In Georgia Governor’s Race, a Defining Moment for a Southern State

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, would become the nation’s first female African-American governor if elected, a milestone she has used to nationalize her campaign, and its fund-raising.

ATLANTA — The Republican won the nomination Tuesday after branding himself a politically incorrect conservative who would “round up criminal illegals” and haul them to the border in his very own pickup. The Democrat all but opened her campaign by demanding that the iconic carvings of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson be sandblasted off Stone Mountain.

Almost overnight, Georgia’s captivating governor’s race between Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams has taken on the dimensions of a defining moment, one that will, regardless of outcome, determine what the state represents and how it is perceived. That voters chose these two candidates reflects how Americans are embracing politicians on the basis of culture and identity, and how Georgia’s politics are catching up with its rapid demographic change: The nonwhite population has grown to 40 percent from 29 percent since 1990.

But Georgia’s political middle, long the dominant force behind the state’s thriving commerce and pragmatic leadership, suddenly finds itself all but abandoned.

More starkly than in most midterm campaigns, the contest between Mr. Kemp, the two-term Republican secretary of state, and Ms. Abrams, a former Democratic leader in the State Legislature, has come to mirror the disorienting polarization of the Trump era and expose the consequences of a primary system that increasingly rewards those who appeal to the fringes.

In Georgia, perhaps the Deep South’s most essential economy, the 2018 campaign is a point of demarcation. In the five decades since the death of legal segregation, the image-conscious state has been led by a succession of white male centrist governors — first moderate Democrats, then, for the last 16 years, right-leaning Republicans. They have more often than not been steady and bland, focused on improving education, corporate recruitment and job growth. The unemployment rate has declined by more than 6 percentage points since the current governor, Nathan Deal, took office in 2011.

But to date, neither Ms. Abrams nor Mr. Kemp has rushed to occupy that political space. With both candidates bolstered by huge wins in their primaries, there is no clear indication that either plans to abandon their base-driven strategies for a wholesale pivot toward the center. The race has come to be seen, in the words of Mr. Kemp at a Republican unity rally near Atlanta on Thursday night, as a battle for “literally the soul of our state.”

Ms. Abrams, 44, a brainy Yale Law graduate from Atlanta, has leveraged the prospect of becoming the country’s first female African-American governor to nationalize her campaign and its fund-raising. By contrast, Mr. Kemp, 54, is a drawling agri-businessman from Athens who has revived a populist style that has lain dormant in Georgia since the late 1960s. Both campaigns say they are committed to maximizing turnout by their most rabid supporters rather than moderating in order to broaden their appeal to centrists and independents.

Each side frames the election of the other in doomsday terms. Mr. Kemp, the Democrats fear, will take Georgia the way of North Carolina and Indiana, which were tarnished by recent legislative battles over issues like gay rights and the use of public restrooms by transgender people. Republicans warn that Ms. Abrams, who hopes to expand Medicaid health coverage for the poor and disabled, will raise taxes they have cut, reverse the state’s job growth, deplete its rainy-day surplus and threaten its superior bond ratings.

“This is a conversation about what direction we move Georgia in,” Ms. Abrams said at a campaign stop in Atlanta on Friday.

In an interview a day earlier, David Ralston, a Republican who is the Georgia House speaker, said, “Georgians are going to have the clearest choice that they’ve probably ever had in a general election for the office of governor.”

To those in between, the chasm between Mr. Kemp, who has adopted President Trump’s language on guns and immigration, and Ms. Abrams, who supports an assault rifle ban and says her “soul rests with those seeking asylum,” feels as vast as Tallulah Gorge.

“It would be nice if we had a more moderate option,” said Kathrine DeLash, who works at a pet store in suburban Cobb County and doesn’t identify with either political party. “You don’t get that with the candidates we have right now. The people who shout the most to their own people get the most attention, and it doesn’t matter what they’re saying as long as they shout the loudest.”

Lynn Westmoreland, a former Republican congressman from western Georgia, said he could not remember another Georgia campaign where candidates did not reflexively move to the center after securing their nominations. “I think the Republicans are losing the middle, I think the Democrats are losing the middle, and the middle is kind of shrugging like, ‘O.K., what am I supposed to be doing?’” he said.

Former Gov. Roy E. Barnes, the last Democrat to hold the office, mourned what he depicted as the disenfranchisement of the state’s political center.

“In Georgia, we always enjoyed a broad middle and we had a broad consensus,” said Mr. Barnes, who served one term but lost his re-election in 2002 and a comeback bid eight years later. “We were all very much in favor of public education. We kept really controversial issues down by an unwritten agreement. But the middle has gone, and it has gone to the extremes unfortunately. It is a microcosm of what is happening in the country.”

Mr. Barnes asserted that neither he nor his two Democratic predecessors, Zell Miller and Joe Frank Harris, could have won their party’s nomination today. Nor, he speculated, could the state’s center-right senior United States senator, Johnny Isakson, win in a Republican primary if he were running without the benefit of incumbency.

