Georgia Democrats aim to shift conversation from Biden

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock are trying to swing the political conversation away from President Joe Biden and his low approval ratings and toward policies they have promoted. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock are trying to swing the political conversation away from President Joe Biden and his low approval ratings and toward policies they have promoted. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock are trying to shift the political conversation away from President Joe Biden’s economic record and toward their own proposals to curb higher energy prices, rein in crime and preserve abortion rights.

Facing growing questions about the enthusiasm of the party’s base, Abrams and Warnock have swung to the offensive as a tough November election against Gov. Brian Kemp and Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker approaches.

Abrams has released a suite of policies that one-up Kemp on important policy divides, including plans for a heftier teacher pay raise than the Republican secured in his first term and demands that he extend a gas tax break through the rest of the year.

And she outlined a plan Thursday to hike the starting salary for some law enforcement officials, including corrections officers and Georgia State Patrol troopers, to $50,000.

Warnock has shown he’s unafraid to pressure Biden, whose flagging approval ratings threaten to bog down state Democrats. The senator helped successfully buck a White House plan to close a Savannah military installation and pressed Biden to forgive student debt.

And this week, he won Biden’s support for a proposed federal gas tax holiday after months of lobbying.

After a spate of mass shootings, both Democrats stepped up calls for new gun restrictions, including red flag laws that allow authorities to temporarily seize weapons from a person a judge deems to be a threat to themselves or others.

And as the U.S. Supreme Court nears releasing a decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the two have stressed their support for codifying abortion rights — and Warnock favors rolling back the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rules to do so.

The two candidates are trying to light a fire under the fragile coalition of voters that made Biden the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992 and powered U.S. Senate runoff victories that flipped control of the chamber.

“I keep hearing people talk about the enthusiasm gap, but that’s not the problem we have,” Abrams said at a recent campaign stop. “We have a trust gap. People don’t necessarily trust politicians when they say they want what’s best. And I understand that.”

Republicans are ceding no ground after resounding primary victories that proved they have broad support from their party’s base, underscored by Kemp’s overwhelming win over ex-U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who challenged him at former President Donald Trump’s urging.

Borrowing from the national GOP’s playbook in 2020, Kemp has stepped up attacks on Abrams’ public safety proposals as soft on crime and unveiled a TV ad this week asserting that she supports defunding police departments, a claim her campaign denies.

And Walker has sought to make the race a referendum on Biden’s handling of the economy.

After Georgia Republicans were featured in a day of emotional testimony before the U.S. House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Walker’s campaign responded with a shrug.

“Think of where we’d be if Raphael Warnock and his colleagues spent this much time trying to lower gas prices or fight inflation,” said Mallory Blount, Walker’s chief spokeswoman.

‘It’s inflation, geniuses’

The Democratic maneuvering comes as polls indicate rising inflation and fuel prices are the top factor for voters in an election cycle that already favors Republicans.

Midterm elections often benefit the party out of power, and GOP candidates and their allies have been tying state Democrats to Biden as often as they can.

“Abrams and Warnock know they’re extremely vulnerable given Biden’s low approval ratings,” said Karen Owen, a University of West Georgia political scientist. “And they know they need to shift to bread-and-butter kitchen table issues like energy prices.”

Heath Garrett, a Republican strategist, put it a different way: “The Democrats are trying to talk about other things, but as the saying goes, ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ In this case, the better saying might be, ‘It’s inflation, geniuses.’ ”

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Stacey Abrams announces a plan to hike teacher pay by $11,000, more than double the raises Gov. Brian Kemp secured for the state's public school educators during his first term. Photo/Greg Bluestein

Stacey Abrams announces a plan to hike teacher pay by $11,000, more than double the raises Gov. Brian Kemp secured for the state's public school educators during his first term. Photo/Greg Bluestein

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Stacey Abrams announces a plan to hike teacher pay by $11,000, more than double the raises Gov. Brian Kemp secured for the state's public school educators during his first term. Photo/Greg Bluestein

Abrams’ agenda over the past two weeks illustrates that strategy. She promised to hike teacher pay by $11,000, more than doubling the $5,000 salary increase that Kemp touts on the campaign trail.

