ATLANTA – Republican Brian Kemp won the governorship four years ago by narrowly defeating Democrat Stacey Abrams.
While this year’s gubernatorial race pits the two in a rematch, the dynamics are different. Kemp has a record to defend, while Abrams has the same record to attack.
Kemp’s narrative on the campaign trail has been that he was quick to reopen Georgia’s economy ahead of most states during the early months of the pandemic, which produced a record state budget surplus he is now using to underwrite tax cuts.
“We have excess revenue,” the governor told cheering supporters during a campaign stop in Alpharetta late last month. “We’re going to send it back to you the taxpayers.”
Abrams’ theme has been about the opportunities Kemp is missing to use a surplus generated by massive federal pandemic relief – not Kemp – to improve education, housing and health care for everyday Georgians.
“Billions of dollars are coming to this state because of [President] Joe Biden’s leadership,” Abrams said earlier this month as she launched a statewide bus tour from a Mexican restaurant in southeast Atlanta. “My intention is to spend those dollars on the funding needs of Georgia.”
If the economy is Kemp’s top issue this year, crime is a close second.
Kemp created a Crime Suppression Unit last year to use law enforcement personnel from several state agencies to help local police departments fight a pandemic-driven crime wave. The unit has served warrants on more than 600 criminal suspects, including 29 murder warrants.
“The men and women in law enforcement want a governor who stands with them in … going after street gangs and human traffickers,” Kemp said. “I’m going to go after bad people who are selling drugs and killing our children.”
Kemp has accused Abrams of being soft on crime by supporting an end to cash bail and has charged Democrats in general with wanting to “defund” the police, a talking point Republicans across the country have used to attack their opponents.
Abrams has countered that Kemp’s backing of legislation the Republican-controlled General Assembly enacted this year to let gun owners carry concealed firearms without a permit is making Georgians less safe.
“Street gangs did not shoot six Asian women,” she said, referring to the killings at three metro-Atlanta spas in March of last year by a lone gunman. “Street gangs are not the reason people are getting shot in grocery stores, parking lots, and schools. … We have a governor who has weakened gun laws across our state.”
Abrams has also criticized Kemp and two Republican predecessors in the Governor’s Mansion for not expanding Georgia’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act Congress passed in 2010, a step she said would provide health-care access to 500,000 currently uninsured Georgians.
“Thirty-eight states have spent the last decade proving Medicaid expansion works,” she said. “[Former New Jersey Republican Gov.] Chris Christie did it. Mike Pence did it [while governor of Indiana]. … This is not a partisan issue. This is a math issue.”
Kemp, who opposes Medicaid expansion as too expensive, called it a “broken government program.” His administration’s proposals for a more limited version of Medicaid expansion have been rejected by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Abortion has become a hot campaign issue in Georgia and around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court last June overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion as a constitutional right.
The ruling allowed Kemp and GOP state Attorney General Chris Carr to put into effect the “heartbeat” law the Georgia legislature passed in 2019 banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically about six weeks into a pregnancy.
Kemp said during a debate earlier this month that he would not push for abortion restrictions beyond the heartbeat law, which includes exceptions for rape and incest, if a police report is filed, when the mother’s life is at risk, or if a serious medical condition renders a fetus unviable.
Abrams pointed to polls that show most Georgia voters oppose the heartbeat law.
“[Kemp] has weakened our privacy rights,” she said. “He has denied women’s rights to reproductive care.”
Democrats say the education agenda Kemp and Republican legislative leaders pushed through the General Assembly this year is diverting attention from the need for more funding.
GOP lawmakers voted along party lines to prohibit teachers from teaching “divisive concepts” to their students primarily about the history of racism in America, give parents a more direct role in their children’s education through a Parents’ Bill of Rights and essentially ban transgender students born male from competing in most girls’ sports.
Abrams said Kemp’s fulfillment of a pledge to raise teacher salaries by $5,000 a year during his first term isn’t enough. She said she wants to increase annual teacher pay by $11,000, set $50,000 as the starting salary for teachers, expand child-care slots by 30,000 and restore free community college tuition.
“Teachers are leaving the workforce because of low pay and overregulation,” she said. “We can do all this without raising a dime in taxes. … We’ve got the money.”
Kemp said the state is already funding K-12 education in Georgia at a record level coming off a recession and a global pandemic. Going forward, he is putting an emphasis on helping students recover from the learning loss they suffered when schools closed during the pandemic and students were forced to rely on online instruction.
The governor said this year’s education agenda was prompted by complaints from parents.
“People are tired of their kids being indoctrinated in the classroom,” he said. “People are tired of not having fairness in girls’ sports.”
Kemp and other Republicans – notably Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – have pointed to record-setting turnout during the first week of early voting in Georgia as proof Democrats’ charges of voter suppression are unfounded.
After absentee voting played a huge part in Democratic victories in Georgia in the pandemic-era elections of 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill last year replacing the signature-match verification process for absentee ballots with an ID requirement and limiting the number of ballot drop boxes.
Lawmakers followed up this year with legislation giving the Georgia Bureau of Investigation the power to investigate complaints of election fraud unilaterally without having to be called in by local prosecutors.
“In Georgia, it’s easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Kemp said.
Abrams said Kemp has a history of trying to suppress the vote, going back to his days as secretary of state before he ran for governor. She said last year’s bill restored restrictions voting rights groups had gotten rid of through lawsuits following the 2018 elections.
“We need a governor who believes in access to the right to vote and not voter suppression,” she said.
Going forward, Kemp has outlined priorities for a second term as governor, including an additional $2 billion in income and property tax rebates and a further crackdown on criminal gangs.
Kemp has held a solid lead over Abrams in most recent polls. But if Abrams pulls an upset, she will face an uphill battle getting her agenda through a legislature that likely still will be controlled by Republicans.
Abrams said she has experience in that department, pointing to cuts in HOPE Scholarship benefits then-House Minority Leader Abrams and then-GOP Gov. Nathan Deal pushed through the General Assembly in 2011 to save a program facing a financial “cataclysmic cliff.”
Early voting in Georgia continues through Nov. 4 ahead of Election Day Nov. 8.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.