As Walker struggles to firm up GOP base, Kemp aims to expand political map

With the Republican base firmly in his corner, Gov. Brian Kemp feels freer to try to reach new audiences of swing voters, Georgians of color and other groups that he largely bypassed in 2018. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

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With the Republican base firmly in his corner, Gov. Brian Kemp feels freer to try to reach new audiences of swing voters, Georgians of color and other groups that he largely bypassed in 2018. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

While Republican U.S. Senate nominee Herschel Walker struggles to win over conservatives who were concerned with his candidacy even before a spate of damaging abortion reports, Gov. Brian Kemp is embarking on a vastly different mission to expand his base of support.

Even as Walker gathered with evangelical leaders to address reports that he paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion, Kemp was preparing to speak at a pair of events geared to Black voters. His campaign has also charted an aggressive strategy to better compete in the suburbs.

While the efforts might seem both marginal and long overdue in such a closely divided state, they reflect a significant change in approach for the first-term Republican as he faces a rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

In 2018, Kemp almost exclusively campaigned in deeply conservative exurban and rural territories where Republican candidates routinely won by 40 percentage points. His campaign’s strategy hinged on driving up the turnout in reliably GOP areas where Donald Trump dominated.

But with polls showing the Republican base safely in his corner, the governor feels freer to try to reach new audiences of swing voters, Georgians of color and other groups that he largely bypassed in 2018.

In an interview, the Republican acknowledged the limits of his strategy four years ago, which helped him secure a narrow victory over Abrams but left a deeply divided electorate. Now, he said, he’s aiming for a heftier mandate in his second campaign against Abrams.

“Quite honestly, they did a really good job of defining me before I could define myself. It turned out to be a base-turnout election,” he said of his 2018 race. “That was the only way we could win, and we did that. But since then, I’ve got a record to govern on.”

Before audiences of Black voters and suburban supporters at recent events, Kemp focused on his decision to lift economic restrictions during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, make diverse appointments to the judiciary, propose pay hikes for public employees and call for tax refunds.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Appealing to broader audiences is nothing new for Abrams, who has campaigned intensely in rural, conservative parts of the state in hopes of shaving Kemp’s margins. She has held dozens of events aimed at Black and suburban voters, and she routinely appears on Fox News to explain her stances to national audiences.

Among her core arguments is that Kemp is papering over a far-right agenda that’s out of step with Georgia’s diverse electorate. At a weekend stop in Gwinnett County, she assailed his support for abortion restrictions, permissive gun policies and a rewrite of elections policy.

“If you’re a woman in the state of Georgia, then you’re in jeopardy under the current governor,” she said, adding: “Regardless of your personal opinion about a woman’s right to choose, we must believe that a doctor knows more than Brian Kemp about the biology of a woman.”

‘Wrong room to diss’

Still, the Democrat’s been forced to play defense at a time when Kemp is pushing to expand his base of support. With polls showing a lag in support among Black voters, Abrams has faced questions about her efforts to energize the party’s most reliable constituency.

Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, now a key aide to President Joe Biden, disclosed she was “very concerned at the lack of enthusiasm” in Georgia. (U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who chairs the state party, shot back that it’s not “the first time we’ve been counted out” as she urged Democrats to defy the predictions.)

And Killer Mike, a rapper and outspoken supporter of far-left U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, caused a minor stir among local Democrats when he questioned Abrams’ focus.

“What Brian Kemp did was have an effective week with Black people,” said the entertainer, whose real name is Michael Render. “And I would love to see (Stacey Abrams) do that. But if she doesn’t, that ain’t our fault.”

It was a nod to Kemp’s recent schedule, which included an appearance as the only Republican at a town hall geared toward Black voters at Clark Atlanta University. The governor was greeted with respectful applause, and he answered sharp questions about his pro-gun policies and economic agenda.

But the limits of his message also were on display.

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

The governor spoke just after Abrams, whose remarks were bracketed by standing ovations. And when he took shots at the Democrat, one member of the audience spoke up: “This is the wrong room to diss Stacey.”

Tammy Greer, a Clark Atlanta political science professor who attended the town hall, said the visit reflected the governor’s strategy.

“I appreciate the governor coming to express his record and to express what he stands for in his campaign,” she said. “If you are narrow (in thought), then you will say that he came into unfriendly territory. Yet I think he was well received.”

Democrats note that other statewide candidates, including U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, also hovered around 80% support with Black voters in recent polls. And Abrams’ allies roll their eyes at what they see as an election-year ploy by Kemp.

“He knows Republicans have this one-sided campaign and they can’t do it anymore. Stacey trained him well. She campaigned in every county,” said state Rep. Al Williams, a Midway Democrat and close friend of Abrams’.

“He knows he’s got to follow her lead,” Williams said. “But it won’t matter. He won’t do any better with Black voters.”

‘Expanding the tent’

With leads over Abrams hovering well above 5 points in some recent polls, Kemp can afford to take a more aggressive approach than Walker.

The former football star’s beleaguered campaign against Warnock was struggling even before The Daily Beast reported that he paid for a girlfriend’s 2009 abortion.

Walker, who has denied the reports but not yet brought a promised defamation lawsuit, registered 80% of GOP support in many public polls in recent months — lagging Kemp by 15 percentage points in some of them. That’s forced Walker to lean further into the hard-right base.

Credit: Natrice Miller /

Credit: Natrice Miller /

In recent weeks, Walker has endorsed a 15-week federal abortion ban, sharpened his opposition to Medicaid expansion and leveled new attacks against transgender student athletes.

Walker’s allies say his strategy is also designed to mobilize older white GOP voters with a message that Democrats are trying to use race to divide Georgians.

At a recent event at a gun range in Smarr before a crowd of mostly white supporters, Walker smiled as he called his audience “mutts,” a familiar portion of his stump speech that brought a wave of applause.

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings. I’m not calling you names. But 23andMe has screwed us all up,” he said of the DNA testing service. “Y’all are mutts, too. But one thing I want to tell you that is good, though: You are an American mutt.”

Kemp isn’t expected to campaign with Walker in the closing days of the race. His advisers say he will focus more intensely on parts of metro Atlanta that he skipped in late 2018, when he was traveling to small towns and rural areas where he was assured of friendly audiences and giant margins of victory.

“We started focusing on expanding the tent of the party, to make our party look like the rest of the state,” Kemp said. “I haven’t been a show horse, I’ve been a workhorse. And people remember what I’ve done.”

Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

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