When Georgia Republicans chose Brian Kemp, the state’s voter-suppressing Secretary of State, as their nominee for governor against Democratic supernova Stacey Abrams this week, they set up a November election that will be one of the nation’s most-watched and most entertaining. It will also be the nation’s most comically misunderstood.
The hilarity began with the spate of insta-analysis unleashed the moment Kemp, a rich white businessman from the progressive outpost of Athens, bested Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle in Tuesday’s runoff after a primary best characterized (as Cagle did in a taped conversation that doomed him in the end) as a Trump-era slugfest to see “who could be the craziest.” Not a single state-level policy issue came into play, thanks largely to Kemp, who set the tone with a slick series of political infomercials casting him as a cross between a shotgun-wielding suburbanite and an actor auditioning for the lead role in Forrest Gump II: Bounty Hunter. In case you don’t know Abrams yet, she is basically the polar opposite of the character Kemp (whatever his real IQ or ideology) so convincingly portrays: an unabashedly liberal, Ivy League-educated novelist and attorney who rose to lead Georgia’s House Democrats through smarts and savvy and lofty ambition she prefers to flaunt rather than conceal.
With Georgia moving inexorably into the Democratic camp over time, thanks largely to its long-running population boom, Kemp vs. Abrams is a toss-up in the polls. If that’s not enough, the fact that it’s happening in the Deep South guarantees it’ll be covered and analyzed more heavily than any other midterm election: black vs. white, liberal vs. conservative, and in Georgia! The good people of Milledgeville and Macon can hear the New York and D.C. media salivating from hundreds of miles away. (Katie, bar the door — here comes CNN again!)
But all the many factors that’ll make this such a fascinating and consequential — and potentially history-making — campaign also guarantee that it’ll be nationally hyped into a whole bundle of “tests” and “referendums” that it won’t be. The New York Times, among others, gave us a taste this week: “Mr. Kemp now faces Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee, in a November general election that will test whether this rapidly changing Southern state prefers a Trump-style conservative or a progressive black woman,” opined Jonathan Martin and Alan Blinder on Tuesday night. Setting aside the esoteric matter of whether a state can actually cast a vote in an election, rather than voters in a state — or the higher-level issue of why the Times uses race to describe Abrams but leaves out Kemp’s equally relevant racial identity — this is the basic template for how almost every pundit and news outlet will be getting this election wrong all summer and fall.
For starters, however you want to characterize Kemp’s and Abrams’s ideological profiles — ”conservative” and “progressive” serve well enough as shorthand — they won’t define the choice Georgia voters make in November. Nor will anything remotely resembling “policy issues,” those quaint relics of pre-Trump American politics. That’s not just because Kemp wants to — has to — cast the governor’s race as a culture war. He already has, as his ad campaign and his victory speech on Tuesday night demonstrated.
It’s also because there is not a single Democrat or Republican in Georgia (with usual exceptions for the profoundly uninformed and confused), who could conceivably give one nanosecond’s thought to casting a vote for the other party’s nominee. Not only are Abrams and Kemp running on platforms that are polar opposites, they’ve both been unusually high-profile politicians in Georgia for more than a decade now. Both have sky-high name recognition, crystal clear political identities and personalities, and every sentient human in Georgia knows they’re long-time foes over voting rights. Abrams first shot to national attention by founding the New Georgia Voter Project, one of the country’s most ambitious voter-registration efforts. Kemp, as the two-term secretary of state, has used every tool of his office (and then some) to block those efforts and keep Georgia’s voter rolls disproportionately old, white and right.
But what about independents, who tend to be less “ideological,” at least in the mythology of political reporting and analysis? The Washington Post leads the way in focusing on that dynamic: “Georgia governor’s matchup sets a battle for the middle,” was the headline of its big post-primary analysis on Wednesday. Of course, like every other state, Georgia has tons of unaffiliated voters on the rolls. But that doesn’t mean the campaign will come down to some “battle for the center.”
Lazy pundit-speak about “the middle” completely misses what — and who — will actually decide the Abrams-Kemp showdown. Just as nobody should be fooled that Georgians (or Georgia itself!) will be deciding whether they (or it!) prefer “progressivism” to “conservatism,” it’s pure ignorance to imagine that either Kemp or Abrams will be recalibrating their messages and delivery to appeal to the “middle,” or “centrists,” or “moderates,” or whatever term of art pundits might reach for. Why? These folks, who really don’t have any leanings one way or another, are almost non-existent in Georgia nowadays, just as they are in the rest of the U.S. As any political scientist or pollster can tell you, voters who don’t affiliate with a party in 21st-century America are now damn near as reliably Democratic or Republican when they go to the ballot box as registered Ds and Rs — ”closet partisans,” in the useful term popularized by political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University.
