‘We roared’: Georgia Democrats poised to flip the U.S. Senate

Democrats Jon Ossoff (left) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (right) bump elbows at a campaign stop in Atlanta for their U.S. Senate runoff races on Dec. 14, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Democrats have captured both of Georgia’s seats in the U.S. Senate for the first time in nearly 20 years, a momentous feat that gives the party control of Congress and the White House.

Several media outlets declared Democrat Jon Ossoff the winner Wednesday afternoon in Tuesday’s tight runoff contest against incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue. Ossoff took 50.3% of the vote to 49.7% for Perdue, apparently just above the 0.5% margin of victory that under state law would have allowed Perdue to request a recount.

Rev. Raphael Warnock captured Georgia’s other Senate seat earlier in the day when the Democratic challenger was declared the winner over incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Warnock prevailed by a slightly wider margin, 50.7% to 49.3%.

The Senate runoff results solidify Georgia’s position as a battleground state with closely fought elections for at least the next decade, said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University.

“This is yet another election that confirms Georgia isn’t reliably Republican anymore,” Gillespie said Wednesday. “It has become purple and it has the potential to be very competitive for the next few election cycles.”

The two Democrats’ potential wins “feel bigger than Obama,” said Georgia political strategist Fred Hicks, commenting on former President Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008 as the country’s first Black commander-in-chief. Warnock becomes Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator and Ossoff is the state’s first Jewish senator.

“There’s never been this kind of a get-out-the-vote effort statewide launched by Democrats and Democratic-affiliated groups,” Hicks said. “This was the first time that people went out to vote all over the state, not just metro [Atlanta] … And in a game of margins, that made the difference.”

Georgia has not been represented by two Democratic senators simultaneously since 2002, when former Sens. Max Cleland and Zell Miller both held office before Cleland’s reelection loss that year.

Turnout in the Jan. 5 runoffs is set to hover around 4.5 million as counting continued Wednesday, marking record-breaking turnout driven by huge vote-by-mail, early voting and Democratic enthusiasm over President-elect Joe Biden’s win over President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 general election.

Close to $1 billion was spent by the four campaigns and outside groups in both races, dwarfing previous fundraising records in American politics, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. Celebrities and national politicians flocked to the state. Trump and Biden held rallies twice each.

Beyond the cash and cameos, Democratic operatives in Georgia also managed to “absolutely perfect get-out-the-vote” with wide canvassing efforts and “a more hopeful, optimistic message” than the fearful tone set by the senators’ campaigns, said Buzz Brockway, a former Republican state lawmaker and former Gwinnett County GOP chairman.

“Fear only goes so far,” Brockway said. “Obviously, there are people who think the world ended last night, but there are a lot who don’t.”

Democrats managed to hold the same margins or better that Biden saw in his win over Trump in Georgia despite a 10% drop in turnout in the runoffs compared to the Nov. 3 general election, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

Bullock, who has tracked elections in Georgia for decades, said Wednesday he did not see a path forward for Perdue and Loeffler in the runoffs.

“Democrats in the past have lost these general-election runoffs because they didn’t come back to the polls,” Bullock said. “That wasn’t the case this time.”

Much of the credit for Tuesday’s results and the presidential election flip went to Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate and rising Democratic star who has led voter registration and turnout efforts since her loss to Gov. Brian Kemp in 2018.

Abrams took to Twitter late Tuesday night to laud her voting rights group Fair Fight’s staff and volunteers for helping put Ossoff and Warnock on a “strong path” to victory.

“Across our state, we roared,” Abrams said.

Georgia GOP leaders are now left to wonder what could have been if not for the influence of Trump, who served up more distraction than motivation for crucial conservative voting blocs by insisting the state’s election system was “rigged” after his loss on Nov. 3, according to several analysts.

Blame for Perdue’s and Loeffler’s potential losses should fall squarely on the president, said Georgia’s election system implementation manager, Gabriel Sterling.

