is turning blue,” Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue said.
For Republicans, Trump will surely remain at the heart of the campaign. And they have good reason to keep him there after Kemp’s epic surge.
Kemp sputtered to a second-place finish to Cagle in the May primary and clung to a single-digit lead over him in public polling shortly before Trump's unexpected endorsement. But promptly after the president tweeted his approval, Cagle's support veered off a cliff.
Long the presumptive front-runner, Cagle was trounced by nearly 40 percentage points and won fewer votes than the distant runner-up for secretary of state. He’s one of just two candidates in state history to lose support from the initial primary to the runoff, according to an analysis by a University of Minnesota political scientist.
A trove of undecided voters swung Kemp’s way in the final days of the race, and many said in interviews that they did so in part to defend an embattled president.
“We were Cagle supporters, but we changed,” said Cassie Thomas, a Rome health care worker, who attended a recent Kemp rally with her husband. “Trump sealed the deal for us and a lot of people. And I have no doubt this energy will continue.”
Trump’s interest in the race, now one of the premier gubernatorial elections in the nation, also seems unlikely to ebb, perhaps prodded by U.S. Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue and other Georgia stalwarts with influence in the White House.
“We had the momentum in this race,” Kemp said, “and those endorsements by the president and the vice president — they poured gasoline on the fire.”
It’s unclear, though, whether Abrams will aim to make this race a referendum on Trump. In some candidate forums, she refused to mention his name. And at an event this week in Pooler focused on pocketbook issues, she sidestepped direct criticism of both Kemp and Trump, who called her an “open border, crime loving” candidate.
“My approach to winning this election is basic and complete: talk to Georgians, talk about our shared values, talk about our futures together, and have comprehensive plans that respond to the needs no matter where you are and no matter who you are,” she said.
Only 100 days remain in the Georgia governor's race, and for every one of them The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will keep the spotlight on the candidates and the issues. AJC stories so far have included examinations of Brian Kemp's fundraising among industries that he regulates as secretary of state and Stacey Abrams' tax difficulties. Look for more as the campaign heats up at PoliticallyGeorgia.com.