“I would never write myself off,” said Mr. Isakson, who is serving his third term, “but he’s got a point. It is a totally different situation.”

The narrow appeals by both candidates have been made possible, to some extent, by the strength of Georgia’s economy. With fewer financial concerns, voters have been freer to side with candidates on the basis of cultural affinity. Mr. Kemp stepped into the spotlight as the homebred embodiment of blunt-talking Trumpism, while Ms. Abrams lent forlorn Georgia Democrats star power and the draw of history.

Ms. Abrams streaked into the general election after taking 76 percent of the vote in a two-person primary in May. The results seemed to validate her strategy of registering thousands of young and minority voters and exciting them with an unapologetic appeal to the left. Turnout in the Democratic primary was two-thirds higher than in 2014, nearly equaling that in the Republican primary for the first time in a dozen years.

The state’s demographics are shifting rapidly in Ms. Abrams’ favor. Over the last 20 years, when the state’s population ballooned nearly 30 percent to 10.4 million, the share of registered voters who are not white increased to 46 percent from 27 percent, state election data shows. Two of the suburban Atlanta counties that fueled the Republican rise — Cobb and Gwinnett — are now so populated by immigrants and African-Americans that they voted for Hillary Clinton over Mr. Trump.

As in the last several campaign cycles, the question for Ms. Abrams will be whether the electorate has changed enough that a well-funded ground operation can transform a trend into victory.

After finishing second in a crowded Republican primary in May, Mr. Kemp stunned his party’s establishment with the magnitude of his victory in Tuesday’s runoff. He took 69 percent against his better-funded rival, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, winning 157 of 159 counties, and finished 12 points ahead in Mr. Cagle’s home county. Mr. Cagle had been the choice of many elected officials and donors, and had won a late endorsement from Governor Deal.

Mr. Kemp tied himself inseparably to Mr. Trump. And with shotguns, chain saws and a Ford F-350 as props, his ruthlessly effective ads transformed a man largely unknown into a swaggering defender of restricted borders and the Second Amendment.

It is an image, once cemented, that may be tough to soften for female suburban swing voters, a potential opportunity for Ms. Abrams. She said on Friday that she would not be “engaging in divisive culture arguments about who’s angrier or who’s meaner.”

Mr. Kemp was already ascendant thanks to unforced errors by Mr. Cagle. But internal polling from Mr. Cagle’s campaign showed that the bottom fell out for the lieutenant governor when Mr. Trump tweeted a surprise endorsement of Mr. Kemp less than a week before the election. The White House dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to Macon for a closing weekend rally.

At Thursday’s Republican unity event, where Mr. Cagle and Mr. Deal endorsed Mr. Kemp, there were no boasts of political incorrectness, almost no mentions of Mr. Trump and more focus on continuing the legacy of job growth than deporting undocumented immigrants. “This isn’t about me and my big truck,” Mr. Kemp even said.

Instead, Mr. Kemp and his surrogates turned their attention to labeling Ms. Abrams, who has had two unobstructed months to establish herself. Ms. Abrams, Mr. Kemp said, was “backed by billionaires and socialists who want to make Georgia into California.”

But Mr. Kemp’s strategists said that the more muted tone did not signify a lasting change, and that they planned to hew closely to stimulating the base that gave Mr. Trump a 51 percent to 46 percent victory in Georgia in 2016. Speaking after the rally, for instance, Mr. Kemp reiterated his support for state legislation that would replicate a federal law providing legal protection to individuals and businesses who tailor business practices to their religious beliefs. Opponents of the laws, which exist in several neighboring states, argue that they allow discrimination against serving or employing homosexuals and transgender people.

That pledge, and the countrified image Mr. Kemp created for himself in his ads, has prompted nervousness among some business leaders, particularly in Atlanta. The city’s cottage industry is corporate recruitment, often of global firms with diverse workforces, and it remains among the 20 locations in the running for Amazon’s coveted second headquarters. The film industry is now a major presence, thanks to generous tax incentives, and the Super Bowl comes to Atlanta in February.

Concerned about condemnation and boycotts, business leaders convinced Mr. Deal to veto so-called “religious freedom” legislation in 2016, but some wonder whether they would have the same success with Mr. Kemp. A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown business group, said industries that normally support Republicans were waiting to learn more.

“The main thing is, let’s not do anything to mess up our historic business environment, particularly discriminatory practices of any kind,” Mr. Robinson said. “People have seen what it’s done in other states.”

State Representative Brenda Lopez, a Democrat from Gwinnett County, said voters needed to consider the long-term consequences of the campaign and November’s vote.

“It’s not just about one election cycle of the next governor,” she said. “It’s about what the image of Georgia is going to continue to be nationally and internationally.”

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