From boos to a blowout: How Brian Kemp beat Stacey Abrams again

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

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

A few hours before polls closed on the day of the May primary, Gov. Brian Kemp and his entourage trekked to the Varsity for an election tradition. As well-wishers put down their chili dogs to swarm the Republican, an aide sidled over to rain on his parade.

“Tonight, all this love you’re getting from the national media ends,” Bert Brantley told the governor of his impending rout over David Perdue, whose far-right challenge in the GOP primary had alienated even many Donald Trump supporters. “Tomorrow, it’s a different story.”

Kemp nodded in agreement: “That’s why we have to stay disciplined and stay on message.”

Throughout his rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams, that core message was a fairly simple one: The governor was helping Georgians cope with rising prices he blamed on the “Abrams-Biden” administration.

Kemp didn’t avoid questions about other issues. But he took every chance he could to pivot those answers into an attack on Democrats for decades-high inflation.

It was a message that helped him notch the clear win over Abrams that eluded him four years ago, when his margin of victory was so narrow that his rival cast doubt about his win and state Democrats blasted out mocking press releases with an asterisk by his title.

Kemp often regretted that he didn’t keep pace with Abrams’ epic fundraising in 2018, cash she used to define him before he could do so himself.

Unlike the last campaign, though, Kemp raised enough money to rival Abrams thanks partly to a newly passed law that let top candidates raise unlimited cash and partly to an aggressive effort to tap national donors.

And rather than emphasizing what he would do over the next four years — he made only a few second-term promises — Kemp worked to reinforce his support with the conservatives he relied upon for his 2018 victory and woo swing voters by focusing on what he had already done.

To conservatives, he fulfilled a promise to enact “tough” abortion limits with a law that restricts the procedure as early as six weeks. He carried out a pledge to expand firearms laws, signing the bill at the same west Georgia store where his middle daughter bought her first handgun.

And he played into Trump’s base of support by signing an overhaul of voting laws aimed at Republicans who were persuaded by the former president’s persistent lies about widespread election fraud.

But Kemp also sought to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters he mostly sidelined four years ago, when his campaign’s path to victory depended on energizing the same voters who powered Trump’s 2016 win.

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

He backed $5,000 teacher pay raises, made diverse appointments to state posts and reminded voters of his decision to lift economic limits early in the pandemic. He doled out eight-figure grants enabled by federal legislation approved by Democrats that he scorned along with many GOP leaders.

And he was determined to build a ground-game apparatus that could keep pace with the prized get-out-the-vote machine that Abrams and her Democratic allies built over much of the past decade.

“We lost the 2020 race because we didn’t have a good ground game in the state,” Kemp said shortly before the election. “We have one now. But we’re not finished with it.”

‘Every crazy question’

Four years earlier, Kemp’s battle with Abrams blew up into a national affair as the two feuded over voting rights, health care, education and seemingly every other policy divide possible.

After Kemp’s slim victory — and Abrams’ nonconcession speech — the governor liked to joke that the defeated Democrat became more famous than he did. There was a truth to that.

Abrams’ profile soared as she was picked to respond to Trump’s State of the Union and spoke at sold-out venues across the nation. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pleaded with her to run for the Senate. Joe Biden’s aides vetted her to be his running mate.

As the Democrat’s stock rose in early 2021, Kemp faced some of the darkest days of his political career. Georgia had not only voted Democratic in a presidential race for the first time since 1992, it had also ousted two Senate Republicans in runoffs. Trump incessantly blamed the governor for his defeat.

The backlash reached a crescendo at the Georgia GOP convention in Jekyll Island in June 2021, when Kemp was peppered with boos that droned out parts of his speech.

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

Conservative commentator Martha Zoller remembers the moment not as a nadir for the governor but as a turning point. Kemp, she noted, fielded hours of questions at the convention from critics upset he didn’t cede to Trump’s demands.

“I stood there and watched him answer every crazy question. He was calm, cool and collected,” said Zoller, a close Kemp ally. “I knew then he was going to be fine.”

The governor was also buoyed by a new leadership team he tapped before the 2020 election. Trey Kilpatrick was a core member of the late U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s inner circle. Brantley was a veteran who served with Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal.

They set out to smother David Perdue’s challenge and prepare for Abrams by building a national fundraising machine. Kemp proclaimed to voters that only he could defeat the Democrat in November.

Kemp also used every lever of power to suffocate his GOP rival’s chances, compelling House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan to work in tandem on his legislative priorities — even if it meant passing measures designed to help Kemp’s political chances despite their personal qualms.

It wasn’t easy to get various GOP factions pulling together. After Perdue launched his challenge, Kemp aides were told by the state GOP and the Republican National Committee that both groups wouldn’t pick sides in the internal squabble. Instead, Kemp’s campaign spent millions building out its own grassroots operation.

After Kemp’s 52-point victory over Perdue, his campaign manager, Bobby Saparow, was convinced the governor needed to continue financing that internal program rather than depending on the state party. Kemp quickly agreed.

“I was adamant about this: We can’t rely on any outside group except ourselves to win this race,” Saparow said.