To the extent that Kemp’s general-election campaign becomes less Trumpy than his primary bid — more aimed at the “middle,” in pundit shorthand — it’ll only be aimed at reassuring corporate interests in Georgia that he’s not really the wild-eyed extremist he’s portraying so convincingly in this campaign. Those interests matter more in Georgia — Atlanta, specifically — than anywhere else in the South, and they’ve formed a powerful coalition through the years to block much of the truly embarrassing wingnut legislation, like anti-gay and anti-choice “religious liberty” shams, that make big companies flee a state or refuse to relocate there. (The South’s other historically moderate state, North Carolina, can tell you all about that — it’s anti-trans “bathroom bill” cost the state an estimated $3.8 billion smackeroos.)
So what will decide this epic battle in November? Voter registration and turnout. That’s all, folks! But that certainly doesn’t mean it won’t be full of fireworks — and eminently worth watching.
Georgia isn’t quite a “toss-up” state yet, though it’s long been moving steadily in that direction — Trump just barely managed to top 50 percent in 2016. The only reason Georgia isn’t already “leaning blue” is that potential voters who lean left — notably blacks, young whites, and Hispanics (9 percent and soaring) — do not register and vote in nearly the same numbers as whites who lean, register, or vote Republican. In purely racial terms, Georgia will soon (by 2025) become the next “minority-white” state in the country because of its long population boom, including the New Great Migration of blacks from North back to South that Jamil Smith noted in his recent Rolling Stone column on Abrams.
Abrams, who refreshingly makes no bones about her political ambitions — she aims to be the first black woman to lead any state in the union, and then to become the first such President of the United States — understands that more completely than anyone. The whole predicate of her New Georgia Project, and the great aim of her campaign, is turning Georgia blue by turning Democratic-leaning non-voters into Democratic-leaning voters. Once that happens, it’ll be a very long time (i.e., a cold day in Hell) before Georgia ever elects another white conservative statewide. Just as in Texas, the Democratic advantage in Georgia will become overwhelming over the next few decades once younger folks and former “minorities” start voting in the same numbers as older white people.
Can Abrams accelerate that process in 2018? That is the only real “issue” at stake in her race against Kemp. In the simplest terms, can she make up the less than 5-point gap in 2016 between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and do it in a mid-term year, when white Republicans tend to vote in even more disproportionate numbers? It’ll certainly help that Trump, who endorsed Kemp in the runoff, is increasingly unpopular in Georgia. It’ll also help that Kemp will strike less-”crazy” Republicans as too Trump-like for comfort. Those folks won’t vote for Abrams, by and large; they just won’t vote.
The reality that this election won’t be any of the things that the Yankee pundits will be claiming from now till November — not a “referendum on race,” not a “test” of whether Georgia is “ready” for a female governor, and sure as hell not anything ideological or policy-oriented — doesn’t mean that all those factors, and more, won’t make it a rip-roaring fireworks display. Quite the contrary. Kemp will be race-baiting and culture-warring up a storm, and it will get spectacularly ugly and stay that way through November. Abrams, for her part, isn’t just a genius when it comes to political strategy: As she recently showed a national audience on Late Night With Seth Meyers, she’s also a once-in-a-generation political charmer, possessed of the sense of humor and sharpness of wit it takes to cut an opponent like Kemp down to size without lapsing into defensiveness or moral outrage. Check out the way she gleefully pokes at the infamous Kemp ad where he points a double-barrel shotgun at his daughter’s date:
Kemp showed in his primary campaign — running against other white conservatives — that he won’t shy away from anything that helps him stoke old white Georgians’ prejudices. Victory in November, for Kemp, hinges on whether he can turn Abrams into the fictionalized radical black woman he’s already running against — not so much another Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi as another “radical black leftist” like Angela Davis or (closer to home) former Georgia congresswoman and eternal GOP bete noire Cynthia McKinney.
Of course, Abrams needs to make sure that every progressive white, black, Asian, Latino, and fair-minded Georgia voter sees Kemp as not just the state’s version of Donald Trump, but the reincarnation of George C. Wallace. The beauty part, for Abrams and the Democrats, is that Kemp has already done most of that vital work for her — both as the voter-suppressing Secretary of State and the great foe of Abrams’s New Georgia Project, and as a gubernatorial candidate whose idea of a racially coded message is nothing less than an advertisement that strongly suggests he’d like to lead an old-fashioned lynch mob, this time aimed at running Latinos out of the state:
Abrams won’t have to cast Kemp as a wild-eyed racist, misogynist, religious bigot — the list could go on. Dude is already doing it for her, and his only path to victory is to keep it up.
The governor’s race in Georgia will be a blast. A doozy. A humdinger. It will be “about” race, gender, and ideology — but not for the reasons you’ll constantly be hearing. And the result, if Abrams pulls it off, will be historic, even if the history it makes will just be a sped-up version of where Georgia is already headed.