Paula Robin, a former Republican who considers herself an independent now, poses for a portrait at her home in East Cobb, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in Marietta, Ga. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp
Photo: Branden Camp

In Georgia governor’s race, the middle is up in the air

Ed Borden is a former Republican set adrift by Donald Trump’s ascent and now not quite certain which candidate to support in Georgia’s November gubernatorial race. Neither is Tammy Miller, an avowed moderate who has yet to fall in love with either Democrat Stacey Abrams or Republican Brian Kemp.

With so many voters firmly lined up behind their party’s nominee, the state’s independents and moderates will play an outsized role in a tight race that has Kemp with a statistically insignificant lead over Abrams.

It’s not a big universe of voters. The most recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll showed just 10 percent of the voters who are expected to participate in this year’s election call themselves independents.

Some of them have made up their minds. But others are still weighing their options, and the fight for their support is being partially shaped by national politics.

A cascade of dramatic headlines, from the ups-and-downs of the stock market to Brett Kavanaugh’s fraught Senate confirmation hearings, is adding to the tensions in race already burdened by allegations of voter suppression and sharp policy divides.

The AJC poll showcased the challenges awaiting each candidate in the race’s final stretch, as they ready for the start of early voting Monday and the frenzy of bus tours and campaign stops that will follow.

Kemp hopes to revive the same winning formula Trump used to carry Georgia in 2016, but he trails Abrams among both independents and voters who consider themselves moderates. That’s a worrying sign for the state GOP, which has long counted on centrists as part of its coalition.

Consider Borden, a Flowery Branch retiree who has steadily moved toward the independent column over the last two decades. Frustrated and disappointed with the GOP’s deference to President Donald Trump, he’s leaning toward Abrams, he said, in part because he “would not mind sending a message to let them know.”

Abrams has engineered her campaign around expanding the electorate of Democratic voters, including many minorities who rarely vote in midterms, so she can withstand any late revolt by on-the-fence voters. Still, the poll suggests she faces a growing struggle, with white females nudging toward Kemp’s campaign.

That’s where Martha Slott sits. A small business owner from Cumming, she’s been energized by Kemp’s conservative policies – and what she sees as the unfair treatment of Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexual assault after he was nominated for the Supreme Court.

“Look, I would have voted anyways. But we have become a country where we are no longer innocent until proven guilty,” said Slott. “And that’s not the country I grew up in.”

‘People are motivated’

The bitter Supreme Court fight was injected directly into the campaign when both candidates quickly took sides.

Typically more reluctant to speak about national issues, Abrams praised Christine Blasey Ford for her “courageous” testimony against Kavanaugh in a hearing that galvanized the nation.

And Kemp stood by Kavanaugh, who categorically denied the allegations that he sexually assaulted Ford in high school. He was soon confirmed by a deeply divided U.S. Senate.

Democrats, already banking on anti-Trump furor, launched protests in Atlanta to demonstrate their anger and vow to bring that energy to the November polls. But Republicans, in search of a jolt, believe Kavanaugh’s appointment brought them some much sought-after momentum.

The AJC’s survey, conducted shortly after the Kavanaugh hearings and amid a spate of positive economic and trade news for the administration, suggests the fallout could have improved the GOP’s standing in Georgia.

Trump’s approval numbers have edged up over the last month, particularly among women. Among white women, that trend is more pronounced. Roughly 64 percent said they approved of Trump – and 69 percent planned to support Kemp on Election Day.

“I’ve been motivated for a long time, but what happened to Brett Kavanaugh was despicable,” said Gail Engelhardt, a Cartersville retiree. “The people are motivated here. And this will help remind them why.”

Even so, it may have also further propelled some independents toward Abrams’ camp. That’s the case of Debbie Martin, a 66-year-old calligrapher who said GOP senators’ treatment of Ford underscored why she supports Abrams.

“Their behavior was not an example of how you listen to someone who is in need,” the Atlanta resident said of Senate Republicans. “They really had no intention of investigating (Ford’s allegations).”

‘True independent’

Sensing an opening with moderate women, Kemp has made a beeline toward a pair of issues he hopes will broaden his appeal.

He’s relentlessly blasted Abrams as soft on crime and panned her opposition to legislation increasing penalties for sex offenders, which she said she opposed because it would have limited the discretion of judges. And he’s touted his $600 million teacher pay raise plan and a school safety proposal.

All the while, he’s tried to make his edgy ads from the primary campaign – like the one where he pointed a shotgun toward a daughter’s date — a distant memory.

That has proven difficult, in part because Democrats have launched their own TV spots featuring footage of those ads. To some independents, those reminders are driving their decision to back Abrams.

“I’m a true independent. I vote for the better choice. Abrams is too liberal, but I’m going to vote for her anyways,” said Paula Robin of Marietta, who works in the insurance industry. “I was appalled by his ad with the gun. And it nauseates me how he’s trying to change his tune.”

At the same time, Kemp has tried to keep his base mobilized by not neglecting the voters drawn to him precisely because of his support for Trump and his conservative stances on expanding gun rights and limiting abortion.

That’s what attracted Greg Larson, a Snellville business owner who said he was “caught” by Kemp’s provocative ads. He said he expects the state’s next governor to support the president’s policies.

“I finally feel like we’re going in the right direction for the first time,” said Larson.

Abrams has countered with a blend of progressive policies and a pragmatic promise to pursue issues she considers more mainstream, such as the expansion of Medicaid, promises of new tax credits for financially struggling Georgians and the elimination of a $100 million private school tax credit.

Her stance as the “public education governor” appears to be resonating with independents, who overwhelmingly said they favored Abrams over Kemp when asked who they trust more to deal with the state’s school system.

One of those voters is James Ward, a self-described moderate independent who said he thinks Abrams is “going to move us forward” on public education and other social issues.

“I think she has a better future outlook for Georgia than Mr. Kemp,” said the 65-year-old resident of Paulding County.

One of Kemp’s bigger strengths, meanwhile, is his approach to the economy. Though he’s been pummeled over his support for a version of the “religious liberty” measure, he’s built a solid lead over Abrams among voters asked who they trust him more to bring jobs to Georgia, though independents were more evenly split.

That’s what’s helping spur John Dillingham, a north Georgia nurse and independent, toward Kemp’s camp. He said he can’t stand Abrams’ “doctrinaire Marxist” views, which he fears will hobble Georgia’s economy and promote more government intervention.

Miller, the proud moderate, also harbors some fears over Abrams’ platform. She fondly recalls voting for John McCain and Mitt Romney for president, and blames Barack Obama for triggering much of the nation’s sticky political divisiveness.

And yet, she might skip over the Republican side of the ticket this year — even though she’s “not crazy” about Abrams.

“I don’t like Kemp’s immigration policy or gun policy — or any of his policies, really,” said Miller, a Johns Creek accountant. “Stacey is more liberal than I like, but I’m finding that I’m lining up more with her.”

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