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A governor’s race like none before it takes shape, long before the vote

By Tom Baxter

Considering how long the political world of Georgia has been waiting for Stacey Abrams to show her hand, she picked a curious day to announce that she’s in the 2022 governor’s race.

Rather than drop it on a slow news day, Abrams announced the day after last week’s municipal elections, when a lot of Democratic operatives were flat on their feet, and Andre Dickens was basking — briefly — in the limelight after his dramatic victory in the Atlanta mayor’s race, brought about in no small part by voters in neighborhoods Abrams used to represent in the legislature.

Maybe she wanted to pump the gas on her fundraising operation the moment it was seemly to do so. This has every prospect of being the most expensive race in the state’s history.

Maybe she wanted to pressure former Sen. David Perdue into making his move and announcing his entry in the Republican primary against Gov. Brian Kemp. If so, she got what she wanted. Perdue’s announcement on Monday came only five days after hers.

So what we have is a fully-formed governor’s race nearly a year before the election. There’s never been anything like that before in Georgia. We’ve only recently had truly competitive two-party governor’s races. In none of those races has an incumbent governor been faced with a multi-candidate primary while the challenger has a lock on their party’s nomination.

It probably didn’t matter to Kemp what day Abrams announced, because he’s been running full-tilt against her as his assumed 2022 opponent for some time. He has ignored his first primary challenger, former state Rep. Vernon Jones, but he won’t be able to do so with Perdue. This has officially become a two-front war for the incumbent governor.

Abrams’ race in 2018 was buoyed by the energy of the Democratic campaigns in Atlanta’s northern suburbs which sent several Democrats to the legislature and Lucy McBath to Congress. Two years later, Democrats cemented control of county government in Cobb and Gwinnett.

The Abrams campaign should be worried about how much the maps drawn by Republicans in this fall’s redistricting session are able to siphon off that growing Democratic energy. The Republicans are going to have a bloody gubernatorial primary, but Democrats are going to need a lot of chemistry up and down the ballot next year to hold even, much less gain ground.

Over the weekend the Abrams campaign provided NBC News with an analysis that claims the 1.3 million Georgians who have registered to vote since the last election skew strongly Democratic, and that the problems Democrats had in races this year in Virginia and New Jersey are unlikely to be repeated here. That’s a lot of new voters, but no guarantee of votes. The premise for Democratic success next year is also the outline of a huge organizational challenge.

There has been so much talk about Abrams running for president that her campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo, had to guarantee in an interview that Abrams would serve out her term if elected governor and not run for president in 2024. She may not be a presidential candidate, but she does have a presidential opponent.

“I beat her single-handedly, without much of a candidate, in 2018,” former President Donald Trump said in a side-swiping statement shortly after Abrams’ announcement last Wednesday. “I’ll beat her again, but it will be hard to do with Brian Kemp because the MAGA [Make America Great Again] base will just not vote for him…”

Abrams in a television interview dismissed Trump’s comments about her as “irrelevant.” In another sense she herself is irrelevant to Trump, whose true target is Kemp. But Trump has had a huge impact on the way this campaign has taken shape, and could have a significant influence on its outcome.

What if Kemp prevails in the Republican primary and Trump runs again? Does Trump sit on his hands, or even continue taking shots at Kemp? What if Perdue wins the primary? Does Trump then focus on Abrams as an easier target in his own campaign? And maybe the most interesting question: What does it mean for the governor’s race if Trump’s not on the ballot next year?

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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