Now as a governor-elect, Kemp points to Georgia’s future

Republican Brian Kemp speaks during a press conference Saturday at the Georgia Capitol, a day after his Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, Stacey Abrams, ended her campaign. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Republican Brian Kemp speaks during a press conference Saturday at the Georgia Capitol, a day after his Democratic opponent in the governor’s race, Stacey Abrams, ended her campaign. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Republican Brian Kemp won the closest Georgia race for governor in more than 50 years, defeating Democrat Stacey Abrams by a narrow margin after a post-election battle that lasted until the last ballots trickled into county officials more than a week after the vote.

His victory capped a divisive race against Abrams that hinged on his relentless appeals to supporters of Donald Trump with promises to expand gun rights, cut taxes and defend the president even as he assailed the Democrat as an “extremist outsider” who would force Georgia toward socialism.

Abrams halted her run for governor Friday but refused to say she was conceding the race, promising instead to file litigation targeting the “gross mismanagement” of the state’s elections system under Kemp’s watch.

With help from Trump, Kemp outdid the president in parts of deeply conservative rural Georgia to sideline Abrams’ quest to become the nation’s first black female governor — a campaign that drew national attention for its historic nature and its approach of targeting liberal voters who often skip midterms.

The election attracted nearly 4 million votes and was too close to call for days as Kemp’s lead dwindled and more heavily Democratic counties reported absentee and provisional ballots in the week after the race.

Brian Kemp was officially certified as Georgia's new governor.

The feud between the candidates was as bitter after the election as before it. Kemp’s campaign slammed Abrams for filing a slate of lawsuits seeking to count more ballots, calling her a “disgrace to democracy.”

And with each win in court, Abrams’ aides painted Kemp as a bumbling partisan who treated his role as secretary of state as an arm of his campaign for governor. Her campaign manager called Kemp the “secretary of suppression.”

The election was certified Saturday after all 159 counties had reported their election results. The final tally showed Kemp won the contest by roughly 55,000 votes but was within about 17,000 votes of being forced into a runoff.

“The election is over with. It’s been a long, tough process, and I certainly appreciate Stacey Abrams’ tenacity and how hard she worked,” Kemp said at a Saturday press conference at the state Capitol.

“But I’m proud of what we’ve done, too,” he said. “Now we are going to move forward. I’m ready to get to work cutting taxes, improving health care and strengthening rural Georgia.”

A supercharged race

It was the culmination of a fraught race that supercharged voter turnout and helped both candidates shatter records. Kemp won more votes than any Georgia gubernatorial contender ever, while Abrams earned more than any Democratic candidate in state history.

Kemp dominated in rural areas where Trump thrived by pursuing voters who typically ignored statewide elections before Trump’s run for president two years ago. That rural and exurban coalition gave Republicans just enough strength to win.

But the results hold longer-term dangers for Republicans, who have dominated Georgia politics for nearly two decades. Republicans got clobbered in suburban Atlanta, where Abrams’ strength contributed to down-ticket Democratic victories to help cement Georgia’s status as a 2020 battleground state.

And strong Democratic support forced two other down-ticket contests into Dec. 4 runoffs: the battle to succeed Kemp as secretary of state and a Public Service Commission race. Both offer Democrats a shot at their first statewide office since a 2010 Republican sweep.

The divisiveness of the race lingered long after the vote. Kemp appeared with Gov. Nathan Deal to announce his transition team and tout his "clear and convincing" win, as protesters demonstrated outside the office. His campaign said it was mathematically impossible for Abrams to win and castigated her for not conceding.

The Democrat sent fundraising pleas and aired TV ads proclaiming the race not over until provisional and absentee ballots were counted, and she claimed there were more outstanding ballots that never materialized. Her campaign filed several lawsuits that resulted in the counting of hundreds of additional ballots.

Kemp’s win comes under a swirl of scrutiny. He faced relentless criticism over his decision to wait until after the election to resign as secretary of state — a role that includes oversight of the state’s elections — and was hobbled by several lawsuits claiming his policies amounted to voter suppression.

That rift burst into the forefront the Sunday before the election, when Kemp called for an investigation into what he claimed was the state Democratic Party’s attempt to hack into voter registration records without citing evidence.

He was swiftly condemned by Democrats, who painted it as a desperate attempt to sway the election. Several Democratic officials recently said they have yet to be contacted by investigators more than a week after the investigation was announced.

