Abrams’ revenge: Warnock’s victory a direct blow to her rival Kemp

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and Republican nominee Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state at the time, greet each other before the taping of a debate before the 2018 election. Two days before Election Day, Kemp’s office announced that it was opening an investigation into the Democratic Party of Georgia of being involved in a “failed hacking attempt” of voter registration systems. ALYSSA POINTER / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and Republican nominee Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state at the time, greet each other before the taping of a debate before the 2018 election. Two days before Election Day, Kemp’s office announced that it was opening an investigation into the Democratic Party of Georgia of being involved in a “failed hacking attempt” of voter registration systems. ALYSSA POINTER / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

A few weeks after Stacey Abrams narrowly lost her bid for governor, she spoke to a sold-out crowd in Nashville about her journey from despondency to determination.

“Revenge,” she said, “can be very cathartic.”

As Georgians awoke to a new political landscape on Wednesday, Abrams can claim payback against Gov. Brian Kemp, her once-and-probable-future rival.

Abrams spent much of the past decade constructing the statewide apparatus that laid the groundwork for Democratic successes, including Joe Biden’s victory in November. She built the Fair Fight voting rights group into one of Georgia’s foremost political powers after her 2018 loss.

And after passing on a U.S. Senate run herself, she recruited the Rev. Raphael Warnock to run for the open seat against Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler – Kemp’s hand-picked selection for the seat.

Warnock’s victory not only put Democrats within reach of controlling the Senate, but also dealt a devastating blow to Kemp’s clout. The Republican picked Loeffler for the seat over better-known candidates, a move that divided the Georgia GOP and annoyed President Donald Trump.

Now Kemp is facing an epic squeeze as he gears up for a re-election bid next year.

Abrams is at the head of an ascendant Democratic coalition intent on building on the stunning victories of the past year when all statewide offices, along with Warnock’s U.S. Senate seat, are up for grabs in 2022. And Trump has repeatedly promised to back a GOP challenger to Kemp after the governor defied his demand to overturn the election.

When Kemp picked Loeffler for the seat in December 2019, he couldn’t have envisioned this fate. At the time, the move to fill the seat held by retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson was seen as a shrewd attempt to win back moderate women who fled the party in the Trump era.

January 5, 20201 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during an Election Night Party for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler at Grand Hyatt Hotel in Buckhead on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
January 5, 20201 Atlanta - Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during an Election Night Party for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler at Grand Hyatt Hotel in Buckhead on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Her selection was Kemp’s most important political decision since he took office in 2019 — and one of his riskiest. Loeffler was unknown to many rank-and-file voters, and he tapped her despite Trump’s appeals to appoint U.S. Rep. Doug Collins to the seat.

After Collins entered the race, Loeffler was forced to pivot to the party’s hard-right flank to seal off his challenge. She chastised the Black Lives Matter movement, boasted of her “100% Trump” voting record and branded herself “more conservative than Attila the Hun.”

During the nine-week runoff, Trump deepened the internal Republican divide by railing against Kemp and other state GOP figures who didn’t amplify his false claims of widespread voting fraud, distracting attention from the Senate contests.

Now Kemp’s standing among state Republicans is weakened. The mere mention of his name at Trump’s rally Monday in Dalton triggered boos from a large and boisterous crowd; Trump thrilled those loyalists by announcing – twice – he’d return to Georgia next year to hold a rally for a Kemp challenger.

Kemp earned a much warmer greeting from an establishment-friendly crowd on Tuesday at Loeffler’s election party at the Grand Hyatt Atlanta in Buckhead. With election returns pointed to the senator’s defeat, he thanked her for her work “to save our country and be the red wall that stops socialism.”

Abrams, meanwhile, took to social media to applaud the activists and organizers she helped energize – and hint at political races to come.

“Across our state, we roared. A few miles to go...but well done!”

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