OPINION: Campaign notebook: Always the same Brian Kemp

This is the second in a series of Campaign Postcards from the Georgia campaign trail. Along with the first installment on U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, it will include stops with all the major candidates and some minor ones, too.

Gov. Brian Kemp may not the smoothest politician you’ll ever meet. He’s likely not the most eloquent, and, even in his favorite cowboy boots, he won’t be even close to the tallest.

But after first term in office that has included the COVID pandemic, economic chaos, vicious attacks from Donald Trump, and a campaign season with not one, but two, major challenges, Kemp has quietly emerged as one of the most successful GOP governors in the country, now sitting at 50% in the latest polls in his bid for reelection as governor of Georgia.

At the same time, fellow Republican Herschel Walker has been trailing or tied with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock for the entire U.S. Senate race, even before the last week of bombshell accusations against him.

Why the difference between the two Republicans with the same group of Georgia voters?

The secret sauce behind the governor’s success so far was on display Wednesday at a town hall event at the Atlanta Financial Center with Black business owners and entrepreneurs.

Sitting with WSB radio host Shelly Wynter, with the soaring Atlanta skyline in the distance, Kemp talked about his term so far. He started with fighting gang violence and keeping businesses safe “when we were having civil unrest in our state,” while also protecting protesters “because they’ve seen injustice with their own eyes.”

He talked about reopening the Georgia economy during COVID before any other state in the nation and pushing local schools to re-open more than a year sooner than other states like Virginia, even as he faced intense criticism inside and outside the state for the decision.

“I know not everybody agrees with every decision they wish I’d made. Marty tells me that all the time and so do my three daughters,” he said. “But at least people know that I fulfilled my promises that I ran on in 2018.”

That may not have been the exact message Black business owners expected to hear, but it was largely the same economy-focused stump speech he’s been delivering all year at events with rural Republicans, in interviews on Fox News, and during speeches to the General Assembly or local chambers of commerce.

While Stacey Abrams has rolled out ads, speeches and announcements on a broad array of issues like abortion rights, gun safety, rural health care, Medicaid expansion, and even legalizing gambling, Kemp has mostly stuck to the same set of economic issues since the general election began.

His past life as a farmer and contractor make business an easy topic for him. But with the economy and inflation rating as Georgia’s top issues, it’s also effective politics.

Just as there is a sameness to Kemp no matter where you see him, his staff, too, has been relentlessly disciplined, focused almost entirely on the state’s economy since the campaign began. Television ads since June have been about some aspect of the economy. Calls to the campaign to comment on the latest Abrams ad or Walker crisis are declined or get an economic spin instead.

Although Kemp’s remarks focused on the economy at the Atlanta event, Wynter asked pointed follow-up questions about his decision to sign the state’s six-week abortion ban and to eliminate the license required to carry a firearm in the state.

Those two issues are broadly unpopular with Georgia voters. And the Abrams campaign is trying to use both to make inroads with voters, including Republican women.

Kemp said he knows plenty of people disagree with him on abortion, and listed the resources the state has added for adoption services. And he said the gun law he pushed for won’t change who is eligible to carry a firearm in the state, but eliminates the state background check and permitting requirement.

He didn’t get any applause for those answers, but he did get nodding approval when he talked about passing a $5,000 teacher pay raise, across-the-board income tax cuts, and his plans to push for property tax relief next year if he’s elected again.

“My message is not any different here than it’s going to be anywhere else in Georgia or any different than it was back in the primary,” he told me later.

His message didn’t work for everybody in the room, but it did work for Gerard Stokes, a Democratic voter who told Kemp he would switch over to vote for him.

Stokes said he appreciated the $5,000 teacher pay raise Kemp passed, since his wife is a teacher, and the sex trafficking task force that First Lady Marty Kemp created.

“I watched you guys follow through with those promises. And that’s one of the things that I feel like we need a lot more of — somebody making a promise and actually following through with those commitments.”

Gayle also thanked Kemp for standing up to Donald Trump in the aftermath of the 2020 election, as Trump pressured Kemp and other Republicans to illegally flip the results in his favor.

“I’m proud, proud of you for standing on your own for what’s right and saying, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’”

Rakeem Gayle, a 30-year-old personal trainer, said he came into the event undecided, but left ready to vote for Kemp, too.

“I liked it,” he said. “This is my first time hearing him speak, but now I’m a supporter.”

The Abrams campaign believes firmly that the polls that show Kemp winning are not picking up all of the voters likely to cast a ballot in November, especially the ones motivated by the abortion issue.

“Polls will give us a snapshot, but turnout is the whole picture,” Abrams wrote on Twitter recently. And if there is anyone Republicans fear when it comes to having a turnout machine in Georgia, it’s Abrams.

Early voting begins next week, with Election Day soon after that. There’s no way to know how any statewide race will turn out these days. But if there’s one thing you can expect to remain the same, it’s probably Brian Kemp.