“When you say your vote doesn’t count … then you spark a civil war within a GOP that needed to be united to get through a tough fight like this in a state that has been trending in the other direction for years now,” said Sterling, who is a Republican and a former Sandy Springs city councilman.

Officials have seen no evidence of widespread fraud in the runoff elections, Sterling said. That’s despite Trump’s assault on the state’s election integrity as he lobbed unproven fraud claims Wednesday and declared Perdue and Loeffler “never had a shot” – though neither senator has conceded defeat.

As Trump raged, Biden praised Georgia voters and Democratic leaders for sending “a resounding message” that looks to ease the way for his incoming administration to appoint Cabinet members and push through legislative initiatives for at least the next two years.

“After the past four years, after the election … it’s time to turn the page,” Biden said in a statement Wednesday. “The American people demand action and they want unity. I am more optimistic than I ever have been that we can deliver both.”

This story was updated to reflect that several media outlets have called the runoffs for both Ossoff and Warnock.

Warnock wins, Ossoff claims victory in U.S. Senate runoffs

Rev. Raphael Warnock (left) and Jon Ossoff (right) campaigned in Atlanta on Election Day in the U.S. Senate runoff races on Jan. 5, 2021. (Photos by Beau Evans)

Rev. Raphael Warnock is poised to defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler in Tuesday’s runoff election, handing Democrats a Senate seat in Georgia for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Warnock’s co-campaigner, Democrat Jon Ossoff, also declared victory over Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue early Wednesday with a slim 16,000-vote lead in an election that looks to shatter turnout records for Georgia runoffs with around 4.5 million votes.

Should those results stand, Democrats will gain control of both chambers of Congress and the White House following President-elect Joe Biden’s win over President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 general election.

Thousands of votes remained to be counted in heavily Democratic counties such as DeKalb, Fulton and Chatham. The outlook was enough for several news outlets including the Associated Press to call the race for Warnock as his lead grew to more than 53,000 votes overnight into early Wednesday.

“Every day I’m in the United States Senate, I will fight for you,” Warnock said in a victory speech just after midnight. “I will fight for your family.”

Ossoff joined suit, claiming victory Wednesday morning after CNN projected he will win. The Associated Press has not yet called his race.

“I will give everything I’ve got to ensuring that Georgia’s interests are represented in the U.S. Senate,” Ossoff said in a video thanking supporters.

The Republican senators have not conceded defeat so far. Loeffler told supporters around midnight she still sees “a path to victory,” while Perdue’s campaign issued an overnight message saying he “will be victorious” once all votes are counted in the “exceptionally close election.”

The runoffs have been among the most consequential in Georgia history, dominating airwaves and political talk for the past two months with control of the federal government hanging in the balance.

More than $830 million was spent by the four campaigns and outside groups in both races, dwarfing previous fundraising records in American politics, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. Celebrities and national politicians flocked to the state. Trump and Biden held rallies twice each.

The campaigns themselves were grueling affairs as Perdue and Loeffler cast their Democratic opponents as big-government socialists while Ossoff and Warnock framed the Republican incumbents as self-serving wealthy elites.

All four campaigns combed the state for every vote they could find after the Nov. 3 election saw Georgia flip for a Democratic candidate for the first time in a presidential contest since 1992, driven by strong gains in former Republican suburban strongholds like Gwinnett and Cobb counties.

Like the November election, vote-by-mail and early voting boosted turnout in the runoffs to record-breaking numbers as voters avoided long lines on Election Day due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. By Tuesday, more than 3 million ballots had already been cast by mail and during the three-week early voting period.

Coronavirus loomed large in the runoffs amid long-delayed negotiations between Senate Republicans and House Democrats over a second round of economic relief, as each side accused the other of delaying passage of a nearly $1 trillion legislative package.

A relief bill finally pushed through Congress that handed Democrats ammunition to continue attacking the Republican senators after Trump trashed the bill, calling it a “disgrace” for including $600 stimulus checks instead of the $2,000 checks he wanted.

