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Battleground: Ballot Box | Why the Georgia governor's race is so chaotic

As Georgia continues its role as the center of the political universe, what could be more interesting than a rematch of the 2018 governor’s race?

How about re-litigating 2020 as well?

Gov. Brian Kemp was already facing a difficult campaign to run against Democrat Stacey Abrams again after winning by about 55,000 votes in 2018. But now, because of Trump’s obsession with losing Georgia in 2020, Kemp might not even make it out of the GOP primary. Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue announced this week he’s challenging Kemp. Perdue lost a January runoff to Sen. Jon Ossoff, in part because data showed false claims about the election kept conservative voters home.

And, of course, Perdue immediately received a Trump endorsement.

 

Democrats see an opening to win back some control over state government even as, nationally, the picture is less rosy.

This week, we look at what will certainly be an historic election cycle to become Georgia’s next governor.

Brian Kemp is a Republican, and has been his entire life. Since taking office in 2019, he’s championed conservative causes including restricting abortion access, streamlining government spending, tackling gang violence and human trafficking and focusing on growing economic opportunities in rural Georgia.

You’d think that would make him a shoo-in to win the GOP primary nomination again, right?

Well, not exactly.

In 2020, there were elections up and down the ballot for candidates featuring issues ranging from the coronavirus to the economy to education, but for former President Donald Trump, only one thing matters.

"We never forget 2020, just in case you have any question, we're not forgetting," he said at a September rally in Perry.

That’s right: it’s the 2020 election results. In case you’ve been visiting a remote island for the past 13 months, Trump lost Georgia by about 12,000 votes. He didn’t take it well. Republicans of all stripes made false claims about Georgia’s voting system, absentee ballots, election laws, poll workers and more to try and change the outcome.

Kemp is on the shortlist of those who did not. He would know how the election process works, too, having served as Georgia secretary of state for several years, winning two terms after being appointed in 2010 by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue — cousin of David Perdue.

Now you see how this battle over the governor’s race has layers of interest.

Let’s fast forward to the 2018 governor’s race, where Brian Kemp, the chief election official, was not the favorite. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was top of the pack in a crowded primary that saw lots of extreme campaign ads and stunts, including one Republican state senator who drove around a so-called “deportation bus.”

Cagle and Kemp made it to a runoff, and then secret recordings emerged where Cagle was on tape allegedly admitting to passing a bill that hurt a primary opponent and criticizing GOP primary voters.

“This primary felt like it was who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, you know, and who could be the craziest,” Cagle said.

That primary included Kemp, who played up his conservative background featuring explosions, guns and immigration.

 

And then, a week before the runoff, an out-of-the-blue Trump tweet ensured the game would stay in Kemp’s favor, which we would later learn was encouraged by Sonny and David Perdue.

Let’s skip ahead a little further to the 2018 election, specifically in the days after. It’s a bitter fight that centers on how our votes are counted, with the sitting secretary of state in charge of the voting system narrowly defeating a Black voting rights advocate calling for changes to the system. 

That was Kemp vs. Abrams: Part 1 in a hotly contested election. Georgia had outdated voting machines. Overcrowded polls in metro Atlanta had problems and long lines, and there were questions — some legitimate, others more fanciful — about the outcome.

Days after the election, after every vote was counted and after some lawsuits successfully added more votes to the total, Abrams issued a blistering concession speech. In it, she acknowledged she would not be governor but refused to call it a concession.

“But to watch an elected official — who claims to represent the people of this state — baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote, has been truly appalling. So, to be clear, this is not a speech of concession. Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede. But my assessment is that the law currently allows no further viable remedy. Now, I could certainly bring a new case to keep this one contest alive, but I don’t want to hold public office if I need to scheme my way into the post. Because the title of governor isn’t nearly as important as our shared title: Voters.”

Since that time, over the past three years, Abrams has become a Democratic rising star. She launched a national political group Fair Fight that deals with voting rights, the census and redistricting. In 2019, she delivered the response to Trump’s State of the Union address.

“For seven years, I led the Democratic Party in the Georgia House of Representatives. I didn’t always agree with the Republican Speaker or governor, but I understood that our constituents didn’t care about our political parties — they cared about their lives. So, when we had to negotiate criminal justice reform or transportation or foster care improvements, the leaders of our state didn’t shut down — we came together. And we kept our word. It should be no different in our nation’s capital. We may come from different sides of the political aisle, but our joint commitment to the ideals of this nation cannot be negotiable.”