And she released a public safety proposal that largely echoes her 2018 platform — but also reflects her attempt to frame Republicans as responsible for higher crime by refusing to pass gun restrictions and pass new criminal justice overhauls.

Unlike Abrams, whose agenda also includes expanding Medicaid — the government health care program for the poor and disabled — and implementing a needs-based college scholarship, Kemp has said little about his second-term agenda.

His campaign has mostly focused on a record that includes an anti-abortion law, his decision to aggressively reopen the economy after COVID-19 hit and plans to implement a $1 billion income tax cut approved by the General Assembly. Kemp’s aides say he’ll outline his 2023 agenda in the early fall.

Garrett, the Republican strategist, said the governor has earned the right to deliberate over his reelection agenda.

“The script has flipped from a year ago when Abrams thought she would run a campaign only talking to persuadable voters,” he said. “Kemp finds himself in a position where he’s in the catbird’s seat — and she’s got to solidify her base.”

‘Where their mother lives’

Perhaps no issue illustrates the Democratic strategy so vividly as the push for a tax break on gas, which both Abrams and Warnock have put front and center in their campaigns as gas prices approach $5 a gallon.

Warnock made a federal gas tax holiday a priority in February when he traveled to a Sandy Springs gas station to empathize with motorists furious at the high prices.

Since then, he’s used his megaphone to lobby White House officials. Biden on Wednesday agreed to support a three-month halt on collecting the 18-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax, giving Warnock and other vulnerable Democrats a key victory.

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President Joe Biden on Wednesday backed a proposal to suspend the federal gas tax of 18 cents a gallon for 90 days, something U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has sought since February. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

President Joe Biden on Wednesday backed a proposal to suspend the federal gas tax of 18 cents a gallon for 90 days, something U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has sought since February. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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President Joe Biden on Wednesday backed a proposal to suspend the federal gas tax of 18 cents a gallon for 90 days, something U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock has sought since February. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Still, the legislation faces dim prospects in the U.S. Senate, where it’s likely to face GOP opposition.

“Now that President Biden is on board, it’s time for Congress to move urgently to pass my legislation that will help Georgians keep even more money in their pockets while also holding greedy oil companies accountable,” Warnock said.

Biden’s support upped the pressure on Walker, whose campaign manager dismissed the proposal as an “election-year Band-Aid that would barely put a dent in the record prices” but later added that the Republican “of course” supports the gas tax holiday.

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U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, facing reelection, has tried to put pressure on President Joe Biden. He helped successfully buck a White House plan to close a Savannah military installation, and he pressed Biden to forgive student debt.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, facing reelection, has tried to put pressure on President Joe Biden. He helped successfully buck a White House plan to close a Savannah military installation, and he pressed Biden to forgive student debt.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Combined ShapeCaption
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, facing reelection, has tried to put pressure on President Joe Biden. He helped successfully buck a White House plan to close a Savannah military installation, and he pressed Biden to forgive student debt.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Abrams, too, has looked to squeeze her Republican opponent on fuel prices.

When the governor announced he would extend a state gas tax holiday through July, Abrams said he should stretch it through the end of the year to “give hardworking Georgians the stability they deserve.”

That prompted Kemp campaign spokesman Tate Mitchell to pan the idea, saying Abrams “just realized what hardworking Georgians have known all along: Georgia can’t afford four years of the Biden-Abrams agenda.”

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat, said the strategies show how the two candidates are adapting to a tough economic climate. Abrams, she predicted, will only sharpen her get-out-the-vote strategy as Election Day approaches.

“She knows who every new likely Democratic voter in Georgia is, knows where they live, and knows where their mother lives,” Oliver said. “Soon, it’s time to get them to the polls. She’s shown success at that previously, and she’s getting better at it every day.”