Trump also sparked fears among Republican leaders with his relentless assault on Georgia’s election system since his November loss. They worried Trump’s influence risked depressing voter turnout in conservative parts of the state where the president’s loyal followers leaned toward believing his unproven claims of election fraud.

Both senators refused to acknowledge Biden’s win throughout the runoffs, with Loeffler going so far as to say she plans to join around a dozen other senators in contesting Congress’ vote on Wednesday to ratify the Electoral College results. Democrats accused her and Perdue of all but treason.

“If we win these races, we can turn the page on the last four years,” Ossoff said outside an Atlanta polling place on Tuesday.

Loeffler, who fended off Trump ally U.S. Rep. Doug Collins in a free-for-all Nov. 3 special election, dismissed concerns over the president’s influence ahead of Election Day, arguing Republican voters recognized her campaign and Perdue’s as a “firewall against socialism.”

“I’m proud of my campaign because we’ve shown Georgians the importance of this race, not just here in Georgia but to the entire country,” Loeffler said at a campaign stop Monday in Atlanta.

Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman, and Perdue, a former corporate executive from Sea Island, both faced allegations of insider trading in the pandemic’s early days. Though both insisted a federal probe cleared them of wrongdoing, Ossoff and Warnock used the controversy to portray the wealthy senators as out-of-touch with average Georgians.

“There are campaigns and there are movements,” Warnock said at a stop in Atlanta Tuesday. “And there is a sense in Georgia that so much is at stake.”

Perdue and Loeffler landed their own blows. Ossoff, who runs an investigative journalism company, was hit over a China-connected Hong Kong group’s purchase of a documentary his company made. Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist church, faced attacks for past comments on police and charges of interfering in a child-abuse investigation that he called a misunderstanding.

“If we don’t all get out and vote … everything President Trump has done to make America great again is gone,” Perdue said in a video that played at a Trump rally Monday in Dalton.

Ultimately, the two battling sides kept close to party positions on national issues. Perdue and Loeffler stressed pro-gun, anti-abortion and low-tax views while Ossoff and Warnock called for bolstering the Affordable Care Act and reforming use-of-force standards for police.

U.S. Senate runoffs too close to call with Democrats’ outlook bright

Clockwise: Jon Ossoff, U.S. Sen. David Perdue, Rev. Raphael Warnock and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler are competing for Georgia’s two Senate seats in the runoff elections on Jan. 5, 2021. (Photos by Beau Evans)

The runoff races for U.S. Senate in Georgia looked too close to call late on Election Day, though Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock held favorable positions with thousands of votes left to be counted in suburban Atlanta counties and Savannah.

With more than a dozen counties still outstanding by midnight, Warnock clung to a slim 35,000-vote lead over opponent Republican U.S. Kelly Loeffler. Ossoff was neck-and-neck with Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, with the senator leading by fewer than 2,000 votes.

More than 4 million votes had been cast in both races, which racked up historically huge absentee and early-voting turnout numbers. Several suburban counties that “likely lean toward Democrats” including DeKalb, Fulton and Chatham had not yet turned in final counts late Tuesday, said Georgia’s election manager, Gabriel Sterling.

“This is a contentious time,” Sterling said in a news conference just before midnight. “We want people to be patient.”

The runoffs have been among the most consequential in Georgia history, dominating airwaves and political talk for the past two months with control of the federal government hanging in the balance.

Wins by both Ossoff and Warnock would give Democrats control of both chambers of Congress and the White House following President-elect Joe Biden’s defeat of President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 general election.

More than $830 million was spent by the four campaigns and outside groups in both races, dwarfing previous fundraising records in American politics, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. Celebrities and national politicians flocked to the state. Trump and Biden held rallies twice each.

The campaigns themselves were grueling affairs as Perdue and Loeffler cast their Democratic opponents as big-government socialists while Ossoff and Warnock framed the Republican incumbents as self-serving wealthy elites.

All four campaigns combed the state for every vote they could find after the Nov. 3 election saw Georgia flip for a Democratic candidate for the first time in a presidential contest since 1992, driven by strong gains in former Republican suburban strongholds like Gwinnett and Cobb counties.

