This November’s election is going to be full of hard-fought races that will be described as emblematic of our national divisions or representative of where the parties are at this point in history. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find any race that distills this moment down to its essence more than the Georgia governor’s race.
In Tuesday’s runoff, Secretary of State Brian Kemp obliterated his opponent to become the Republican nominee to face Stacey Abrams in the general election, and both sides will be testing out their respective theories of how to win a closely contested election in 2018.
Let’s start with Kemp, whose victory seems to have been assured when he was endorsed by President Donald Trump. Kemp aired ads showing how much he wanted to reach across the aisle to get things done. (Just kidding.)
His ads were white conservative identity politics in its pure uncut form. I have guns! I hate immigrants! I say Merry Christmas, and I blow stuff up! Just after the first round of voting, in which Kemp came in second to Casey Cagle, Cagle was secretly recorded chatting with one of the other candidates, and said, “This primary felt like it was who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, you know, and who could be the craziest.”
He was exactly right, but that’s what Georgia Republicans turned out to have wanted.
This is a reliable way to win Republican primaries, especially in the South. The question for Kemp is whether it’s enough to win the governor’s office, particularly in a year that isn’t friendly to his party.
It may well be. The theory underlying it is that while Georgia is changing - becoming less white, bringing in more immigrants, and becoming friendlier to Democrats - it’s still at least one more election from being diverse enough to allow a Democrat to win statewide. People have been predicting Georgia’s transformation from a red to a purple state for some time now, and it always seems an election away. Donald Trump won there by a relatively close 5-point margin in 2016, but the kind of folks who vote for Democrats - minorities, young people, urban dwellers - are traditionally less likely to get to the polls in off-year elections.
In its way, Kemp’s strategy resembles that of Trump himself. In advance of 2016, much of the GOP thought it had to reach out to Latinos and other voters whom the party had shunned, but Trump calculated correctly that there was at least one more election to be won by putting white resentment at the center of a presidential candidacy. In his victory speech, Kemp invoked the terrifying specter of “Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and Nancy Pelosi,” asking, “Do you really want a governor who’s bought and paid for by liberal billionaires and out-of-state socialists? … This is the state of Georgia: We are a red state.” In case you’re wondering whether there will be any reaching out to voters in the middle.
And the president offered his congratulations via Twitter, along with some predictably slanderous assertions about Kemp’s opponent:
“Congratulations to Brian Kemp on your very big win in Georgia last night. Wow, 69-30, those are big numbers. Now go win against the open border, crime loving opponent that the Democrats have given you. She is weak on Vets, the Military and the 2nd Amendment. Win!”
What about Stacey Abrams? Unlike a lot of Democrats in the South, she isn’t going to be saying she loves hunting and will join with President Trump when she agrees with him. If you watch her ads, you’ll see her talk about issues liberals care about like expanding Medicaid and transportation funding. Her theory of how to win is to expand the electorate and excite Democrats. Here’s what she recently told Jamil Smith of Rolling Stone:
“I’m not going to spend a disproportionate share of our resources trying to convert Republican-leaning voters when we can invest in lifting up the voices of those who share our values. Because here’s the thing: I think our values are the right ones. And I think these values that are shared actually are going to be victorious on their own.”
There are plenty of Democratic candidates who have favored a strategy of mobilization over persuasion, but seldom do you hear them state it so forthrightly.
The biggest challenge Abrams faces is that while the potential is there, in the thousands of non-white Georgians (and liberal white ones) who either aren’t registered or don’t vote often enough, getting them signed up and to the polls in large enough numbers to overcome the built-in Republican advantage in the state is a hugely labor-intensive task. It’s fitting that the election may come down to whether she can succeed in that challenge. As native Georgian Ed Kilgore noted Tuesday night:
“Abrams has spent a good portion of her career trying to expand voter registration among young and minority folk who are under-represented in the Georgia electorate. And Kemp, as Georgia’s chief election officer since 2010, has fought her efforts tooth and nail and shown himself to be a champion vote suppressor (or as he would put it, a courageous voter fraud opponent).”
It’s possible that Democrats could have a wave election that isn’t quite big enough to win in Georgia. But if Abrams can prevail (and not incidentally, become the nation’s first African-American woman governor), it’s going to make a lot of Republicans think that they have to change the way they do things.
Paul Waldman is a columnist with The Washington Post.