Credit: Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

There was an important exception. The Republican Governors Association spent about $5 million to boost Kemp during the primary. It was a show of confidence from a group that could have also stayed neutral, considering that two of its ex-leaders were aligned with Perdue.

“We had two former executive directors of the Republican Governors Association working against us — Nick Ayers and Paul Bennecke — and the RGA put it on the line to trust us,” Kilpatrick said. “And I will forever thank the RGA for that.”

‘Listen to them’

The grassroots work paid dividends. While Democrats trumpeted their expansive grassroots machinery, Kemp’s campaign more quietly spent more than $10 million in mobilization and outreach initiatives that reached 2 million households.

In all, the campaign hired more than 100 staffers to knock on doors and contact voters, while a veteran team of analysts studied daily data to determine trendlines and decide how to spend resources.

Kemp continued to use the powers of incumbency to his advantage. He doled out $4.8 billion in federal funding the year before the election, including cash for rural broadband, bonuses for law enforcement and a much-scrutinized plan to give away $350 payments to low-income Georgians.

As Abrams and her allies blasted Kemp over the shuttering of Atlanta Medical Center on his watch, the governor countered by tapping $130 million in federal aid to boost nearby Grady Memorial Hospital. He struck deals to land auto plants from Hyundai and Rivian — the two biggest business projects in state history — with record incentives packages.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“To the victor goes the spoils, and he’s had the ability to be able to shape the budget, to propose tax cuts, provide rebates for people,” said Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie. “And there are people who are going to remember that.”

The barrage continued until the week of the election, when Kemp held press conferences to announce tough anti-gang crackdowns and his administration posted positive financial figures that backed up his campaign’s argument that he was a shrewd steward of state dollars.

All the while, the two rivals sparred over the airwaves, with Kemp’s ads amplifying his broadsides over her economic and criminal justice platform, while the Democrat reminded voters of his pro-gun and anti-abortion stances.

While mid-summer polls showed the anti-abortion message was resonating with many voters, by September high inflation and economic uncertainty was again the prevailing factor for a majority of Georgians.

“If abortion is one of your wedge issues, you’ve already chosen a party over that,” said GOP strategist Heath Garrett, who briefly worked for Kemp. “I think the mistake is the belief that independents had as strident of a stance on abortion as the Democratic base did. And that’s just not true in Georgia.”

As each volley came, Kemp’s top advisers couldn’t understand why Abrams didn’t sustain a more singular focus on the economy, which polls showed was the paramount concern for voters.

“When voters overwhelmingly say the economy is the top issue,” Kilpatrick said, “you listen to them.”

Credit: CBS

Credit: CBS

‘Celebrity Stacey’

Just as gaffes damaged Abrams’ 2018 run, Kemp’s campaign also exploited slip-ups in 2022. She lamented that Georgia was the “worst place to live” and accused sheriffs backing Kemp of wanting to “take Black people off the streets.” She was forced to apologize when she appeared maskless in pictures with masked students.

The governor’s strategists delighted as Abrams played into their efforts to frame her as “Celebrity Stacey.” They blasted Abrams when she played the president of “United Earth” in a “Star Trek” episode and slammed each fundraising report that showed she collected most of her cash from outside of Georgia.

Abrams leaned into her support of Biden, whose approval ratings hovered below 40% in recent polls, even while U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and other Democrats took an arm’s-length approach.

And like she did in 2018, she emphasized her support for liberal issues — this time promising Georgia’s more than $6 billion surplus could fund “generational” changes. Among her dozens of policies were vows to expand Medicaid, legalize casino gambling and combat climate change.

Many of those promises energized her base. They also fired up her antagonists.

“We might have been OK to one or two issues, but you can’t do everything,” said state Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican. “Then you become a social revolutionist in peoples’ minds.”

Credit: Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

Credit: Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

Years of being a top target of Republicans also took a toll. By late October, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed more Georgians held a negative view of Abrams than a positive one. A slim majority of voters, meanwhile, gave Kemp favorable reviews.

Sidelining Trump

As Abrams struggled to find her core message, Kemp sharpened his focus on the economy, promising to shelter Georgians from the fallout of Democratic decisions in Washington. When each new flashpoint on the campaign trail bubbled up, he told his staff: “Don’t get distracted.”

He tried to live up to his word. No matter how many times he was asked about Trump’s influence on the race, he’d always respond more or less the same way.

“I’ve had a great relationship with President Trump,” he said at one stop. “I’ve never said anything bad about him. I don’t plan on doing that.”

His refusal to antagonize Trump kept the former president on the sidelines during the general election — and allowed Kemp to consolidate support among the party’s base early. Polls consistently showed Kemp with the near-universal backing of conservatives, and Trump even endorsed him the night before the election.

It was only during his victory speech Tuesday when he allowed himself to knock Trump, mentioning presidents both “current and past” who criticized his economic policy during the pandemic.

Kemp ends the year as a victorious candidate with a rising national profile who defeated Abrams and Trump in one election cycle. Just as Democrats tried to follow Abrams’ blueprint in 2018, Kemp’s campaign manager predicted that other Republicans will aim to replicate the governor’s winning strategy.

“Brian Kemp built a national team and model that 2024 contenders would be smart to duplicate,” Saparow said.

Staff Writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com