Kemp, meanwhile, tried to paint his voting policies as a result of his strict adherence to Georgia law and a single-minded focus on preventing illegal voters. He often pointed to the state’s record number of voter registrations and the surge in voting this year as a sign of his success.

His victory makes him the third consecutive Republican to win the Governor’s Mansion — and the first lifelong member of the GOP elected to the office since Reconstruction. His predecessors, Sonny Perdue and Deal, were both former Democrats who switched parties more than a decade ago.

It was the closest race for Georgia governor since the 1966 contest between Democrat Lester Maddox, Republican Bo Callaway and Ellis Arnall, a former Democratic governor who was a write-in candidate. That contest ended with Maddox and Callaway divided by just 3,000 votes.

Maddox, an ardent segregationist, was eventually elected governor by the Georgia Legislature, which then had the power to select the governor if no candidate received a majority of the vote. State law was later changed to require a runoff between the top two finishers if no one did.

Historic election

Fierce rivals long before the campaign, Abrams and Kemp were sharply divided on many of the state's biggest debates, such as tax policy, criminal justice, illegal immigration and climate change. And though they often focused on state-related issues, the race became a national proxy fight in its closing days.

Abrams campaigned with former President Barack Obama, media icon Oprah Winfrey and virtually every potential 2020 Democratic hopeful for president as she ratcheted up her attempts to energize the party’s liberal base rather than try to persuade moderate voters to support her.

And Kemp countered with visits from Vice President Mike Pence and a final get-out-the-vote rally with Trump in Macon, where he drew thousands of Middle Georgia conservatives.

The election was the most expensive gubernatorial race in Georgia history — and one of the most closely watched. The contest is seen as a test for whether Democrats can win Republican-held territory with liberal ideals, and the tight margins will likely shape political strategies into the next decade.

Abrams won a dominating primary victory in May by aggressively moving to her party’s left flank and engaging in an all-out effort to rebuild decaying party infrastructure in parts of the state where Democrats struggle. Her main goal was to register and mobilize “unlikely” voters often ignored by campaigns.

She quickly became a household name among liberals in Georgia and nationally who were inspired by her platform — and what the promise of her victory could mean for the 2020 election, when the state’s 16 electoral votes are up for grabs.

But she also highlighted a pragmatic streak of working with Republicans while she was the state House’s top Democrat, promoting a record that included helping to craft a criminal justice overhaul championed by Deal.

Biting attacks

On the Republican side, a crowded primary field took a sharp tack to the right, as Kemp secured a spot in a July runoff with a Trump-like message, vows to sign the nation’s toughest abortion restrictions and provocative ads featuring shotguns, explosives, chain saws and a pledge to “round up criminal illegals” in his pickup truck.

Though a surprise endorsement from Trump helped fuel Kemp's runaway primary runoff victory over Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the campaign for the general election didn't pivot on national issues until Election Day neared and Trump and Obama traded barbs days apart.

Abrams faced relentless attempts by Kemp to paint her as a “radical extremist” who was a puppet of out-of-state interests because most of her campaign cash was raised by donors outside Georgia. Her critics seized on her gaffes, including one they used to falsely claim she wanted illegal immigrants to vote.

And Kemp liked to claim Abrams ran the “most dishonest campaign in Georgia history” as he portrayed her support for Medicaid expansion and other priorities as a gateway to higher taxes and stifling new restrictions that would reverse 16 years of accomplishments under two Republican governors.

On the campaign trail, he'd talk as much about her agenda as the policy planks in his platform, which include a $600 million plan to raise teacher pay and a proposal to cap state spending and cut regulations.

And she hit right back, criticizing his oversight of state elections as incompetent and discriminatory, needling him over litigation claiming he failed to repay a $500,000 loan and chiding him over "false promises" in his plan to raise teacher pay.

With his victory, Kemp will inherit a Republican-controlled Legislature that largely agrees with his policy agenda, though its leaders have expressed skepticism about the cost of some of his initiatives.

He’ll face a harder task, though, uniting a deeply divided electorate after nearly two years of an arduous campaign that left the red parts of the state redder and the blue parts of the state bluer. Kemp nodded to those challenges at his Saturday event, promising to work to unite Georgians after an election that stretched nearly two years.

“The election is over with. Politics is a tough business, but campaigns and elections are about the future,” he said. “We’re moving on, and we’re focused on the future.”