Last night’s debate between Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams didn’t light up social media the way the debate between Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Republican challenger Herschel Walker became a spectacle.
Abrams argued for nuance when talking about crime policies. Kemp sidestepped questions on his intentions around abortion and contraception restrictions. The conversation was policy-heavy, without much for partisans to latch onto.
Meanwhile, an image from the Warnock-Walker trainwreck continues to circulate in Georgians’ social media feeds four days later: Herschel Walker smiling like he ripped one in an elevator while holding up a fake sheriff’s badge, vacuously attempting to show his support for law enforcement. Crime is apparently so out of control in Georgia that the Republican candidate impersonated a police officer live on television to prove the point.
Debates matter at the margins. But the margins are all anyone has in Georgia. Two years ago, then-Sen. David Perdue got served so hard by Jon Ossoff in a debate that Perdue noped out of a second course a few days later. Ossoff ended up arguing with an empty podium for 90 minutes in front of the Atlanta Press Club, then beat Perdue by about half a percentage point in a runoff a month later.
“This is firing an incumbent and not an open seat,” Abrams’s campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said of Kemp. “We have to give reasons for people to fire him. … He’s got a very radical, far-right record that we will be pointing out and throwing out.”
One wonders how we measure such things now. Standards for “radical” have shifted over the last four years. Kemp had to beat back Perdue’s Trump-fueled payback challenge, which effectively positioned the governor to the left of the Republican insurrectionist wing. Compared to the Republican lieutenant governor candidate Burt Jones, who participated in a scheme to send false electors to Washington in an effort to subvert the presidential election in 2020, Kemp almost looks like a moderate.
“Inflation, jobs, the economy and cost of living are far and away the top issues,” said Cody Hall, Kemp’s campaign spokesperson. “I think that we have tried our best to remain focused on that. Sometimes campaigns get distracted, and sometimes lose focus on what the voters are telling us they want us to talk about.”
Kemp has consistently been ahead in polling, ranging from a scant point in the Quinnipiac poll from October 10 to 9 points in the Trafalgar Group poll released October 11. The FiveThirtyEight weighted average is 5.5 points.
Abrams’s team takes issue with the weighting of most of these polls, arguing that they are under-sampling Latino and Asian voters, who have been growing in number and are disproportionately representative of swing voters.
Not that one can find many swing voters in Georgia, of course. The state’s politics are largely calcified by race and geography. Abrams can expect to win 90 percent of Black voters and lose 80 to 90 percent of rural white voters. A systemic sampling error consequential enough to swing the race is probably a stretch.
The gap between Abrams and Warnock in polling defines the limits of sharing a ticket in modern Georgia elections. Exactly one poll — sponsored by Walker himself — shows the challenger with a lead. The others generally show Warnock holding his Senate seat with a lead of 2 to 7 points. The FiveThirtyEight weighted average is 4 points.
Perhaps this is simply the advantage of incumbency, as well as the shocking weakness of Walker’s candidacy. But the math of a 9-point gap suggests that roughly 1 in 22 voters will vote for the Warnock, a Democrat, and then Kemp, a Republican. Analysts say there are too few Abrams-Walker voters to consider.
The Abrams-Kemp contest has been rooted in substantive policy questions about how to administer a budget surplus, Medicaid expansion for Georgia, changes to gun laws, and abortion rights over the last four years. “We’ve been told that the quality of your citizenship depends on your geography. That based on the state that you live in, you may or may not have the protection to take care of your own body. Access to an abortion, if you’re below the Mason-Dixon Line, is nearly impossible,” Abrams told NPR a few days ago.
Little enough about the Senate campaign has been substantive. Walker’s campaign surrogates flooded television and internet ad space with spots trying to hold Georgia’s junior senator responsible for a worldwide inflation problem. That has largely been met with ads discussing Walker’s record of domestic violence, a threat to have a shootout with police, and misrepresentations about his work with veterans and with police.
The abortion question in Georgia is the wild card. Georgia passed a six-week abortion ban that had been blocked in court before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion this summer. The religious right is agitating for a nationwide ban and for Georgia to ban all abortions full stop. It is the starkest of political divides and the plainest contrast between Kemp and Abrams. The Democratic campaign has increasingly pressed the threat to women’s bodily autonomy posed by an unchecked Republican legislature and governor as a rallying cry.
The effect of reversing Roe v. Wade is hard to measure before the actual election. It’s possible that some decisive number of white women haven’t told pollsters their true intentions: pro-lifers in public, but pro-choice when no one is looking. It’s one explanation for the 59-41 percent referendum vote two months ago that kept abortion legal in Kansas only a few weeks after Roe fell. Earlier polls had conservatives winning that vote by a few points.
But a recent NYT/Siena poll suggests that the importance of abortion may have faded, particularly for independent women voters, who are swinging toward Republicans.
With Georgia’s voting blocs so ideologically calcified, turnout decides elections. Abrams sauntered into the nomination with a clear field after announcing her candidacy in December, not really campaigning until February. She has raised more money than any Georgia gubernatorial candidate ever, most of which has come from outside of Georgia. But Democratic insiders have been grumbling about a relative lack of public enthusiasm compared to the frenetic madness of the 2018 and 2020 election campaigns in Georgia.
The pandemic bears some blame for that. Campaign labor is in short supply, even when decent pay is offered. The irony is that Kemp will undoubtedly argue that Georgia’s low unemployment rate is a mark in his favor.
With Georgia’s voting blocs so ideologically calcified, turnout decides elections.
Abrams also has the same adults-in-the-room problem that Joe Biden bears: It does no good to win if the rhetoric of the contest makes the state. Georgia’s politics have become louder and stupider as its elections draw closer. That problem serves radicals on the right, who would render America ungovernable if they aren’t in charge. We are increasingly becoming used to the politics of apocalypse.
In this regard, Abrams is temperamentally moderate. Her record in office as a state representative and minority leader was marked by bipartisan negotiation and a focus on bread-and-butter matters of good governance. She is no culture warrior.
And so, the left gets a candidate that is “reasonable” and policy-driven and arguing for a quietly competent government. It is the same campaign Hillary Clinton ran in 2016.