OPINION: Donald Trump could make Stacey Abrams the next governor of Georgia

December 5, 2020 Valdosta - President Donald Trump speaks during Republican National Committee's Victory Rally at the Valdosta Flying Services in Valdosta on Saturday, December 5, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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December 5, 2020 Valdosta - President Donald Trump speaks during Republican National Committee's Victory Rally at the Valdosta Flying Services in Valdosta on Saturday, December 5, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The last time Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams faced each other on a debate stage was October 2018, when Kemp was Georgia’s Secretary of State. Abrams was a former state House representative, and President Donald Trump had won Georgia in 2016 by 5 percentage points.

The biggest vulnerability Kemp had at the time among voters was the conflict of interest he was accused of having as he oversaw his own election for governor as secretary of state.

Shouldn’t he recuse himself from overseeing the election, he was asked during that 2018 debate. Kemp said no.

“I’ve always fulfilled and followed the laws of our state and I’ll continue to do that through the tenure of my service to this great state,” he said.

Who could have imagined that two years later, the election laws Kemp fulfilled would cement the victory of Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden in Georgia, over the screaming objections of Trump, who had endorsed Kemp in 2018?

And in a twist that even Shakespeare couldn’t write, who could imagine the scenario today — that Kemp’s pledge to stand up for elections has now endangered his own 2022 reelection effort? Trump is now recruiting a spoiler against him and former Sen. David Perdue, unemployed because of his own inability to avoid a runoff in 2020, is considering a Kemp challenge that fellow Republicans warn would result in all-out war.

Even without the Trump dynamic in the race, a rematch between Abrams and Kemp would be a battle of epic proportions. But the rematch would hardly be a simple replay of 2018.

Both Abrams and Kemp are much higher profile now and Georgia has cemented its status as a genuine battleground state.

Abrams, for one, has rocketed to a level of fame and adoration among American progressives that is usually reserved for fictional superheroes.

Her Fair Fight Action voting-rights group has raised more than $100 million since she lost in 2018. And she is largely credited for cracking the code for Democrats on how to run and win elections in Georgia.

“If anything has changed, it is that people realize that this can happen and now have the hope that it can happen,” DuBose Porter, the former chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia told me. “And they’ve got that hope as a result of the work that Stacey Abrams has done in Georgia.”

Just as Abrams has grown in visibility and influence since 2018, so has Kemp. Instead of running as secretary of state, he’s now the incumbent Georgia governor, a position of influence so wildly powerful that just one incumbent governor — Roy Barnes in 2002 — has ever lost reelection here.

Also in Kemp’s favor is the overall health of the state. Despite COVID, the Georgia economy is mostly roaring. Cranes dot the horizon in cities from Savannah to Atlanta to Rome and Gainesville. The unemployment rate in the state dropped to its lowest level in history two months ago. And for conservatives, Kemp can show off restrictions on both abortion and voting that he pushed as governor over the loud objections of Democrats.

Garrison Douglas, the spokesman for the RNC, also argues that the fundamentals of the state are going Republicans’ way. While Democrats did indeed sweep the top of the ticket in 2020, local races in the all-important North Atlanta suburbs that Biden won, including Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, and Roswell, have gone for GOP-aligned candidates in 2021.

And Republicans expanded their margin of victory in the state House special election to replace former Rep. Burt Reeves in Cobb County earlier this year, doing better than they had in 2020, when Trump was on the ticket.

Of course, Democrats have their own data that shows a vastly improved playing field for them in Georgia since Abrams last ran for governor. Since 2018, they have flipped both of the two U.S. Senate seats, two Congressional seats, three state Senate seats and 12 state House seats.

Those wins came as the state’s population and its electorate have grown larger and more diverse every year. In 2018, when Abrams won 48.8% of the vote, African American turnout was 58.5%. Just two years later, it jumped to 66.4% and was key to Biden’s win.

In the meantime, voters of Asian descent grew from 1.7% of voters in 2018 to 2.5% in 2020, while Latino voters went from 2.3% of the electorate to 3% in 2020.

If a 2022 race between Abrams and Kemp were a simple rematch, Kemp would seem to have at least even odds, especially as the Biden administration’s stumbles have dragged Democrats’ fortunes down along with the president’s approval rating.

But Donald Trump has made it clear he won’t let 2022 in Georgia be simple.

Just after Abrams announced her campaign plans on Wednesday, Trump released a mind-boggling statement to attack not Abrams, but Kemp.

“The MAGA base just will not vote for him after what he did with respect to election integrity and two horribly run elections,” Trump wrote, adding, “Some good Republican will get my endorsement, and some good Republican will WIN!”

It’s one thing to be a sore loser, as Trump has been in spectacular, and possibly outright criminal, fashion. But it’s another thing to be willing to take down everyone around you, including Republicans in Georgia, out of pure spite.

That seems to be the path that Donald Trump is taking as he continues his unholy war against Kemp — all for living up to the pledge Kemp made to Georgia voters in that 2018 debate that he would uphold the laws of Georgia, “through the tenure of my service to this great state.”

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