Brian Kemp wins rematch against Stacey Abrams

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Gov. Brian Kemp defeated Stacey Abrams for a second time on Tuesday, notching a reelection victory over the Democrat with an agenda defined by his pledge to help Georgians battle rising prices along with his conservative stances on abortion and guns.

The Republican’s win capped a titanic rematch between two adversaries whose rivalry has reshaped Georgia politics. Abrams’ narrow defeat in 2018 heralded the state’s transformation into a premier battleground, which in turn made her a celebrity among Democrats. Kemp’s victory swings the pendulum back to the GOP.

“Looking at the results tonight, we made sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be our governor — or our next president,” Kemp told supporters at his victory party.

The governor won by focusing on decades-high inflation that he blamed on President Joe Biden, whose low approval ratings dogged Democrats. Kemp promised to put cash back in the hands of voters, promoted his conservative stewardship of state finances and highlighted major business projects he helped lure to Georgia.

It was a more decisive conclusion than four years ago, when neither candidate claimed immediate victory in a razor-tight race. After 10 days of limbo, Abrams ended her campaign without conceding defeat, saying a “system of suppression” helped Kemp prevail by roughly 55,000 votes.

This time, she dialed Kemp around 11 p.m. on Tuesday to congratulate him on his victory -- a call that came before the networks had projected his victory.

Beyond their personal history, the two candidates had sharply different visions on virtually every policy, with wildly contrasting agendas for the economic, public safety, health care and education issues that dominated the race.

Kemp’s victory seals a remarkable turnaround for a governor who wasn’t even the overwhelming favorite to win his party’s nomination — let alone defeat Abrams, a former Georgia House minority leader and voting rights advocate who hardly stopped preparing for another run after her 2018 defeat.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Over a six-month span, Kemp thwarted Donald Trump’s quest for revenge by routing his hand-picked challenger, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, in the GOP primary and then defeated a Democratic star seen by many in her party as a potential White House candidate.

“Well, it looks like the reports of my political death have been greatly exaggerated,” Kemp said in a fiery victory speech to cheering supporters.

The midterm ended Abrams’ historic quest to become the nation’s first Black woman elected governor — and leaves her at an uncertain crossroads as she ponders her future in politics.

After her 2018 loss, her national profile soared; senior Democratic leaders pleaded with her to run for the U.S. Senate and many saw her as a serious contender to be Joe Biden’s running mate. She repeatedly said she dreamed of running for president herself.

Her next step after two consecutive statewide losses to Kemp in her home state is unclear.

“While I may not have crossed the finish line, we will never stop running for a better Georgia,” she told Democrats in downtown Atlanta.

A long path

Though Kemp’s allies brimmed with confidence in the closing weeks of the race, his bid for reelection was never as inevitable as recent polls suggested.

A year ago, Kemp was regularly booed at GOP gatherings by activists upset he refused Trump’s demand to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The former president labeled Kemp a “total failure” and even mused that he’d rather Abrams win the state’s top office.

Trump persuaded Perdue to run against Kemp shortly after his defeat to Democrat Jon Ossoff, part of a tandem of GOP losses in the January 2021 runoffs that flipped control of the Senate. Perdue centered his bid on loyalty to Trump — and to his lies about widespread election fraud.

But Perdue wound up helping Kemp more than he hurt him. Leveraging the sweeping powers of his office, Kemp worked with GOP lawmakers to cut income taxes, loosen gun restrictions and pass other measures to shore up his support with conservatives and independent voters.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Perdue’s far-right stances made Kemp seem more moderate by contrast, giving the governor an opening to woo swing voters who cheered him for standing up to Trump. He also tried not to alienate the “Make America Great Again” base by insisting he wouldn’t “say a bad word” about the ex-president.

Kemp’s 52-point victory over Perdue — and the failures of many other Trump-backed challengers in the Republican primary — silenced the ex-president’s criticism. With polls showing overwhelming GOP support for the governor, Kemp was free to try to broaden his base of support.

Thanks partly to new fundraising rules, Kemp amassed about $70 million to promote his record and batter Abrams. Though the Democrat still outraised him, he poured resources into a grassroots infrastructure to compete with Abrams’ prized get-out-the-vote apparatus.

While Democrats hoped the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade would upend the race, Kemp hardly talked about anti-abortion limits that polls showed were broadly unpopular among likely Georgia voters.

At their second debate last week, however, Kemp wouldn’t say whether he would sign more abortion restrictions into law in a second term. That fueled fresh warnings from Democrats that he was intent on going beyond the state law that banned the procedure as early as six weeks.

The governor preferred to keep his attention on the state’s economy, blaming Biden and Abrams — an architect of his 2020 victory in Georgia — for decades-high inflation and the uncertain financial climate.

He reminded voters of his decision to lift economic restrictions during the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, suspended the state gas tax to lower energy prices and sealed deals for the massive Hyundai and Rivian auto plants.

It was his policies, Kemp told crowds, that shielded Georgians from more economic pain. And though he didn’t issue many campaign promises, he promised to dip into the state’s bulging surplus to finance a $2 billion tax refund in a second term.

“There’s a disaster in Washington right now that’s hitting Middle America in the pocketbook right now and hurting hardworking Georgians,” he told supporters in one rural town, “and that’s what I’m going to be focused on.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

Credit: Christina Matacotta for the AJC

While Kemp concentrated his campaign’s energy largely on his first-term record, Abrams unfurled a blizzard of proposals to bring what she called “generational” change to Georgia.

She vowed to roll back anti-abortion limits and reverse pro-gun laws. She pledged to pass many initiatives her 2018 campaign hinged upon, including the expansion of Medicaid and an overhaul of criminal justice policies.

And she outlined plans to dip into the state’s more than $6.6 billion surplus and legalize casino gambling to boost teacher pay, finance new higher education scholarships and promote more economic equality.

Kemp long urged more caution with the extra cash, saying Abrams’ agenda would lead to higher taxes. Now he’ll have four more years to implement his blueprint in a politically divided state that’s certain to remain a consequential battleground.