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Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams are in a rematch. A lot has changed since 2018.

The political landscape in Georgia — and nationally — has shifted significantly

LEFT: Stacey Abrams delivers remarks and answers questions regarding the Georgia primary on May 24. RIGHT: Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) delivers remarks during his election night victory party in Atlanta on May 24. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Stacey Abrams refused to concede the Georgia governor’s race to Republican Brian Kemp four years ago, even after it was clear she had lost.

“Concession means an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that,” Abrams told supporters 10 days after Election Day, alleging persistent voter suppression allegations, though state officials certified the results. “Georgia still has a decision to make about who will we be in the next election. And the one after that. And the one after that.”

The next election has arrived, and she has another chance against Kemp, who on Tuesday defeated a primary challenger backed by former president Donald Trump in a landslide. Abrams has long sought this rematch, refusing some pleas to run for the Senate in 2020 and building a reputation as a leading advocate for voting rights.

Though the names on the ballot in November will be the same, the political landscape has shifted significantly over the past four years. The anti-Trump fervor that buoyed Democrats in the last midterm election and nearly lifted Abrams to the governor’s mansion has faded. This time, it’s Republicans who are eager to register their displeasure with President Biden’s policies.

“It’s a midterm election now with an unpopular Democrat in the White House rather than a midterm with an unpopular Republican in the White House,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University, explaining some of the head winds that Democrats face.

Kemp has proved to be a savvy politician during his time in office, co-opting or sidelining rivals. The governor and his allies have focused on Abrams extensively in recent weeks, and they are seeking to sharpen the contrast between them in the wake of Tuesday’s primary.

Kemp is already using Abrams’s national ambitions as a rallying call to unite Republicans against her, making the case that she is using the race to springboard to national relevance and is reliant on outside campaign surrogates and outside donations. Abrams, who some see as a potential future presidential candidate, openly promoted herself to be Biden’s running mate in 2020.

“Stacey Abrams’s far-left campaign for governor in 2022 is only a warm-up for her presidential run in 2024,” Kemp said during his Tuesday night victory address. “Her radical ideas are meant to please people in New York, California and Chicago who are funding her campaign, so she can head straight out to Iowa or New Hampshire next year,” he said, referencing the traditional early states in the presidential nomination calendar.

But Abrams’s team says Democrats have dramatically expanded the electorate over the past four years, pointing to 1.3 million new voters who have registered to vote in the state since her defeat.They say they believe Democrats hold an advantage of 17 percentage points with these new voters.

The long embattled party has been reinvigorated by victories, they said, including Biden’s narrow win in the state in 2020 and then two Democrats prevailing in runoff elections in early 2021.

“Knowing that you can win in a state like Georgia when you’ve been told that you can’t is very motivating for Democrats in the state,” said Seth Bringman, a senior adviser to the Abrams campaign. Since 2012, Democrats have improved in each election year, he noted.

In a show of the difficult road Abrams faces, the University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato on Tuesday changed his rating of the race from a toss-up to “leans Republican,” calling Kemp’s nearly 52 percentage point win against former senator David Perdue “dominating.” Public polling has consistently given Kemp a slight edge in a head-to-head matchup with Abrams.

Abrams’s allies say she has become an even more formidable candidate over the past four years, emerging as a leader in the Democratic Party on voting rights and becoming a massive fundraising draw. In Georgia, she started two initiatives that have eased medical debt for nearly 70,000 state residents, helped small businesses and helped bring coronavirus vaccines to communities.

But she has also shown herself to be gaffe-prone, handing Republicans material to use against her, including a comment over the weekend referring to Georgia as “the worst state in the country to live.”

She addressed the remarks during a recent appearance on MSNBC, acknowledging that her comments were “inartfully delivered.” She added: “I challenge every Republican to stop focusing on the little bit of rhetoric and actually show me in your record.”

A different error is highlighted in a political ad released Wednesday by the Republican Governors Association, their first general election spot of the 2022 cycle. The ad shows a photo of Abrams sitting maskless with a group of young schoolchildren all wearing masks. “Strict mandates on everyone but herself,” the narrator says. Abrams has apologized for breaking covid rules.

