SAVANNAH, Ga. — Presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams is storming across Georgia condemning Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for signing bills expanding gun rights and curbing transgender athletes’ ability to compete in school sports.
Mr. Kemp, meanwhile, is brandishing the legislation in a series of bill-signing ceremonies, which are taking the air out of former Sen. David Perdue’s primary challenge and increasing the odds that the governor will get a rematch with Ms. Abrams in November.
Ms. Abrams is relishing the prospect.
“The second time’s the charm because we have an opportunity in this moment to harness both the enthusiasm and the energy, but also the deep pain and disappointment of so many Georgians,” she told The Washington Times after a recent campaign event. “Yes, getting through COVID has been easier for some, but there are so many Georgians grappling with economic challenges, health care challenges, and simply the malaise of thinking their issues are not being addressed.”
Her 2018 campaign ignited Democrats and made her a national celebrity. She fell roughly 50,000 votes shy of becoming the first Black woman elected as chief executive of a state.
The campaign also presaged the 2020 presidential campaign, albeit with a twist: It was Ms. Abrams, a Democrat, who complained of voting problems in 2018. Indeed, she has never formally conceded the race, though she acknowledges that Mr. Kemp is the legal victor.
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Georgia also voted for a Democrat for president and elected two Democrats for Senate, bolstering the party’s expectations this year.
Ms. Abrams, 48, said Democrats’ chances are improving.
“We have a new electorate,” Ms. Abrams said. “More than 1.5 million Georgians have been registered to vote, and we know if we do the right thing and reach out and engage and we offer clear plans for success that they will vote for us and we will win in November.”
Ms. Abrams served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2007 to 2017 and was minority leader for six of those years. She founded the New Georgia Project in 2013 to register thousands of young and minority voters across the state.
She has spent the four years since her last campaign building her reputation as a voting rights advocate, though she failed to plead her way into becoming Joseph R. Biden’s running mate in 2020.
Republicans argue that those four years have given voters a closer look at Ms. Abrams’ brand of leadership and it’s not been to her benefit.
“From calling for mask mandates and closing Georgia businesses to refusing to condemn the “defund the police” movement and lying about election integrity, Stacey Abrams has championed the far left’s insane policies at every turn since 2018 in a quest for more money and power,” said Tate Mitchell, a spokesman for Mr. Kemp’s campaign.
Maddie Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Republican Governors Association, said Ms. Abrams’ aspirations for national office will also drag down her party.
“Stacey Abrams has been very clear from the beginning: She wants to be president,” Ms. Anderson said. “This time around, Georgians see right through her current vanity project and steppingstone to the Oval Office: running for governor.”
Ms. Abrams’ supporters say she has been a leader and has inspired Democrats across the state. They say she deserves credit for Democrats’ successes in the 2020 Senate and presidential elections and they are hopeful she can keep up the momentum.
“I think it was partly due to Stacey’s efforts that we were able to get Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock into the Senate, where they really are making a difference in helping move the Biden agenda forward,” said Sharon Greene. “So I’m hoping the tide stays blue in Georgia.”
“She was so very close the last time around, and I think she has continued to consolidate that base among Democrats who had been frankly very depressed about things [before her 2018 campaign],” the 75-year-old Democrat said.
Ms. Abrams, who has cleared the field in the Democratic primary, has her eye squarely on November.
Mr. Kemp must survive a challenge from Mr. Perdue, whose most prominent backer, former President Donald Trump, says the governor bears some of the blame for his loss to Mr. Biden in the state.
Mr. Perdue lost his seat to Mr. Ossoff in the 2020 election.
Seeking to overcome that headwind, Mr. Kemp, 58, has been bolstering his right flank.
He shepherded a series of bills through the Republican-controlled state legislature that he says will give parents more say over school curriculum, including a Parental Bill of Rights and rules on the teaching of race and “divisive concepts.”
He also signed bills to let gun owners carry in public without a concealed weapons permit, restrict abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected and authorize an oversight committee to bar transgender athletes from competing on sports teams that don’t match their gender at birth.
The governor also signed what could prove to be the largest income tax cut in the state’s history.
That law has confounded Ms. Abrams, who has refused to say whether she would try to revoke the tax cuts if elected.
She denounced Mr. Kemp for loosening gun laws and said he injected right-wing politics into schools. She said the governor is showing he doesn’t trust the state’s educators.
“Gov. Brian Kemp has signed a law that is going to put our teachers in the courtroom, not the classroom,” Ms. Abrams said during a campaign swing. “He has made it legal to lie to our children because when you say you can’t talk about ‘divisive concepts,’ he is saying, ‘Don’t tell the truth about who we are.’”
Some dividing lines from four years ago are lingering.
Ms. Abrams is all-in on a full expansion of Medicaid. Mr. Kemp has pushed a more limited expansion, which the Biden administration has rebuffed. Mr. Kemp does not support in-state college tuition for young illegal immigrants known as Dreamers. Ms. Abrams does.
“If you graduate from a Georgia high school, you should be able to attend a Georgia college without exception,” she said at a campaign stop, adding that the strongest students also should be eligible for taxpayer-funded scholarships. “If you can make it through the gauntlet, you deserve the prize.”
Mr. Kemp signed an election bill that clarifies voting procedures, reins in some generous pandemic policies such as expansive ballot drop boxes and calls for stricter ID requirements for absentee ballots. The governor says he has restored integrity to the process, but Ms. Abrams says he has made it tougher for non-White voters to cast ballots.
The governor leads in polling against Ms. Abrams. He also holds a solid lead in polling against Mr. Perdue in the May 24 Republican primary. Mr. Kemp needs to win the majority to avoid a June runoff.
Analysts aren’t surprised by Mr. Kemp’s strength. They say the undercurrents of this year’s election are the opposite of 2018, when voter disgust with Mr. Trump helped unify Democrats.
Now, it’s Mr. Biden struggling in office and serving as a drag on Democratic candidates, including Ms. Abrams.
“She is going to have to swing up steam against things like inflation, price of gas, price of groceries, and Biden’s unpopularity,” said Charles S. Bullock III, a politics professor at the University of Georgia. “If I had to put money on it right now, I’d bet on the incumbent because he has a lot he can run on too.”
Mr. Bullock said Ms. Abrams will benefit from raising money “like John D. Rockefeller.”
Ms. Abrams also has improved her personal finances, which provided fodder for her critics in 2018. Her net worth jumped from $109,000 to more than $3 million.
Mr. Trump blasted out a report last week from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that said Mr. Kemp’s worth grew by more than $3 million since he took office.
Barring a major surprise, the gubernatorial race will play out alongside what is shaping up to be a blockbuster showdown pitting Mr. Warnock, who won his seat in a 2020 special election, against former Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who has never run for public office.