Can Stacey Abrams turn the GOP rift into a gift for Democrats in 2022?



Georgia Democrats took advantage of Republican infighting in the last election to score upset victories. Now Stacey Abrams and her allies hope to leverage a new round of GOP feuding from the top of the ticket without Donald Trump on the ballot.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp only magnified the problem that Republicans face next year, as the Trump-driven warring that dominated the last election complicates GOP attempts to focus on the next one.

The Republican rift offers a gift to Abrams and her allies in an otherwise tough election cycle, as President Joe Biden’s sagging poll numbers threaten to hinder Democrats in battleground states. Abrams intends to let Kemp and Perdue duke it out while she prepares for November.

“The internecine fights on the other side don’t concern me. My job is to fight for Georgians, respond to the crises we face and offer real solutions,” Abrams said in an interview.

“I’m not of that other community, and their battles do not impact my plans for health care, education and coronavirus relief,” she said. “My job is to battle for one Georgia.”

Since entering the race in early December, Abrams has held fundraisers and private meetings with key allies to lay the groundwork for her 2022 bid.

And she’s debuted her campaign by spotlighting the same policies that she embraced when she ran for governor in 2018, including a focus on expanding Medicaid and boosting k-12 school funding.

But the Kemp-Perdue rivalry affords her more runway to try to rebuild the same coalition that powered victories in 2020 and the January U.S. Senate runoffs without having to constantly parry attacks from a unified Georgia GOP.

It’s also distracting attention from the race to unseat U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents on the ballot next year.

Both Kemp and Perdue are sanguine about their primary battle even as their aides plot new attacks on each other. Each candidate casts himself as the only one who can beat Abrams in November, though only Kemp has done so before.

“This election isn’t going to be won by spending money on TV. It’s going to be won out in the trenches talking to people,” Perdue said in an interview. “This is a referendum on who they want to stand up to Stacey Abrams.”

Kemp, in grave terms, often says that he sees 2022 as a “battle for the soul of our state.”

‘She can beat you’

The 2020 battle played into Democrats’ hands.

Sparring between then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and then-U.S. Rep. Doug Collins redirected attention toward GOP infighting — and away from Warnock, who at the time was a politically untested Democratic front-runner.

Trump’s obsession with his own election defeat — and his insistence that state Republican leaders adhere to his cries to overturn the election — gave Democrats a chance to contrast themselves from their rivals with unifying calls for more coronavirus relief and expanded infrastructure funding.

Compounding the GOP’s problems in this cycle, neither Abrams nor Warnock has a primary opponent. That means that while there will be some down-ticket sparring — most notably, a Democratic congressional battle in Atlanta’s suburbs — the top of the ticket will be united.

Still, Abrams has proved to be a singularly galvanizing force for Georgia Republicans, who consistently rate her as one of the state’s most hated politicians among GOP voters in public polls.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@

And Republicans seem poised to take up contentious cultural issues involving race and gender in the upcoming legislative session to energize conservative voters.

It’s an approach that Republican Glenn Youngkin embraced on his way to winning the Virginia race for governor this year — and a strategy that Democrats are preparing to fight.

“The reality is we need a leader who is willing to invest in Georgia and keep us together, not someone intent on dividing us,” Abrams said.

“If he (Kemp) intends to use a legislative session — a time we should be serving the people — to focus on dividing us, it’s the clearest signal why I should be the governor,” she said.

Kemp spokesman Tate Mitchell said the governor’s strategy won’t change “regardless of who’s in the race,” though senior Republicans are worried about an electoral backlash from the dash to the right.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, candidly said he worried another “bloodbath” could drown GOP contenders in 2022. And he reminded his colleagues, in an interview with WABE, not to underestimate Abrams.

“She’s very talented. She’s very, very bright. She’s very articulate,” he said. “And she can beat you.”

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres