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Brian Kemp, Stacey Abrams take aim at centrist vote at Savannah conference. But who will win it?

·7 min read

In what promises to be one of the more popular governor’s races in the country, Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams will face each other once again, a rematch of Georgia’s 2018 contest.

But it’s a much different race this time around. In their first bout four years ago, both Abrams and Kemp were relatively small names. Kemp was the Secretary of State, and Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader.

Both held important positions, but now, they’re bona fide superstars in their respective parties, catching national attention — for better or worse — and elevating the race to one of the most anticipated on the midterm ballot.

Georgia has had its own political come-up in that time as well, dipping its collective toes into swing state waters after 2020’s presidential and U.S. Senate contests.

Georgia elections: Brian Kemp wins Georgia Republican governor's race primary, will face Stacey Abrams in November

Also: Stacey Abrams launches 2nd campaign for Georgia governor

It’s still relatively new ground for the state, and Abrams is credited by many with President Joe Biden’s 2020 Georgia win, attributed to her voter registration efforts between her loss in 2018 and 2020.

All the while, Kemp was guiding the state through two pandemic years. He claims credit for leading the state toward the largest budget surplus in state history last year all while being on Donald Trump’s bad side.

Now, four years after Kemp won their first matchup, the two will meet again.

Governor Brian Kemp did it without Trump

Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at the Georgia Municipal Association's conference at the Savannah Convention Center on Sunday.
Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at the Georgia Municipal Association's conference at the Savannah Convention Center on Sunday.

Kemp comes into this race full of steam. After drawing former President Donald Trump's ire in 2020, Kemp became his target in the primary. Trump propped up former U.S. Sen. David Perdue as Kemp’s challenger, pouring money and vocal endorsements into Perdue's campaign.

Perdue returned the favor, constantly repeating Trump’s lie that he won the state in the 2020 Presidential election.

But Perdue failed Trump. Kemp dominated the former U.S. Senator in the primary, winning by 50 percentage points, and he did it without Trump's endorsement.

In 2018, it was Kemp who rode Trump’s endorsement through the primary, defeating Casey Cagle in a runoff. Many, including Trump himself, think Kemp couldn’t have won without the former Presidents seal of approval.

But after beating Perdue in the primary, he’s perhaps one of the best examples of Trump’s opinion not making a difference in state races.

Georgia Republicans rallied behind Kemp in May, and they likely will again in the fall, with their arch-nemesis, Abrams, being the only alternative. Even Perdue said in his concession speech, “Everything I said about Brian Kemp was true. But here's the other thing I said was true: he is a much better choice than Stacey Abrams.”

Stacey Abrams on the rise

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks at the Georgia Municipal Association's conference at the Savannah Convention Center on Monday.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks at the Georgia Municipal Association's conference at the Savannah Convention Center on Monday.

Abrams has been busy since 2018 herself. Her strong showing against Kemp – and the media coverage around the race – supercharged her profile within the Democratic Party. She was chosen to deliver the Democrat response to then-President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address.

She was even courted as a candidate for the 2020 election, first for a U.S. Senate post and later as a potential vice presidential running mate to Joe Biden. Once Biden selected Kamala Harris as his VP, Abrams turned her focus to rallying support for Biden, Harris and eventual Senate winners, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

Abrams was also featured as the president of United Earth in "Star Trek: Discovery," and while it has nothing to do with her 2022 campaign, it demonstrates the celebrity presence she now commands.

The political environment of Georgia in 2022 is starkly different than it was in 2018, and many credit Abrams for that change.

Through her work with FairFight, a political action committee focused on voting rights, and other get-out-the-vote organizations, Abrams had a hand in registering an estimated 800,000 new Georgia voters ahead of the 2020 elections.

Kemp pushes his record

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp poses for photos before speaking at the Georgia Municipal Association conference in the Savannah Convention Center on Sunday.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp poses for photos before speaking at the Georgia Municipal Association conference in the Savannah Convention Center on Sunday.

While the race features the same two candidates, albeit with a little more weight behind their names, the playing field has seen plenty of changes as well.

As we come out of the COVID years, on the heels of the 2020 protests condemning police violence against Black Americans, the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and more recently, the 2022 protests condemning the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Georgia voters will be casting a weighty vote.

At the Georgia Municipal Association conference held in Savannah this week, both candidates got about 20 minutes to speak to a crowd of city and county leaders from around the state. And their messages were quite different.

For Kemp, there was no talk of the controversial, social issue bills passed during his tenure. No promises of security from S.B. 202, no bragging about passing bills that prevent trans students from competing in women’s athletics, no talk of him loosening Georgia’s gun carry laws this year.

Instead, Kemp spoke about the few bipartisan bills passed during his time in office. Kemp held up the passage of Georgia’s hate crimes bill and repealing citizen's arrest as examples of his success.

It is both different and similar messaging to the primary. During his race with Perdue, he spoke often about his record, mostly in regards to Georgia’s budget surplus and economic state. But those controversial, party-line social bills were also part of his messaging.

When he spoke to the GMA audience about Georgia’s public schools on Sunday, there was no mention of the anti-Critical Race Theory legislation passed this year, but he talked about school safety.

Kemp nodded to $69 million dollar school safety grants, as well as $8 million in grants from the Criminal Justice Coordination Council to provide school resource officer training and tactical kits for schools, with a promise that these "will not be the last" measures taken to improve school safety.

“Because as we can all agree, protecting our children is more important than politics and rises above partisanship. It is too important to make a political football, and it is an issue that we can and should unite every single one of us behind,” Kemp said.

More: Kemp won all 159 Georgia counties in primary; he'll need the Trump vote in rematch vs. Abrams

Abrams pushes the center

Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams meets with audience members before speaking at the Georgia Municipal Association conference in the Savannah Convention Center on Monday.
Democratic candidate for governor Stacey Abrams meets with audience members before speaking at the Georgia Municipal Association conference in the Savannah Convention Center on Monday.

Abrams also played a centrist card to the same audience the day after Kemp spoke. There was no talk of defunding the police, and she’s been outspoken about more police funding recently.

Abrams said she's looking to give police raises, with the caveats of requiring "accountability for unlawful violence and misconduct" and "maintaining a statewide database of officers dismissed for violation of standards to help other law enforcement agencies make informed hiring decisions."

She's also mentioned returning a bipartisan criminal justice reform effort passed under Gov. Nathan Deal this month.

As for education, Abrams said she would propose a starting salary of $50,000 for Georgia teachers, and said protection from school shootings starts with better gun laws, and closing loopholes in the gun-buying process.

“We have to be a state that can protect the Second Amendment and protects second graders at the exact same time. We have to believe that we can do both,” Abrams said.

She alluded to Medicaid expansion, a longtime wish list item for many Georgia Democrats, and Abrams said she can do all this without raising taxes.

The tone of Abrams' speech Monday, and much of her campaign so far, was bipartisan.

"A friend of mine who's in the audience right now is a Republican. I'm a Democrat. We work together on issues. We oppose each other on a lot of issues. But what I cultivated at the Capitol and what I continue to believe, is that we have to be able to work across the aisle," Abrams said. "You have to be able to work across the state and you have to be able to work across divides to find the answers."

Will Peebles is the enterprise reporter for Savannah Morning News. He can be reached at wpeebles@gannett.com and @willpeeblessmn on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Brian Kemp, Stacey Abrams push for centrist vote in Savannah. Georgia