ATLANTA — Georgia Republicans tapped Brian Kemp to face Democrat Stacey Abrams in the Georgia governor’s race, setting a November matchup that will test history and highlight the widening gulf between two major parties moving further apart in style and substance in the era of President Donald Trump.
Kemp, a two-term secretary of state, trounced longtime Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in a runoff Tuesday after campaigning as a “politically incorrect conservative” who welcomed Trump’s endorsement in an intraparty tussle marked by hard-line rhetoric on guns, immigration, and government spending.
Abrams, who has become a national Democratic celebrity in her bid to become the United States’ first black female governor, dominated her primary in May, pledging to expand Medicaid insurance and spend more on education, infrastructure, and job training.
The results mean animated bases on the left and the right, leaving voters who consider themselves somewhere in the middle to decide one of the country’s most closely watched midterm contests.
Both national parties opened their coffers ahead of Tuesday’s GOP runoff; and the outcome will reverberate into 2020 as Democrats try to prove that GOP-controlled Georgia, after decades of population growth has made the electorate more urban and less white, has evolved into a presidential battleground.
To test that theory, Georgians set up a compelling juxtaposition between candidates that both sides eagerly cast as extremist:
Will a Deep South state — led by white, male governors since 1776 and not long removed from having Confederate insignia on its flag — elect as governor a self-declared progressive black woman from Atlanta as its chief executive? Or will an increasingly urban, diversifying state — now the eighth most populous and home to The Coca-Cola Company, Delta, Home Depot, UPS and the 1996 Summer Olympics — embrace the brash, gun-wielding, chain saw-cranking Republican who says he’ll “round up criminal illegals” in his own pickup truck?
Kemp, 54, immediately set the race against the national backdrop, thanking Trump for his endorsement while linking Abrams’ to a “radical left” he says threatens Georgia’s “red-state” values. “Do you want a governor who is going to answer to Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton?” Kemp boomed in his victory speech, referring to the House Democratic leader from California and the 2016 presidential nominee who lost Georgia by 4.5 percentage points.
That echoed a Republican Governors Association ad unveiled before GOP runoff votes were tallied. The 30-second spot joins Abrams’ picture alongside Clinton and Pelosi, and a voiceover warns that Abrams is “the most radical liberal to ever run for governor.”
Abrams, 44, was more circumspect with a Twitter fundraising appeal that mentioned Kemp only by his last name. “Service, faith & family guide our vision for GA: Affordable health care. Excellent public schools for every child. An economy that works for all,” she wrote.
Other Democrats more eagerly fingered Kemp as the dangerous option.
“The craziest Republican emerged,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, in an interview. DGA recently steered $250,000 to the Georgia Democratic Party for its fall efforts.
Inlsee said Kemp’s message, including his attacks on national Democrats, amounts to little more than being “a sycophant for Donald Trump,” while Abrams answers with a “real economic agenda for working families.” And if Kemp “wants to run against Nancy Pelosi,” Inslee added, “he should move to San Francisco.”
Beyond the pitched rhetoric, both candidates have weaknesses to exploit. Kemp is roundly criticized because the personal data of 6.7 million registered Georgia voters was compromised during his tenure as secretary of state. Kemp blames a state contractor. Republicans hit Abrams for reporting $170,000 in credit card and student loan debt along with owing $50,000 to the IRS — liabilities she attributes to her Yale law education and her financial support for several relatives.
Republicans like party strategist and pollster Mark Rountree argue that Abrams’ policy agenda means higher taxes — anathema to suburban voters she’ll need. Rountree said her support for removing Confederate monuments from state ground will ensure conservative turnout.
Still, some Republicans lamented that a long primary battle will leave their nominee broke. “Casey’s spent all of his bullets on Brian and vice-versa, while Stacey Abrams is just collecting money,” said Jack Kingston, a former congressman who endorsed Cagle.
At the least, the matchup deviates from Georgia’s recent penchant for establishment, predictable governors, regardless of party. Outgoing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal — who once served north Georgia as a Democratic congressman — backed Cagle over Kemp, a tacit acknowledgment that Kemp is to the right of the typical GOP governor here.
Four years ago, Democrats nominated Jason Carter, a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, himself a former governor, but the younger Carter lost to Deal by 8 percentage points. This year, many of Carter’s old-guard backers initially sided with Abrams’ primary opponent, also a former state lawmaker. Stacey Evans hammered Abrams for making too many deals with Republicans — including Deal — but party elders still viewed Evans, who is white, as the more moderate choice.
Abrams’ 3-to-1 victory obliterated that supposedly safe course.
“The most important thing about any candidate is matching the moment, and Stacey Abrams has clearly done,” Jason Carter said in an interview. The question, Carter said, is whether she can “connect with enough voters” beyond the Democratic base, capitalizing on the historic nature of her candidacy “without being consumed by it.”
Associated Press writers Brinley Hineman in Sandy Springs, Georgia, Jeff Martin in Athens, Georgia, and Jonathan Landrum in Atlanta contributed to this report.
By BILL BARROW and BEN NADLER, Associated Press.