In a barn 40 miles north of downtown Atlanta, after barbecue was served and local dignitaries basted each other with encomia, Gov. Brian Kemp got down to brass tacks.

The Republican reminded his audience, in a county even redder than the state’s clay, that he has suspended the gas tax, increased funding for law enforcement and made Georgia early in ending economically devastating pandemic lockdowns. But the nail he hammered flush to the plank was this: Re-electing him will “make sure Stacey Abrams is not going to be our governor or the next president.” (His emphasis.)

In 2018, Abrams, who is Black and was the first female minority leader in the state House of Representatives, ran for governor and lost to Kemp by about 55,000 votes out of 3.9 million cast.

Claiming voter suppression, Abrams has never conceded defeat, so she has been an “election denier” twice as long as Donald Trump.

But denying a winner’s legitimacy has become a Democratic tradition. Hillary Clinton said there were “many legitimate questions” about election “integrity” in 2005, when 31 House Democrats voted to make John Kerry president by denying President George W. Bush the 20 electoral votes of Ohio, which Bush carried by more than 118,000 votes. Clinton called the 2016 election “stolen,” and then-Sen. Kamala Harris, when an interviewer said Trump “didn’t really win” in 2016, responded “you are absolutely right.”

After 2018, Abrams considered running for the Senate and hoped to be Joe Biden’s running mate, but decided on a rematch in this formerly red, increasingly purple state. Georgia – closely divided, increasingly urban, a smorgasbord of ethnicities – mirrors the nation. If Florida becomes as red as Ohio has, Georgia will be the second-largest swing state, after Pennsylvania. It is 32% Black (the third-highest percentage of any state) and has the second-lowest percentage of Whites (after Maryland) among states east of the Mississippi.

Imitation is flattery, and Kemp’s campaign hopes to emulate Abrams’s success in mobilizing “low-propensity” voters – those who need to be nudged to the polls. Such retail politics was essential to Biden’s wafer-thin (by 11,000 votes out of 4.9 million cast) 2020 victory in Georgia.

Kemp’s campaign is spending millions to send people down country roads and into Georgia’s mountains to locate and motivate persons whose interest in elections evaporates when Trump is not on the ballot.

Trump, who campaigned for Kemp in 2018, has been in a towering rage since 2020 because Kemp refuses to say that his state’s election was rife with fraud. Fickle Trump now calls Kemp “a turncoat, a coward, and a complete and total disaster.” Complete and total.

Seeking vengeance, Trump inveigled former senator David Perdue (who lost his seat because Trump depressed Republican turnout with his depressing talk about rigged elections) into a primary challenge to Kemp. The Republican Governors Association, in a departure from previous policy, intervened in the primary to support Kemp, who shellacked Perdue by 51.9 points.

Regarding Trump, Kemp has adopted an emollient tactic: Do not take his bait; talk about him rarely. Kemp says voters rarely express interest in Trump’s only interest, the 2020 vote.

Abrams had the wind at her back in 2018, with an uncongenial president from the other party. Today, she is buffeted by headwinds from her own party’s unpopular president.

In 2018, she campaigned on familiar policy issues (e.g., Medicaid expansion) and having cooperated with a Republican governor, Nathan Deal. This year, playing nicely with others is not mood music for her rematch against someone she says stole the 2018 election.

Georgia’s “heartbeat” bill forbids abortion after six weeks gestation (except in cases of rape, incest, a “medically futile pregnancy” or to save the mother’s life). Experts differ: Should what is audible at six weeks, when the heart begins to develop, be termed a “heartbeat” or “cardiac activity”? Abrams’ anger management problem is: She calls what is heard at six weeks “a manufactured sound designed to convince people that men have the right to take control of a woman’s body.”

Progressives nationwide adore and generously finance her, but her grievance politics might have grated on Georgians when Abrams said she is “tired of hearing about being the best state in the country to do business when we are the worst state in the country to live.”

Kemp’s contrasting placidity conceals an urgency even though he has led Abrams by about five percentage points all year, which their recent debate probably did not alter. He thinks that if Republicans cannot elect Georgia’s governor this year, they are not apt to win the state, or the presidency, two years hence.

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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