Like the November election, vote-by-mail and early voting boosted turnout in the runoffs to record-breaking numbers as voters avoided long lines on Election Day due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. By Tuesday, more than 3 million ballots had already been cast by mail and during the three-week early voting period.

Coronavirus loomed large in the runoffs amid long-delayed negotiations between Senate Republicans and House Democrats over a second round of economic relief, as each side accused the other of delaying passage of a nearly $1 trillion legislative package.

A relief bill finally pushed through Congress that handed Democrats ammunition to continue attacking the Republican senators after Trump trashed the bill, calling it a “disgrace” for including $600 stimulus checks instead of the $2,000 checks he wanted.

Trump also sparked fears among Republican leaders with his relentless assault on Georgia’s election system since his November loss. They worried Trump’s influence risked depressing voter turnout in conservative parts of the state where the president’s loyal followers leaned toward believing his unproven claims of election fraud.

Both senators refused to acknowledge Biden’s win throughout the runoffs, with Loeffler going so far as to say she plans to join around a dozen other senators in contesting Congress’ vote on Wednesday to ratify the Electoral College results. Democrats accused her and Perdue of all but treason.

“If we win these races, we can turn the page on the last four years,” Ossoff said outside an Atlanta polling place on Tuesday.

Loeffler, who fended off Trump ally U.S. Rep. Doug Collins in a free-for-all Nov. 3 special election, dismissed concerns over the president’s influence ahead of Election Day, arguing Republican voters recognized her campaign and Perdue’s as a “firewall against socialism.”

“I’m proud of my campaign because we’ve shown Georgians the importance of this race, not just here in Georgia but to the entire country,” Loeffler said at a campaign stop Monday in Atlanta.

Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman, and Perdue, a former corporate executive from Sea Island, both faced allegations of insider trading in the pandemic’s early days. Though both insisted a federal probe cleared them of wrongdoing, Ossoff and Warnock used the controversy to portray the wealthy senators as out-of-touch with average Georgians.

“There are campaigns and there are movements,” Warnock said at a stop in Atlanta Tuesday. “And there is a sense in Georgia that so much is at stake.”

Perdue and Loeffler landed their own blows. Ossoff, who runs an investigative journalism company, was hit over a China-connected Hong Kong group’s purchase of a documentary his company made. Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist church, faced attacks for past comments on police and charges of interfering in a child-abuse investigation that he called a misunderstanding.

“If we don’t all get out and vote … everything President Trump has done to make America great again is gone,” Perdue said in a video that played at a Trump rally Monday in Dalton.

Ultimately, the two battling sides kept close to party positions on national issues. Perdue and Loeffler stressed pro-gun, anti-abortion and low-tax views while Ossoff and Warnock called for bolstering the Affordable Care Act and reforming use-of-force standards for police.

Trump, Biden rally in Georgia ahead of U.S. Senate runoffs

Thousands attended President Donald Trump’s rally ahead of the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Dalton, Georgia, on Jan. 4, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

DALTON – The race for control of Congress saw the country’s two most powerful leaders swoop into Georgia for competing last-push rallies on Monday, one day before the intensely watched U.S. Senate runoff elections.

President Donald Trump drew supporters by the thousands for a nighttime rally in Dalton, the heart of conservative Northwest Georgia, where voting has lagged so far in the runoffs amid doubts over the integrity of the state’s election system.

His visit came hours after President-elect Joe Biden, who defeated Trump in Georgia by 11,779 votes in the Nov. 3 general election, stopped in Atlanta to help keep Democratic momentum rolling after his campaign flipped the state blue for the first time in a presidential contest since 1992.

It was the second Georgia visit for both Trump and Biden since the election – which Trump will has refused to concede – and since Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock forced runoffs against incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

The past two months have brought scores of national politicians and celebrities to Georgia for the runoffs, plus hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign donations. Wins by both Ossoff and Warnock would give Democrats control of both chambers of Congress and the White House for at least the next two years.

