The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Georgia is neither red nor blue, and not changing anytime soon

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Charles S. Bullock III is the distinguished university professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia and co-author of “African American Statewide Candidates in the New South.”

Not that long ago, Democrats thought Stacey Abrams was leading Georgia firmly into the blue column. Now, they’re worried. And they should be, not just because she is trailing in her second attempt at becoming the state’s governor, but also because statewide elections in Georgia increasingly hinge on just the slightest moves in the electorate. That will probably be true for years to come in this neither-red-nor-blue state.

Many in the party thought the Democratic trend was clear when Abrams came within 55,000 votes of becoming the nation’s first Black female governor in 2018, and her expansion of the electorate paid off when Joe Biden became the first non-incumbent Democrat to win statewide since 1998. Senate victories by Democrats Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff in their 2021 runoffs seemed to confirm the bluing of the Peach State.

But now, Abrams’s second gubernatorial campaign is languishing, with polls consistently showing her solidly outside the margin of error, in a rematch with her Republican rival, Gov. Brian Kemp. In between the two elections, her books and speeches attracted a national audience and, significantly for her campaign, a national funding base. That gave Abrams a financial advantage, but Kemp has a perhaps more decisive asset: incumbency. Across the country, and in most offices, incumbents usually succeed unless they get entangled in scandal.

On the campaign trail, Kemp points to Georgia’s record-low unemployment, which he attributes to his decision to bring an early end to pandemic restrictions. He also touts the state’s $5,000 increase in teacher pay; an income tax rebate of $500 to families filing jointly; and the decision by two electric-vehicle manufacturers, Hyundai and Rivian, to build plants that will create thousands of jobs. GOP ads trumpet additional reasons to renew Kemp’s contract by linking Abrams to Biden and inflation. That message was reinforced last weekend with news that Atlanta has the second-highest inflation rate in the country, trailing only Phoenix.

Abrams tries to deflect attention from Biden and inflation, emphasizing instead issues in which Kemp is out of step with a majority of Georgians. Most Georgians (53.7 percent) oppose the overturning of Roe v. Wade and slightly more object to the law passed in Kemp’s first year that bans abortions after six weeks except for instances of rape, incest and the life of the mother. Abrams also focuses on Kemp’s backing of a 2022 law eliminating the permit requirement for carrying a concealed weapon. Ending the requirement is unpopular with 61 percent of Georgians.

Yet Abrams’s campaign has struggled to gain traction in a state where the evenness of the red/blue mix can be better seen in the neck-and-neck Senate race between Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker.

Like a creature in a horror movie, former president Donald Trump looms over the Kemp-Abrams contest. Kemp famously drew Trump’s ire by refusing to indulge his false claims of winning Georgia in 2020, but he has also declined to counter Trump’s vitriol. In seeking reelection, the governor needs to maintain a delicate balancing act.

By signaling that he is very much his own man, Kemp can hope to win over some White, college-educated suburbanites who remain Republicans but cannot bring themselves to support Trump. By not attacking Trump, Kemp could also draw votes from at least some of the former president’s supporters.

But if Trump decides to campaign in Georgia over the remaining weeks before the midterms, reiterating his 2020 election claims and launching fresh attacks against Kemp, that could turn off enough GOP voters to deny the governor a second term.

That’s hardly the only wild card. Republicans are feverishly trying to make inroads with minority voters in the Democratic base. They have established three outreach posts in metro Atlanta — one aiming at African Americans, another targeting a largely Hispanic area and the third focusing on Asian Americans. Consider: If Trump had won one percentage point more of the Black vote in 2020, his claimed victory in Georgia would be reality.

For Abrams, the challenge will be to achieve a 29-29 election — a variation on what used to be the 30-30 formula in Georgia, which held that if a Democratic candidate could attract 30 percent of the White vote and if Blacks cast 30 percent of all votes, the Democrat would win. Now, as the state’s electorate becomes more diverse, 29-29 suffices — that’s about what Biden, Warnock and Ossoff achieved.

Those results, though, came with Trump very much in the mix. Kemp could be excused for praying that, with so many other state contests to wade into before Nov. 8, the former president doesn’t have Georgia on his mind.

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