A race that quietly began nearly two years ago will come to a deafening crescendo Tuesday after a final blitz that brought Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Mike Pence and Donald Trump to Georgia.
Stacey Abrams hopes to ride a "blue wave" to wash away Republican rule in the state and make her the first Democrat elected governor since 1998 – and the first black female governor in U.S history. Brian Kemp is trying to fortify a "red wall" in conservative areas to smash those dreams.
It seems fitting that the race closes with a close-up from a pair of presidents. The Abrams-Kemp battle is a test for whether Democrats can win Republican-held territory by moving distinctly to the left, and the outcome could shape strategies into the next decade.
Abrams staked her campaign on that premise, mixing liberal stances on gun control and criminal justice policy with more mainstream demands for Medicaid expansion and increased k-12 funding. Along the way, she’s tied herself to national Democratic figures in a way her predecessors vigorously avoided.
Unlike past Democrats, the former House minority leader aimed to motivate the vast universe of left-leaning voters who usually skip midterm votes and rebuild long-forgotten party infrastructure. It's expensive, painstaking work that began even before she announced her campaign.
Her liberal ideals are in direct conflict with her longtime nemesis and his deeply conservative values. Kemp tacked to his party's flank with hard-line stances on illegal immigration, vows to crack down on violent offenders and a "Georgia First" philosophy that would make Trump proud.
That’s not all Kemp, a two-term secretary of state, borrowed from the president. He’s trying to follow the same path Trump blazed to carry the state in 2016 by focusing on rural strongholds and outer exurbs where Republicans reign — rather than the close-in suburbs that flipped blue two years ago.
And he, too, is pursuing a cache of "unlikely" voters that Abrams also covets. But his targets are Trump voters who also skipped the last gubernatorial election — but showed up in droves in 2016 to support the president.
Though Kemp's distanced himself from the shotgun-toting image he proudly boasted in the primary — even abandoning his "politically incorrect conservative" mantra — he's stuck steadfastly by Trump. The benefits of revving up conservatives, he figures, far outweigh the costs of alienating independents.
Surge of attention
Much is at stake in Tuesday’s election, starting with the vast powers tied to the state’s most prized office. The next governor will control a trove of appointments, hold agenda-setting influence over the budget and state policy, take a firm hand in the redrawing of political maps, and possess an ear-splitting bully pulpit.
The outcome has broader implications, explaining why every potential presidential hopeful has dutifully visited Georgia. Conservatives are desperate to keep Georgia's 16 electoral votes in the GOP column; liberals are anxious for proof that one of their own can fare better than centrist Democrats of yore.
That's attracted an unprecedented tide of campaign cash — more than $66 million and counting — with much of it coming from out-of-state donors, well-connected business lobbies or Washington-based special-interest groups.
And it's also generated an unprecedented surge of voter participation for this type of contest, as both candidates try to inspire voter turnout befitting a presidential election rather than a milder midterm.
About 2.1 million early ballots have already been cast, and nearly two dozen counties have already exceeded their entire 2014 vote total. At least one-third of them have come from voters who didn’t vote four years ago, in both Republican strongholds and Democratic bastions.
The broad majority of voters from both sides of the aisle told Atlanta Journal-Constitution pollsters that the midterm is more important than past votes, spurred by a swirl of factors that include Trump's performance, a sharp ideological divide and the waves of brutal attacks lobbed by each campaign.
Their biggest clash has long revolved around voting rights, and the two sparred in court and in the public arena over ballot access long before this campaign. Abrams accuses Kemp of leveraging Georgia law to suppress and intimidate minorities; Kemp says he’s following laws designed to prevent illegal votes and that he has made it easier for Georgians to sign up to vote by starting online voter registration and setting up a smartphone app.
At the heart of that fight are repeated calls from Abrams’ allies for Kemp to step down as the state’s top elections official while he’s running for Georgia’s highest office. He counters that he’ll fulfill his duties, even if that means directing a recount in the case of a razor-thin margin.
And yet, after all this time and treasure, Tuesday might not mark the finale. The same poll showed neither candidate above the majority-vote threshold needed to avoid a Dec. 4 runoff. Libertarian Ted Metz is openly playing the spoiler, encouraging Georgians to cast a "protest vote" for his long-shot bid.
A long time coming
It's a race that formally started hours after the 2017 legislative session ended when Kemp traveled to a crowded Cobb County GOP breakfast to announce his candidacy with Trump-like undertones.
