After GOP runoff, Georgia’s gubernatorial race moving into the national spotlight

By Curt Yeomans, Gwinnett Daily Post

If there was any question before this week’s Republican runoff about whether the party base could unify behind the winner this fall, the election results may have put any uncertainty to rest.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp decisively defeated Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle with 69.45 percent of votes cast in Tuesday’s runoff. To put that in perspective, Nathan Deal got just 50.2 percent of the vote against Karen Handel in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial runoff — and Deal went on to be elected to two terms as governor.

“The party is unified,” said Mark Rountree, a political consultant and president of Landmark Communications. “It was actually much less unified eight years ago when Karen Handel and Nathan Deal were in a runoff and Deal won the runoff. Those types of campaigns are really hard to unify because everybody can blame one thing — one thing is one percentage point.

“But there were so many things that were imploding for Cagle by the end of that campaign that you just can’t blame anything on Kemp.”

Now that the political parties have their nominees, the governor’s race has shaped up to be a match up that will likely be dominated by a Donald-Trump-backed Republican and a rising national star in the Democratic Party.

Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams aren’t the only gubernatorial candidates whose names will be on the general election ballots in November. Libertarian Ted Metz, independent candidate Larry E. Odom and write-in candidate Rod Mack will also be on the ballot.

Abrams, who is featured on the newest cover of Time magazine, also won a decisive victory in her party’s gubernatorial primary in May, capturing 76.44 percent of the votes cast to defeat Stacey Evans.

“You have two political parties now that both basically gave 70 percent of their vote to a candidate,” Rountree said.

The question now is how will national issues impact Georgia’s gubernatorial race.

If Abrams wins the general election, she will be the first African-American woman to serve as governor of a U.S. state. She has been building a national profile for herself in recent years, including giving a speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

Democratic officials from around the country have in turn taken note of Abrams and her bid to be governor. California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom praised Abrams Wednesday night as he expressed support for her on Twitter.

“She’s the real deal — fighting for criminal justice, affordable healthcare, women’s rights, and a democracy that actually represents the people,” Newsom said in the tweet. “That’s what we need more of. Not bigotry and hatred posing as policy.”

CNN reported Friday that several Democrats who are looking at, or are at least rumored to be considering, running for president in two years — including Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders and former Vice-President Joe Biden — are helping the Abrams campaign.

Harris, Gillibrand and Booker are expected to visit Georgia this fall to campaign for the former state house minority leader, and aides to Biden and Sanders haven’t ruled out coming to the state for campaign appearances as well, according to CNN.

Booker and Harris have already visited Georgia this year to campaign for Abrams. The Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has also supported Abrams and did a robocall for her before the May 22 primary.

The Democratic Governor’s Association also sought to deflate some of the Kemp campaign’s euphoria hours before a Republican Unity Rally held in Peachtree Corners Thursday.

The group sent out an email highlighting criticisms and allegations of incompetence that Cagle’s campaign had made about Kemp during the runoff. It also highlighted the fact that Deal endorsed the lieutenant governor instead of the secretary of state ahead of that election.

The Republican Governor’s Association hasn’t held back from targeting Abrams though. It launched its first TV ad in Georgia on the day of the runoff, accusing Abrams of being “too liberal for Georgia.”

Kemp will have at least some Republicans from Trump’s circle of supporters in Washington D.C. who can likely be counted on campaign on his behalf this fall. It just so happens that two of them are U.S. Rep. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue — who became Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction 16 years ago.

David Perdue already called on Republicans to rally around Kemp during the party’s Unity Rally. He called on the party faithful to send a message to Democrats that “the march to socialism will not go through the state of Georgia” in November.

Vice-President Mike Pence appeared at a rally held in Macon last weekend to rally Republican voters around Kemp.

Trump has come out swinging at Abrams as well on one of his favorite communications platforms: Twitter.

“Congratulations to Brian Kemp on your very big win in Georgia last night,” the president said in a tweet Wednesday morning. “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!”

Trump’s support of Kemp, and the influence it had on rallying Republican voters, can’t be discounted. Kemp had started to move ahead of Cagle late in the runoff race, but Roundtree said polling showed him at about 48 percent, compared to 46 percent for Cagle.

Then the president endorsed Kemp.

“We were in the field (doing polling for secretary of state candidate Brad Raffensperger) that night, it wasn’t planned, it just worked out that way (and Kemp) had jumped to a 59 percent lead,” Rountree said. “It was 59 to 37 if I’m remembering correctly and it continued to go up that week.”

Despite the national attention, Rountree said the race may ultimately hinge on whether Georgia-specific issues or national issues win out over the other.

“I think Stacey cannot win in a state-level race on state-level issues,” Rountree said. “I think she’s going to try as much as she can to talk in national platitudes — platitudes on national issues — whereas I think you’ll find that the Kemp folks probably, because of his background, are going to be very heavily focused on state issues.”