Trump, Biden and the campaigns they’re backing have all stressed the need to secure runoff wins on Tuesday.

Republicans fear the federal government would steer too close to socialism if both senators lose, while Democrats say split control of Congress would hamstring the Biden administration’s priorities on health care, climate change and the COVID-19 response.

“Georgia … the power is literally in your hands,” Biden said at his rally. “One state can chart the course, not just for the next four years, but for a generation.”

President-elect Joe Biden rallied for Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock ahead of the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Atlanta, Georgia, on Jan. 4, 2021. (Biden transition video)

While Biden spent the bulk of his speech touting the Democratic candidates, Trump devoted huge portions of his remarks to trashing Georgia’s election system as riddled with fraud – though state election officials and federal courts have rejected his claims.

State Republican leaders have worried the president’s assault on Georgia’s elections could scare off conservative voters and swing the runoffs for Ossoff and Warnock.

Trump had no such worries on Monday night. He urged his supporters to swarm the polls on Tuesday, despite his claims of widespread fraud in the November election.

“There’s no way we lost Georgia. There’s no way,” Trump said. “That was a rigged election.”

President Donald Trump rallied for Republican U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler ahead of the Senate runoff elections in Dalton, Georgia, on Jan. 4, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

The president’s visit came amid a barrage of criticism for a phone call he had over the weekend during which he pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn the Nov. 3 election results.

A recording of the call was made public by several news outlets on Sunday. In the call, Trump pressured Raffensperger to “find” enough voters to reverse the election results in his favor. He chided Georgia’s election chief over unproven fraud claims, such as voting by dead people, nonresidents and felons, as well as vote-padding with illegal absentee ballots.

Raffensperger and his general counsel batted back the claims during the call.

While Biden avoided mention of the phone call during his rally, his preferred Senate candidates used it to slam the Republican senators for continuing to stand behind Trump and refusing to acknowledge Biden’s victory.

Ossoff, who runs an investigative journalism company, called Perdue “not fit” to keep his seat after the call. Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, said Loeffler “does not care about Georgia voters.”

Perdue, a former corporate executive from Sea Island, shrugged off Trump’s call, telling FOX News he “didn’t hear anything that the president hasn’t already said for weeks now.”

Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman, skirted the call Monday morning by insisting her “sole focus” was on the runoff.

Former Trump senior advisor Kellyanne Conway (left) campaigned with U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (right) ahead of the Senate runoff elections in Atlanta on Jan. 4, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

The Republican senators’ decision to support Trump has highlighted fractures among Georgia GOP leaders as the president wages war against Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp – both Republicans – for not overturning the election results.

Loeffler, in particular, has clung to Trump at the expense of her biggest ally in the state, Kemp, who appointed her to fill retired Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat late last year. Kemp has not appeared on the campaign trail since Trump’s attacks started, even as Loeffler campaigned recently with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Neom.

Trump, who endorsed Kemp’s gubernatorial campaign in 2018, scorched the governor at Monday night’s rally after calling for him to resign last week.

“I’ll be here in a year and a half campaigning against your governor … and your crazy secretary of state,” Trump said.

President Donald Trump blasted Gov. Brian Kemp and hurled claims of election fraud at a rally in Dalton, Georgia, on Jan. 4, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Georgia Democratic leaders have seized on the Republican infighting to make the case for Ossoff and Warnock, casting the two challengers as more level-headed options to represent Georgians in Washington than the Trump-allied incumbents.

“We are going to be determining whether this country moves forward and makes progress in solving its problems and issues, or whether we are going to continue with the political infighting that has dominated our politics in the last few years,” said Debby Peppers, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Whitfield County, where Trump held his rally.

Polls open Tuesday at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m. for the runoff elections. Absentee ballots must be received at county elections offices before the polls close to be counted.