But it really began in 2009, when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle pulled out of that race for an open gubernatorial seat and carefully began plotting another run. He formally entered this contest a few weeks after Kemp, quickly establishing himself as a front-runner with loads of campaign cash and endorsements.
Cagle only seemed to cement that status by orchestrating the defeat of a tax break that triggered the delight of the gun lobby. So confident was Cagle that he could beat Kemp in a runoff that his campaign bombarded another rival with attacks to secure a showdown against the secretary of state.
Then came the June surprise: A leaked tape of Cagle bad-mouthing conservatives and admitting to backing "bad" legislation to undercut a rival. Later came a few keystrokes from Trump, who turbo-charged Kemp's runaway victory with a surprise endorsement on Twitter.
Abrams was never the underdog on the Democratic side, but she, too, faced a well-funded challenger. Former state Rep. Stacey Evans embodied the conventional Democratic approach, echoing her party's past contenders by focusing her campaign on an expansion of the HOPE scholarship and appeals to suburban white women.
But the race quickly became an ideological chess match as both fought over who was the prouder standard-bearer of the left, digging deep into each other's voting records and public statements for even a hint of a betrayal of the liberal cause.
Abrams overcame questions over her debt, her strategy and her fundraising ability to score a dominating victory that solidified her status as a national Democratic star. And just as Trump backed Kemp, Abrams locked up support from virtually every leading figure in her party.
Their differences on Georgia's biggest debates are vast.
Abrams wants to reverse abortion restrictions, ban assault rifles, block “religious liberty” legislation and expand Medicaid. Kemp wants to pass the nation’s strictest abortion limits, expand gun rights, sign a “religious liberty” measure and block Medicaid expansion.
That's just for starters. The two are also divided on fiscal policy, Confederate monuments, global warming — on and on.
The intense attention to the race has fed one polarizing development after another. Within the past two weeks, Kemp's critics were outraged by a recording of him at a closed-door fundraiser warning of Abrams' energized turnout efforts, and they seized on his picture with an anti-Muslim extremist.
And Abrams' opponents eagerly circulated a long-forgotten picture of her burning a Georgia state flag with a Confederate emblem and pounced on her gaffes to bolster their depiction of her as a "radical" who does the bidding of Left Coast elites.
So fraught has the race become that Kemp's appearance at an Atlanta brewery sparked threats of boycotts and an emotional apology from its owners, so bitter that Abrams has been likened to Josef Stalin in mailers bombarding Republican households.
With both candidates suffering from the swirl of negative attacks, one app developer waded into the mix with a game that lets players guide a pigeon to defecate on Abrams or Kemp. "Who will win the poopular vote?" it asks.
Looming above all is Trump, who will headline Kemp's rally at 4 p.m. Sunday in Macon. Though both candidates speak more of Deal's legacy than Trump, the president is dead set on making the midterms a referendum on him.
With Trump's approval ratings in Georgia inching upward, it's a gamble that Kemp is willing to take. His closing argument revolves not around divisive social policy but a more focused case that he'll extend the Republican economic legacy.
That resonates with some conservative voters who say their lives have vastly improved since Trump took office.
“I want to make sure things stay on the right track,” said Francis Melancon, who works for a phone company in Dalton. “It’s been positive for us the last couple of years, since Trump’s election, and we don’t want that to change.”
That same magnetic effect has repelled other voters toward Abrams’ orbit. Mattie Regina Lee is a retired grocery store clerk from Augusta and former Republican voter who supports Abrams in part because of her opposition to Trump.
“I can’t stand to listen to his voice,” Lee said. “I put the TV on mute every time he comes on and turn my head. He’s so full of hate I can’t take it.”
Whoever wins will face a tough task in living up to soaring campaign promises.
A victorious Abrams will be greeted by a Republican-dominated Legislature whose leaders spent months bashing her agenda and vowing to block her proposals. Even House Speaker David Ralston, not known for biting attacks on Abrams, recently chided her for spending "too much time in Neverland."
Kemp, too, could face withering scrutiny from his Republican allies over his plan to cap state spending and devote more than $600 million a year for teacher pay raises. Some legislative leaders have already signaled their skepticism.
Those, however, are problems for another day.
For now, Abrams is focused on building that wave. And Kemp on reinforcing that wall.
2 DAYS TO GO
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s election reporting is focused upon providing you with a deep understanding of the candidates, the key issues and what’s motivating Georgia voters. We are covering each race from all angles, giving equal weight to the candidates as you prepare to choose.
We are two days away from the Nov. 6 election.