She was courted by Democratic presidential campaigns as Atlanta hosted a primary debate, floated as a potential vice presidential nominee for Joe Biden and maintained a national profile as a progressive champion for voting rights and spent time on book tour.

After her narrow loss in 2018, Democrats continued to build out infrastructure in the state and set their sights on 2020. And when both U.S. Senate seats were on the ballot, some asked her to run — which she ultimately declined to do. Pundits said it was a death knell for Democrats’ chances to win against Perdue, and gave Biden little chance of winning the state against Trump.

But Democratic organizing, growing distaste of Trump and a few last-minute rallies from Biden and former President Barack Obama helped turn the Peach State a little more purple.

“Georgia could be the state, Georgia could be the place where we put this country back on track," Obama said. "And not just because Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have a chance to win Georgia. But you’ve got the chance to flip two Senate seats.” 

A rematch between Kemp and Abrams seemed inevitable, so when she finally launched her campaign last week all eyes were on the message she put out.

"While my jobs have changed, what I know to be true has not," she said. "Our values are still strong no matter where we come from in Georgia or how long we've been here. We believe in this place and our people, folks who deserve to be seen and heard and have a voice because in the end, we are one Georgia, regardless of the pandemic or the storms, the obstacles in our way or the forces determined to divide us."

MORE: Stacey Abrams is running for governor of Georgia again

It’s still the same progressive Stacey Abrams, but the tone is laser-focused on Georgia, specifically on voters outside the metro Atlanta area. Abrams calls for a unified Georgia.

"When our Georgia is going to move to its next and greatest chapter, we're going to need leadership," she said. "It's leadership that knows how to do the job. Leadership that doesn't take credit without also taking responsibility. Leadership that understands the true pain folks are feeling and has real plans. That's the job of government to fight for one Georgia, our Georgia, and now it's time to get the job done."

It would be an epic showdown, between Kemp and Abrams, and it likely still will be.

 

But then, of course there’s Trump.

For a year, he has attacked Kemp because Kemp didn’t overturn the election. Because Trump lost Georgia, several Republicans are running in his image and with his blessing. And because Democrats won both Senate seats, David Perdue has some time on his hands. 

The GOP in Georgia is already fractured over Trump’s role in the party’s future, and the former president’s meddling in this race turns that fracture into a chasm that threatens to swallow everything whole. For weeks, there have been rumors Perdue would get into the race, so Kemp secured more endorsements, raised more cash and readied his attacks for when the time came. 

Monday morning, the former senator officially entered.

RELATED: David Perdue will challenge Gov. Brian Kemp in GOP primary

"I'm running for governor to make sure Stacey Abrams is never governor of Georgia," he said. "Make no mistake, Abrams will smile, lie and cheat to transform Georgia into her radical vision of a state that would look more like California or New York."

Does Perdue have a platform beyond beating Stacey Abrams and attacking Brian Kemp? His ad calls for completely eliminating the state's income tax, making "cities and states safe again," putting parents in charge of education and fighting vaccine mandates.

"And let me be very clear: over my dead body will we ever give Stacey Abrams control of our elections again," he said.

It’s an ambitious, sweeping proclamation — ending with some aggressive language that is a bit of a dog whistle considering people literally did die at the U.S. Capitol when thousands launched an insurrection to overturn the election results. And Stacey Abrams has never been in charge of elections in Georgia, despite how convincing Perdue may sound.

Hours later, the inevitable Trump endorsement came, which attacked Kemp and Abrams, and continued to make false claims of fraud about the 2020 election. Trump’s looming presence opens the doors for Democrats to have a good chance at winning in the state — despite a poor national outlook.

So far, the Perdue campaign seems to be premised on attacking a popular conservative incumbent and embracing discredited claims of voter fraud. 

On Sean Hannity's show Monday night, Perdue gave his first interview. He rehashed the same talking points in his campaign video, and indicated he’s going to continue to make misleading and false claims questioning Georgia’s election system.

“Stacey Abrams on her side complained about the election," he said. "We've seen irregularities in this election. What the people want in Georgia is voter integrity they want to know in our democracy when they vote it's going to count and not be stolen.”

The Republican Party is divided over Trump, and has lost power by looking backwards. And a demographically changing Georgia is voting increasingly for Democrats to represent them moving forward.

All of these things are coming to a head in 2022, especially with the Georgia gubernatorial race. And we’ll be there chronicling everything that happens in between.

Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer is Jess Mador, our editor is Wayne Drash. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger, who also wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.

Copyright 2021 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.