Georgia Republicans braced for what’s sure to be a combative nine-week runoff for the state’s top office, while Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams quickly began to rally her party around her after emerging relatively unscathed from her primary.
Abrams won a spot on the national stage after notching a 53-point victory over former state Rep. Stacey Evans, taking a big step toward becoming the nation’s first black female governor. The two Democrats quickly turned their focus to November, as Evans endorsed her rival and pledged to help unite Democrats against the eventual GOP nominee.
“We have a unified party, and the endorsements we’ve received demonstrate that we built a diverse coalition,” said Abrams, who was once the state House’s top Democrat. “And we’ll talk to independent thinkers who want to join us in our push for history.”
The contrast with Republicans was striking. Secretary of State Brian Kemp branded Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, whom he’ll face in a July 24 runoff, as a “puppet” of special interests who is soft on conservative issues. Cagle talked about opponents who rely on “gimmicks, hot air and false attacks.”
The third-place finisher, former state Sen. Hunter Hill, had sharp words for both as he urged them to adopt his fiscal policy. And the top aide to Gov. Nathan Deal, arguably the state’s most popular politician, warned both GOP contenders not to attack his administration’s agenda — or “the governor will be there to defend and protect.”
A surge of new energy appears to be building that hints at a wave Georgia Democrats have long promised.
Four years ago, Republicans outvoted Democrats in the primary by about 300,000 ballots. This year, the GOP edge was roughly 50,000 votes. And Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans in down-ballot contests in both Cobb and Gwinnett counties, two vote-rich suburbs that once were the key pieces to statewide victories for the GOP.
And though Republicans will still be favored in most top races, there were signs of trouble for the GOP that go beyond the top of the ticket.
Crowded GOP fields ensured bitter July contests for lieutenant governor and secretary of state, while the two Democrats nominated for those jobs – executive Sarah Riggs Amico and former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, respectively – have already pivoted their focus to the November election.
For Democrats, the heated competitions for the party’s nomination is a more recent trend. Most of the top races over the past six years have featured party favorites running against lightly funded challengers — or none at all. Jason Carter, who benefited from that approach in 2014, said this year’s contests showed how they can “incredibly energize” the party’s base.
“Everyone was worried about the divide in the party — and it already seems to be healed,” said Carter, who faced no opposition when he won the party’s nomination for governor four years ago. “It shows that we shouldn’t try to pick candidates for the voters, they should let the voters pick themselves.”
Abrams’ victory over Evans was about as thorough as they come. She won more than three-quarters of the vote, notching some of her biggest margins in DeKalb and Fulton counties. About the only place she struggled was near Evans’ hometown in rural northwest Georgia, but even there Abrams kept the margins tight.
Abrams was helped by a string of factors: The tug of history for her quest to become the nation’s first black elected female governor. Her grass-roots mobilization strategy and “unapologetic progressive” agenda. A surge of outside cash and support, culminating with Hillary Clinton’s endorsement on Monday. And an opponent who staked her campaign on a message about the HOPE scholarship, even as some voters demanded broader themes.
Even the staunchest Evans supporters couldn’t deny that Abrams won a mandate from her party to try out her strategy, which pivots Democrats from trying to appeal to suburban moderates to an all-out drive for left-leaning voters, many of them minorities, who rarely cast ballots.
“I feel a little beaten up this morning, but that will pass,” said Laura Register, who decided to back Evans last year and has helped organize events for her. “But I’m fully behind Abrams — she’s brilliant and a strong leader.”
The sense of unity will come in handy. Republicans leveled their first major attacks on Abrams this contest even as she celebrated her victory, painting her as a presidential wannabe with shady financial ethics.
The Republican Governors Association launched a web campaign focused on the $54,000 she owes the Internal Revenue Service, saying she “wants higher taxes on working families but can’t pay her own taxes.”
Abrams pointed to her opposition to a tax overhaul that could have raised fees for some families, and she said she was on a payment plan to refund her debts, which she said she accrued while helping to take care of her parents’ medical bills.
“I have never shirked my responsibilities and demonstrated the ability to take care of my family and do good work,” Abrams said in an interview. “We’ve had a thorough conversation, and folks wanted to stand with me.”
‘The biggest gun’
The Republican map lays bare the tension within the party. Cagle notched about 39 percent of the vote, carrying most of metro Atlanta and rural stretches in the northern and southeastern parts of the state.
But Hill performed well in parts of Atlanta, and Kemp dominated in a string of northwestern counties around his hometown of Athens while cutting Cagle’s margins in Atlanta’s conservative exurbs.
Kemp’s campaign was quick to make comparisons to the 2010 vote, when Deal leveraged a second-place primary finish to win the runoff. And he made clear his provocative ads – one showed him pointing a gun toward a teenager, another pledging to round up “criminal illegals” himself — were a taste of what’s to come.
“Republican primary voters sent a very strong message,” he said. “They’re fed up with career politicians who were bought and paid for by the special interests. They are fed up with political games. They’re fed up with empty promises and empty suits.”
Cagle, meanwhile, is likely to pursue a dual-track strategy of highlighting his stances on guns and illegal immigration to conservative voters while making an economic-themed pitch to more mainstream Republicans.
“It’s not about who’s got the biggest gun or who’s got the biggest truck. It’s about who has the vision, the experience and the ability to move this state forward,” Cagle said. “The issues we’re confronted with are real, and we need a proven and consistent conservative leader.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates in a busy election year. Gun rights, immigration and tax policy all factored in the results of the Georgia primary, and they were all stories the AJC covered in the run-up to the vote. Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com as the state approaches the next political milepost, the July 24 runoff.