Republican Brian Kemp’s victory in Tuesday’s runoff sets the stage for a November matchup for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams, reviving a long-running feud between two candidates who both “unapologetically” appealed to their parties’ core supporters.
Kemp defeated Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle by relentlessly maneuvering to his right on every major policy divide. His provocative ads – “Yep, I just said that,” became his tag line – and the late endorsement from President Donald Trump put him over the top.
The secretary of state has a long and tangled history with Abrams, a former House minority leader who took a similar approach to win the Democratic nomination in May: She mobilized voters by abandoning the centrist approach of her predecessors and instead energized them with liberal policy positions.
Their advisers have pined for this matchup, believing the other candidate would be the perfect foil to help each of them invigorate his or her base. The showdown will certainly draw on the deep-seated animosity between the two candidates, who have long warred with one another.
“Make no mistake: There’s a crystal clear contrast as we go forward,” said Kemp, shortly after wrapping up a whopping victory over Cagle. “This is a fight against Stacey Abrams and her radical backers.”
Abrams, meanwhile, let her supporters do much of the talking on Tuesday night. Democratic Governors Association director Elisabeth Pearson quickly invoked the secret recording of Cagle making disparaging remarks about Republicans.
“Cagle said it best: this primary was all about ‘who could be the craziest' on divisive issues, and Brian Kemp fits the bill,” said Pearson. “Throughout this campaign, Brian Kemp has pushed a divisive agenda that would endanger the state’s economic climate, and hurt Georgia families.”
Even before the race tightened, Abrams would invoke Kemp to roil her audiences, earning applause for claiming that “voter suppression is a way of life for Kemp.” He’s invoked Abrams in the same way, casting the Democrat and her supporters as “left-wing agitators” who threaten him with “ridiculous lawsuits.”
The showdown between the two seemingly assures the November contest won’t be a race to the center. The two are on starkly opposite ends on many of the policy issues that will shape the race.
For starters, Abrams backs new gun control measures and staunchly opposes the National Rifle Association. Kemp wants to expand gun rights, brandishes a shotgun pointed toward an actor in his ads, and wrote an open letter urging the NRA to endorse him.
Abrams’ top policy priority is an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and she said she would reverse an income tax cut to help fund the program. Kemp calls such an expansion too costly for Georgia, and wants to impose a spending cap to discourage more government spending.
Abrams wants to protect abortion rights, and her promise that the issue “will be a central facet of this campaign” helped her earn Planned Parenthood’s endorsement. Religious conservatives flocked to Kemp after he vowed to sign the nation’s “strictest” abortion laws.
And Abrams supports eliminating cash bail for poor defendants, ending capital punishment and decriminalizing some marijuana offenses. Kemp favors tough-on-crime drug laws and backs a “public safety reform” package that includes higher police pay and new anti-gang initiatives.
But their clashes have grown even sharper when it comes to voting rights, an issue that’s near and dear to both candidates.
Kemp, who has overseen Georgia elections since 2010, supports strict voter ID laws to prevent what he called the threat of illegal voters casting ballots, though his office has repeatedly said there are no instances of “illegal votes” in Georgia.
Abrams, who built a national profile running a voter registration group, says laws requiring that people show photo identification at polling places could disenfranchise minorities, the disabled and the elderly, though the requirements have not appeared to cause a drop among minority voters.
Their feud took on the sharper edge in 2014 after Abrams’ voter registration group, the New Georgia Project, announced ambitious goals to register 800,000 minority voters within a decade – and caught the attention of Kemp’s regulators.
The group said it submitted 86,000 voter registration forms during the 2014 cycle, but Kemp’s office said tens of thousands of applications were either missing or had not been properly submitted. He later added thousands of those voters to the rolls and settled a lawsuit involving the cancellation of nearly 35,000 applications.
An escalating legal battle that dominated the final days of the 2014 election ensued, and each side has since claimed legal and moral victories. Abrams’ group now claims to have registered more than 200,000 minority voters — about one-quarter of its goal.
With the November ballot set, expect this race between familiar foes to take some even sharper turns.