Democrats are seeking to portray Kemp as a far-right governor who is out-of-touch with the state’s values. During a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, state Democrats pointed to his support for a laws to limit abortions and ease gun rules along with his refusal to expand federal health-care benefits.

Allies of Abrams also say his bitter primary campaign has divided the Republican Party, which works in their favor. Some Republicans in the state share that view, fearing Trump will continue to work against Kemp because he dislikes him so much. In the past, Trump has said Kemp and Abrams would be about the same.

The former president is famously unpredictable. “I think even Trump understands that a 50-point loss hurts,” one Kemp adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the state of the race.

Still, Perdue — the Trump-backed candidate and former senator who Kemp defeated by a wide margin — sought to show some support for Kemp on Tuesday. “Everything I said about Brian Kemp was true,” he said onstage at his election night event after calling Kemp to concede. “But here’s the other thing I said was true: He is a much better choice than Stacey Abrams.”

Perdue added: “We’re going to do everything we can to make damn sure Stacey Abrams doesn’t take over the state.”

Allies of Kemp say the showdown against Trump’s handpicked challenger shows that he’s not beholden to the party’s de facto leader, which they say will play well among suburban voters. Kemp has walked a fine line with Trump, avoiding explicitly criticizing the former president to avoid alienating his supporters.

The top-of-the-ticket will be unusually diverse in Georgia: Three of the four major party nominees for governor and the Senate are Black. In addition to Abrams, Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) faces former football star Herschel Walker.

On Wednesday morning, Walker held a strategy session at the Georgian Terrace hotel in Atlanta with donors, where his team told the crowd — which included former congressman Jack Kingston, former Trump Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price, and Faith and Freedom Coalition leader Ralph Reed — that he wants to be on the same page with Kemp.

They also showed polling in the race to explain how they planned to campaign, such as how messages including Walker’s support for law enforcement, his opposition to Biden, and Warnock’s economic policies and a stated desire to stop illegal immigration improves voters’ views of his candidacy. Also his biography as an “American success story” who overcame challenges polls well.

In a memo distributed by Walker’s campaign and obtained by The Washington Post, Erik Iverson, the campaign’s pollster, signaled an interest in highlighting Warnock’s time in politics rather than his past as one of the state’s leading clergymen.

“Reverend Warnock is now Senator Warnock,” Iverson wrote. Meanwhile, Walker plans to run as a “political outsider,” the memo said.

Donors liked what they heard. “The blue wave has already crested in Georgia,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor who is backing Walker and attended the meeting. “The days of Georgia having two Democratic senators are numbered.”

Some Walker allies say he still needs to improve how he handles questions from the news media, and they expect a deluge of negative advertisements on mistakes in his personal life. On Tuesday night, he appeared to stumble through a question about gun control, according to a video posted by a CNN reporter.

“What I like to do, what I like to do is see it and everything and stuff. I like to see it,” Walker said.

Walker’s history includes chapters that are expected be widely litigated during the campaign. His ex-wife has said he held a gun to her head several times; he wrote in a memoir that he once drove across town with the intent to shoot and kill a man who did not deliver a car on time; and at one point, police in Texas confiscated his handgun and put him on “caution list” due to his “violent tendencies.” In the past, Walker has blamed his behavior on a mental illness for which he’s sought help.

“Walker enters the general election already damaged by months of reporting on his outrageous and false claims, including lies about his business record and growing questions about his readiness to serve Georgians in the U.S. Senate,” Warnock’s campaign manager, Quentin Fulks, wrote in a recent memo about the race.

The Warnock memo focuses on local accomplishments, including protecting a deal to save about 2,600 jobs at a battery plant in the state and securing jobs at the Port of Savannah.

And it seeks to separate Warnock from Biden: “Reverend Warnock has stood up to the Biden Administration’s plan to cut critical funding for Georgia’s military bases, including the Savannah Readiness Center.”

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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