Abrams is aiming to win back the Dems who voted in Ga’s GOP primary.

CLAYTON, Ga. — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is a conservative by any standards.

As Republicans seek a second term in November, he can trumpet multiple tax cuts. He helped enact a ban on abortion after six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. He presided over an overhaul of the electoral law that could make it harder for some Georgians to vote.

And in case anyone still doubts his credentials, Kemp likes to point out that he’s Georgia’s first modern Republican governor not to have been a Democrat at some point in his political career.

Still, his decision to challenge Donald Trump and ratify Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential voters has earned Kemp credit from some Democrats. That goodwill was evident in the May primaries in Georgia, when a notable number of Democratic-leaning voters voted for Republicans to help Kemp defeat his Trump-endorsed challenger.

Now, with the general election approaching, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams needs those voters in her column. And she is shameless in arguing that Kemp had nothing to do with voters for refusing to overturn a free and fair US presidential election.

“Let me be clear,” Abrams said toward the end of his half-hour campaign speech. “Not committing treason does not make you a hero.”

Crowds at Abrams events roar to the line, betraying at least some concern that Kemp’s handling of Trump could curry favor with enough moderate voters and prove a variable. decisive in that rematch four years ago.

Kemp and the Republican Georgia secretary of state angered Trump’s public when they signed Biden’s victory in the state, which had been a Republican lock in presidential elections since 1996.

Of course, Kemp never explicitly pushed back against Trump’s false claims that Biden’s victory was fraudulent; the governor stuck to a factual explanation that he was following the law. His approach has infuriated Trump’s staunchest supporters. But it also proved a subtle way for Kemp to position himself as a moderating force within Trump’s party, giving the governor an opening to shape a November coalition made up of his own grassroots supporters and key voters.

That balance is how Kemp narrowly beat Abrams in 2018 and how the Democrats, in turn, changed Georgia in 2020.

“It’s grassroots strategy more for Republicans and grassroots strategy more for Democrats,” said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist, explaining the shared pressure on Kemp and Abrams to win the narrow middle.

Four years ago, Kemp won by 55,000 votes out of about 4 million votes. Biden edged out Trump by less than 12,000 out of 5 million votes. In the US Senate runoff two months after the presidential election, an estimated 4.5 million Georgians voted; Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff gained 2 percentage points and 1.2 percentage points respectively.

In May this year, Kemp edged out former Sen. David Perdue with nearly 74% of the vote in a record Republican primary, despite Perdue having Trump’s endorsement. Perdue’s more than 262,000 votes might worry Kemp in such a hotly contested state.

“There are still a lot of Holocaust deniers in our party,” said Ed Henderson, a local GOP officer in Rabun County, where Kemp and Abrams each hosted events recently. “I’m not one of them,” Henderson said, “but Kemp has to take care of them.”

Meanwhile, an Associated Press analysis of early voting records from data firm L2 found that more than 37,000 people who voted in Georgia’s Democratic primary two years ago voted in the primary. Republican in May, an unusually large number of so-called crossover voters.

It gave Kemp a definite anti-Trump boost he never openly sought and also drew attention in Abrams’ camp.

“Both sides have similar concerns,” Johnson concluded.

Hence Abrams’ frustration at any possibility Kemp would be rewarded for not helping Trump thwart an election.

Kemp, she told reporters during a stop in heavily Republican North Georgia, “is lauded for not committing treason.” She pointed to other actions by Kemp: expanding gun rights with a concealed carry law and signing a bill banning abortions at six weeks pregnant.

“It is wrong to suggest that Brian Kemp is some form of anti-Trump moderate,” Abrams told reporters. “He’s not. He’s not just a fiscal conservative. He’s a far-right religious extremist who uses Georgia law to implement his belief system.”

Lance Hammonds, president of the NAACP chapter in the heavily Democratic county of DeKalb in metro Atlanta, said he was aware of the cross-votes in May and was working to educate voters on the full toll from Kemp.

“I would say he’s done a good job as governor,” Hammonds admitted. “But there are a lot of gaps,” he said, pointing in particular to Kemp’s refusal to fully expand Medicaid.

As for Kemp’s navigation of Trump, Hammonds drew a distinction between Kemp and his relative silence and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who criticized the former president and testified before the congressional panel investigating Trump’s role in the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the United States Capitol.

Raffensperger “got up,” Hammonds said, while Kemp “always toed the party line. That’s not real political courage.”

Indeed, Kemp doesn’t talk about Trump unless asked. It’s a notable turnaround from 2018, when he won Trump’s endorsement in a disputed Republican primary. Instead, Kemp cites his decisions to avoid extended statewide business shutdowns and mask mandates during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, and he tries to tie Abrams to Biden and an inflationary economy. Kemp calls it “extreme”, just like she calls it.

However, Kemp clarifies his electoral strategy.

“We saw what happened” with Democrat wins in 2020 and 2021, Kemp said of the GOP base during a recent stop in Rabun County, where he won 80% of the vote. vote in 2018. “We have to unite, and we have to get all of our people out,” he warned. Then he promised, “We’re going to tackle this middle ground.”

It was only with reporters afterwards that the governor grudgingly acknowledged the potential effects of the 2020 drama in that equation. He said Trump loyalists give him credit for signing an overhaul to the state’s election laws in 2021 – a reaction to Democratic victories. Among other provisions, the law shortens run-off campaigns to four weeks and limits drop boxes for mail-in ballots in the most populous counties. Both moves are forcing Democrats to recalibrate their turnout operations.

Pressed on whether he could get swing votes for ratification of Biden’s victory, Kemp said, “People want elected officials who are going to uphold their oath of office to protect the law and the Constitution of this state and the United States Constitution. I think there are a lot of people in the middle who appreciate that.”

Of course, he added, “There are probably a lot of people who won’t vote for me who like it too. But I tried to be consistent.”

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Valerie J. Wallis