Halftime in Georgia: A look back at Kemp’s first two years as governor

Gov. Brian Kemp talks about COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta on Dec. 22, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

It was bill-wrangling season in the state legislature, and Gov. Brian Kemp was visiting Germany to talk economic ties when word came that the virus spreading from China into Europe could pose a serious threat for Georgia.

By early March, two people in the state had tested positive. Dozens more quickly followed, then the first death. The governor shut down the General Assembly’s legislative session, closed all the public schools and blanketed Georgia with shelter-in-place orders.

In the blink of an eye, the COVID-19 pandemic had swelled to dominate Kemp’s first two years in office as Georgia’s head of state.

“We just dealt with riding these waves as they’ve come over these last months,” Kemp said in a recent interview. “It’s been tiring and grueling, but it’s also just part of what you’ve got to do. … I’ve been working harder than I ever have in my whole life.”

Now halfway into his four-year term, Kemp has been forced to shoulder his administration’s initiatives alongside immense challenges, ranging from the devastation of COVID-19 to the passion of Black Lives Matter protests to a presidential election that has soured the governor’s most powerful ally against him.

Supporters have showered Kemp with praise, hailing the Republican for steering Georgia through storms of crisis and criticism with a captain’s grit. But his detractors see in Kemp a selfish leader concerned mostly with pleasing his own faction of voters in a divided political world – and who looks ready for a Democratic toppling in 2022.

“What is helpful for Governor Kemp is that he’s got about two years left in his term and a lot can change,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor. “The things that are top of mind for Georgia voters now might not be top of mind in two years.”

Gov. Brian Kemp calls for vulnerable residents to take precautions as coronavirus spreads in Georgia in March of 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Kemp, a construction businessman from Athens and former state senator, won the 2018 race for governor while serving as Georgia’s secretary of state, a controversial position that drew accusations of voter suppression during his campaign against Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams.

Buoyed by a key endorsement from President Donald Trump, Kemp campaigned on promises to punish gang members, human traffickers and undocumented immigrants, pass pay raises for teachers and pursue policies meant to boost Georgia’s economy.

For the most part, Kemp and his supporters say he’s backed up those promises. The Republican-controlled General Assembly’s last two sessions have pushed through more money to police gangs, a big chunk of his promised $5,000 teacher raise, bills to fight trafficking, changes to the state’s Medicaid system and fewer year-end tests for schools.

Kemp also persuaded lawmakers to cut budgets for state agencies twice in the 2020 session: first in March to offset a predicted economic slowdown, then again in June by about 10% after COVID-19 throttled Georgia’s tax revenues.

The budget cuts, combined with the health impacts of COVID-19, hit Kemp with a one-two punch of unpopular decision-making that most governors never face, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia (UGA) political science professor.

“I don’t know if anybody’s had this kind of double whammy,” Bullock said in a recent interview. “It’s not always pleasant when you tell departments and agencies that you’re cutting back. And coronavirus has certainly had its challenges.”

Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp are on hand U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks at the State Capitol for the first day of qualifying for the 2020 election on March 2, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Kemp attracted huge criticism early in the COVID-19 pandemic by imposing a stay-at-home order later than other states, then by ending that order and moving to reopen businesses before other states – all while refusing to mandate that Georgians wear masks for guarding against the airborne virus.

The governor’s mantra to “protect lives and livelihoods” soured many people in Georgia who viewed his actions as more beneficial to businesses than the general public’s health, as did his lawsuit against Atlanta city officials to block them from imposing their own local mask mandate, said Alexis Scott, a former journalist and Democratic political commentator.

“Most people I know are not happy with his tenure,” Scott said in a recent interview. “Not just because of coronavirus, but primarily because of that.”

Then protests broke out over racial injustice during summer in Atlanta and across the country after the police killing of George Floyd, as well as resurfaced anger over the February 2020 slaying of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick. Kemp chastised the protesters for allowing violence and property destruction in their ranks, then readied the Georgia National Guard to respond.

