Jul 28, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams are in a rematch. What's changed?

Photo illustration of two images each of Governor Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams in front of the Georgia State Capitol.
Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photos: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images and Laurie Dieffembacq/Belga Mag/AFP, Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency and Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Four years ago, Democrat Stacey Abrams came within 1.4% of defeating Republican Brian Kemp in a governor's race now viewed as an opening salvo in the fight to turn Georgia blue.

Why it matters: The political winds shaping this fall's highly anticipated rematch between popular incumbent Kemp and Abrams — a fundraising juggernaut with national name recognition — are remarkably different.

The big picture: The pandemic, racial reckoning over the killing of George Floyd, and inflation unleashed by the war in Ukraine and recovering global economy have fundamentally changed the debate over top election issues.

  • Georgians voted for a Democratic president and two Democratic senators in the historic 2020 election — transforming expectations about what can be achieved in the longtime Republican state.
  • Former President Trump's false claims of voter fraud have catalyzed a new Republican focus on "election integrity," including through new voter restrictions in Georgia championed by Kemp and vilified by Abrams.

Driving the news: Despite Georgia swinging blue in 2020, Republicans are feeling confident about their chances in November — Kemp has maintained a narrow lead over Abrams, including in a new poll out Wednesday, and Cook Political Report rates the governor's race "Lean R."

Flashback: In 2018, the Trump-endorsed Kemp was known for running a provocative, hard-right campaign with ads that featured a promise to "round up criminal illegals" in a truck.

  • Abrams attracted national headlines by accusing Kemp of rigging the state’s election system for himself as secretary of state — famously labeling him "an architect of voter suppression." Kemp, meanwhile, has pointed to his own policies that expanded voters' rolls.
  • Georgia's "pro-business" Chamber of Commerce surprised many by not endorsing anyone in 2018, claiming it doesn't endorse candidates in open races (when in fact it does).

Today, Kemp is an incumbent (with the Chamber's endorsement) who was among the first governors to start to reopen a state's economy during the pandemic, despite national criticism.

  • Kemp followed through on a conservative agenda by signing laws banning most abortions after about six weeks and eliminating gun permit regulations — but he's been thoroughly repudiated and attacked by Trump and his allies for refusing to overturn the 2020 election results.
  • Kemp did, however, support an overhaul of Georgia's election laws that limited mail-in ballots, added voter ID requirements and tightened other rules that the Justice Department has alleged in court disproportionately impact voters of color.

The other side: Four years ago, Abrams shot to national prominence as the first Black woman in the country to be a major party’s gubernatorial nominee. She campaigned as a former minority leader of the Georgia House who worked across the aisle with Republicans to get things done.

  • Now, Abrams is a former vice presidential contender who has become a millionaire thanks to book deals and speaking fees.
  • She refused to concede her 2018 loss and challenged the state’s election system in court — albeit after acknowledging Kemp’s victory. Since then, Trump's own campaign fought to overturn his 2020 loss.
  • Abrams has gained access to an unprecedented donor file, but along the way has become a frequent Democratic villain for conservatives across the country.

Between the lines: "Abrams did a very good job in 2018 of painting the governor in a light that was not favorable in a relatively poor year for Republicans across the country," said Kemp's campaign communications director and senior adviser Cody Hall, who also worked on the 2018 race.

  • "She doesn’t have that luxury this time around because voters have seen the governor work for 3.5 years," he told Axios, citing COVID-19, the 2020 election, civil unrest and more.
  • Over the past four years, Kemp has "proved to be multi-dimensional," said Ryan Mahoney, Kemp's 2018 campaign communications director.

Abrams’ 2018 and 2022 campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo counters that Kemp’s policies, which include refusing to expand Medicaid and supporting anti-abortion rights and pro-gun laws, are "wildly unpopular."

  • "[T]hey're just not necessarily widely known because what he's known for is being the first to reopen [during COVID] and not committing treason," Groh-Wargo told Axios.
  • Charlie Bailey, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, said that Kemp’s "record is exactly as extreme as that guy that was saying he was going to round up criminal illegals … and that's what he's going to have to defend."

Zoom out: Groh-Wargo, who worked on Democratic campaigns during both Obama midterms, said she's taking the headwinds driven by inflation and an unpopular president seriously: "I’ve seen this movie. I’m very aware of what’s happened."

  • But she argues this is where Abrams’ 100% name ID comes into play: "In our climate where there's a lot of doubt on the national Democratic side and on the Republican side, that [reputation] is worth its weight in gold."
  • Hall disagrees, saying Abrams "has never separated herself from the national Democratic lurch to the left."

Threat level: While Georgia Republicans feel cautiously optimistic about Kemp’s chances, they are still eyeing Abrams’ massive war chest with apprehension.

  • "With enough resources, you can get up on broadcast TV and never come down. You can send out tons of mail. You can launch data programs that have never been launched before. The sky's the limit at that point," Mahoney said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Abrams acknowledged Kemp's victory in 2018.

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