Georgia’s race for governor will reach a new fever pitch after Labor Day, as Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp scramble to seize distracted voters’ attention as summer fades and a final two-month stretch to November begins.
The candidates have not abandoned their positions on base-pleasing topics that helped them cement their parties’ nomination, but both are now fine-tuning their messages toward broader pitches on education and the economy.
Crisscrossing South Georgia on a recent swing, Abrams echoed her core promises by talking relentlessly about expanding Medicaid, boosting funding for public education and squeezing more funds from the state budget for infrastructure improvements.
Kemp’s tone has changed more dramatically after a frenzied race during the primary to the party’s flanks on gun rights expansions, socially conservative legislation and loyalty to President Donald Trump.
The secretary of state is now more likely to mention Gov. Nathan Deal than the president, whose late endorsement fueled his towering runoff victory. The nominee has traded a vow to “round up criminal illegals” for talk of “rewarding legal — not illegal — behavior.”
And after months of playing up his support for “religious liberty” legislation beloved by social conservatives but abhorred by Democrats and corporate leaders, Kemp warned that he would veto any proposal that strayed from a 1993 federal law that passed with bipartisan support.
It was the sharpest signal yet that he’s recalibrating his image as he tries to engage the conservatives who lifted him to the GOP nomination as well as the independents who form the middle of the electorate.
And he and Abrams have a fast-tightening window to make their appeals to undecided voters.
Slightly over half of Georgia’s electorate participated in early voting in the 2016 elections, and that number is expected to swell this year. The final day of voter registration is Oct. 9, and advanced in-person voting starts six days later.
That’s why this next phase of the campaign trail will feature more of everything: more eye-catching TV ads, more attention-grabbing visits from national figures, more intensive campaigning and more sharp-elbowed debates.
“You’re going to see more of these events, more detailed policy initiatives,” Kemp said after announcing a new package aimed at military veterans. “We’re going to look Georgia voters in the eye and tell them I’m the governor who will put them first.”
And Abrams will intensify a boots-on-the-ground approach geared toward capturing more left-leaning Georgians who don’t often cast ballots.
“We are going to do more of the same: We’re scaling up, knocking on more doors, talk to more folks, return to places that we’ve been before and to places we haven’t seen yet,” said Abrams, once the state House’s top Democrat. “More than anything, it’s about bringing more people to the table.”
‘The question of the election’
The two candidates are placing different bets on where that middle lies.
Kemp’s strategy holds that the center of the electorate remains tilted toward conservative issues, which is why his campaign promises revolve around vows to limit state spending, lower taxes and expand gun rights.
Abrams believes the state’s average voter has shifted toward the left over the past four years, and she’s taking a calculated risk that her support for new gun control requirements and the expansion of Medicaid have gone from wedge issues to consensus ones.
The Democrat is “banking on the hunch that her jobs and health care platform might have greater appeal to the median voter,” Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie said, while Kemp is hoping a pivot from his party’s flanks will win over skeptical moderates.
“Who turns out to be right,” Gillespie said, “is the question of the election.”
It’s a gamble that Abrams has telegraphed since she announced her campaign in June 2017 in Albany with a pledge to expand universal pre-k and make technical college tuition-free, while at the same time embracing progressive stances on some of the state’s biggest partisan divides.
She’s further honed her strategy over the last year, sharpening her economic policy with town halls and more events in GOP territory. Each focused on proposals to boost infrastructure spending, create a small business financing program and oppose religious liberty legislation.
Kemp has tried to broaden his message after winning the GOP nomination with appeals to the party base with promises to pass the nation’s toughest abortion restrictions and create a sales tax holiday for guns and ammunition.
He’s ditched provocative ads featuring power tools, pickup trucks and pyrotechnics in favor of sunnier themes about favoring “early, locally controlled education.” And he’s increasingly turned to his wife, Marty, and three daughters to help soften his image.
“He has clearly moderated toward going to the independent vote,” former Attorney General Sam Olens said. “If you don’t encourage votes to the middle, you don’t win.”
Both candidates will see plenty of reinforcements from outside groups who have shoveled millions of dollars into a race that’s already smashed spending records. And both could receive high-profile help from national figures.
Former President Barack Obama endorsed Abrams last month, and a visit by him or his wife, Michelle, could be in the works. And Kemp will almost certainly have help from the president’s administration.
Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, now Trump’s agriculture secretary, told reporters that Vice President Mike Pence is set to return to Georgia in September and that Trump is likely to make a campaign swing through the state.
Those could be in tandem with an accelerated outreach program from campaigns aiming to reach on-the-fence voters, some for the third or fourth time this year.
Abrams might as well have been speaking for every candidate on the ballot at a town hall meeting in Columbus last week when she summed up the next two months of door-knocking and campaign-stumping.
“If we’re waiting until Election Day,” she said, “we’re waiting too long.”