Scott, who published Atlanta’s oldest Black newspaper for 17 years, charged Kemp with largely skirting issues that matter most for minority communities like social justice, creating the perception of a careless attitude that she thinks could bite him in an expected rematch with Abrams in the 2022 election.

“He wants to please his white constituents, so he doesn’t have anything to say about people of color because there are still more of them than us,” Scott said. “I think he’s trying to stay away from it because he knows it’s a hot iron. Everything that could hurt him is going to come back.”

Gov. Brian Kemp discusses the state’s response to protests over police brutality and racial injustice at the State Operations Center in Atlanta on June 2, 2020. (Gov. Kemp’s official Facebook page)

But while opponents call him divisive, Kemp’s supporters see the governor as a person of character and conviction who has been forced to make unpopular decisions during unusually difficult times.

In particular, Kemp’s backers see his decision to let businesses stay open when other governors have kept their states shuttered as a wise move that spared Georgia from more crippling economic impacts seen elsewhere.

“He got the crap knocked out of him for stepping forward and reopening our economy before any other governor did,” said Brian Robinson, a top deputy for former Gov. Nathan Deal and Republican political commentator. “He made a decision, he stuck with it and he was right. And Georgia is better off for it.”

While Georgia’s unemployment rate is still high at 5.7%, revenues have climbed since summer with businesses allowed to stay open, and Kemp is now set for a legislative session where he likely will not have to ask for more budget cuts, Robinson said.

The same tendency to resist the sway of popular opinion has also helped Kemp weather assaults from his own party after the Nov. 3 presidential election, which Trump lost by fewer than 12,000 votes in Georgia. Most recently, the president called on Kemp to resign for not stepping in to overturn the results, a move the governor dismissed as a “distraction”.

“You may disagree with his conclusions or his actions,” Robinson said of Kemp. “But he’s thoughtful. And once he makes a decision, by God, it’s carved in Stone Mountain. It’s not going to move.”

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks with reporters outside Amazon’s new warehouse in Gwinnett County on Sept. 1, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

Kemp has tried to toe the line between shrugging off the president’s attacks and rallying Republican support for U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, whom the governor appointed late last year to hold retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s seat until a special election.

Loeffler fended off a challenge in November from outgoing U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Trump ally who Kemp passed over for the appointment, to join fellow Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue in the Jan. 5 runoff elections against Democratic contenders Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock.

On the one hand, the fallout from Trump’s continuing attacks on a governor he once helped lift to victory has taken a toll on Kemp, who may struggle to patch up relations with loyal Trump voters in Georgia if he draws a Republican primary opponent in his bid for reelection in 2022, said UGA’s Bullock.

“What will be critical for his reelection will be to have a united Republican party,” Bullock said. “And that may be the biggest challenge over the next two years: to knit the party back.”

On the other hand, anger over Trump’s loss could weaken before voters cast ballots in 2022, leaving Kemp to run largely on how well he handles distributing COVID-19 vaccines over the next year as he seeks to overcome Democratic enthusiasm from the 2020 presidential election, which a Democratic candidate won for the first time since 1992, said Emory’s Gillespie.

“Partisanship is probably going to be a much bigger predictor of how Georgians vote [in 2022],” Gillespie said. “Everybody’s going to prepare for that margin to be razor-thin like it was this time, and Stacey Abrams is not a novice candidate. She is pretty battle-tested.”

For his part, Kemp says he’s not looking as far down the road as 2022 yet, though he did confirm that he will run for reelection. Top of the governor’s mind for now is to oversee delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. While vaccines began shipping out to Georgia hospitals and nursing homes in recent weeks, there are likely months to go before the general public will have access.

Beyond politics and posturing, Kemp said he’s just focused on preparing to manage the inevitable hiccups that will come from distributing the millions of vaccine doses needed for Georgia to finally end the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Between now and herd immunity, our focus is going to be on the virus and on the economy and keeping people safe in Georgia,” Kemp said. “That is all I’m worried about right now.”

Flanked by state lawmakers, Gov. Brian Kemp signs Georgia’s hate-crimes bill into law on June 26, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)