Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams aren’t on the ballot for Tuesday’s crucial Senate runoffs, but their political futures are at stake, along with the Senate majority and the direction of the country for the next two years.
It’s the worst-kept secret in Georgia that Abrams is gearing up for a rematch against Kemp in 2022, after narrowly losing to him in 2018 and spending years building a coalition that helped Joe Biden win Georgia and, ultimately, the presidency. Meanwhile, Kemp’s survival is on the line, and the GOP here is splintering ahead of must-win runoffs for Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.
The Senate runoffs are shaping up as the first salvo in a Kemp-Abrams rematch — a test of whether Abrams’ yearslong mobilization efforts can solidify Georgia’s status as a purple or even blue state, or if Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump was an aberration in a state that still leans toward the GOP.
“Think about how far we’ve come in the South: the most competitive battleground state in the country. Two runoff elections that will determine control of the United States Senate. Think about how far we’ve come,” said Jon Ossoff, who alongside Raphael Warnock is trying to propel Democrats to yet another statewide victory and, in turn, clinch the party’s control of the Senate.
Trump’s sustained attacks on Kemp over his refusal to overturn Biden’s victory in the state are making the Georgia governor even more vulnerable, and Trump has threatened to back a primary challenger against Kemp next year. All of that is hurting the GOP’s standing in the historically red state at a time when Democrats are continuing to make significant inroads here.
“I absolutely believe we’ve got a shot at every statewide office in 2022,” said Kelly Girtz, the Democratic mayor of Athens, the north Georgia college town. “That would have been true already given the strength of the candidates we’re going to have on the ballot. But it doesn’t hurt that Trump is continuing to kick sand in everybody’s face.”
Abrams, the former state House minority leader whom national Democrats unsuccessfully recruited to run for Senate this year, is staying far away from the Republicans’ imbroglio. But the powerhouse group she created after losing to Kemp in 2018, Fair Fight, raised more than $22 million in the final month before the election, registered thousands of new voters and significantly improved Democrats’ ground game here.
And although she did not attend Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ rally for Ossoff and Warnock in neighboring Garden City on Sunday night, Democrats celebrated her efforts to register and turn out more Georgians, particularly African Americans.
On the eve of the runoffs that will determine which party controls the Senate, Georgia Republicans are also thinking about turnout to counter Democrats’ strong early-vote numbers. They view Trump as their best asset to gin up the GOP base, but they’re increasingly worrying about the turmoil he has unleashed.
“Most Republicans are not going to say it publicly, but while the president has been clear in supporting David and Kelly, at the same time he’s been hurting the Georgia Republican Party,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a Kemp ally who lost to Perdue in the 2014 Senate primary. “And we need every vote we can get. We need unity. And that’s a challenge right now.”
It won’t just be a gubernatorial race shaping Georgia’s political future next year: The state will have yet another Senate race, when either Loeffler or Warnock will face reelection to a full term. Republicans say their goal is to blunt the Abrams-led efforts to build on Biden’s 2020 victory — or just play catch-up.
“I’m excited about the fact that Georgia is a competitive state, that this is a nail-biter,” Abrams said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And my hope is that Democrats will show up and demonstrate that November is the beginning of a pattern.”
Trump’s persistent attacks on Kemp are dividing the GOP at a time when the party needs total unity. Rich McCormick, a Republican who narrowly lost a suburban Atlanta House race in November, was even more direct, arguing that Trump’s attacks on Kemp make the governor more vulnerable in 2022.
“There’s a phrase in the military: You praise in public and admonish in private,” McCormick said after rallying with Loeffler and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in suburban Atlanta on Saturday. “I really think that we can divide our party to the point that we don’t win the next election, when we could otherwise win it.”
Republicans are counting on Trump to help put Loeffler and Perdue over the top and thus retain the party’s control of the Senate. They view Trump’s visit to northwest Georgia on Monday night as critical to getting the president’s supporters to the polls. Kemp is unlikely to attend the rally, according to two people familiar with the planning.
“It’s certainly not helpful to Gov. Kemp, and the president knows that. But that’s the president,” McCormick said of Trump’s attacks. “He fights. When he sees anything he doesn’t like, he immediately speaks out. He doesn’t want to think about the ultimate consequences of how that’s going to affect everybody else, because he’s a fighter. That’s what he does.”
Still, Kemp has been active behind the scenes in helping Loeffler and Perdue win reelection, and a Kemp-aligned super PAC, Georgia United Victory, has poured millions into the race.
Trump’s pressure campaign to overturn the election results has squeezed Kemp between his duties as governor and the president’s desire to remain in office despite his defeat. Trump phoned Kemp to urge him to call a special session of the state legislature to block certification of Biden’s win. Trump has since said he is “ashamed” for endorsing Kemp in 2018. And on Sunday, it was revealed that Trump pressured Georgia’s top election official to “find” votes for him.
At his most recent Georgia rally, Trump floated former Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) as a primary challenger against Kemp in 2022. And on Saturday, Trump promoted a poll showing significant support for Collins in a possible GOP primary, writing: “Wow, I guess it’s not good to go against a President who everyone in Georgia knows got you into office!”
Indeed, Trump’s allies here credit the president’s last-minute push for Kemp in 2018 as the key to the governor’s victory over Abrams, and Trump’s backing in the primary boosted Kemp over his GOP opponent, then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. They say Kemp has failed to return the favor, and they are prepared to support a Trump-backed primary challenger next year.
“I love President Trump. I love America. Brian Kemp does not appear to do the same,” said Ellen Diehl, a business owner who says she was a “massive” Kemp supporter and has a Trump imprint that surrounds her entire car. “If I was Stacey Abrams, I would run again. Hell, yeah. If we don’t have a good Republican candidate, we’re screwed.”
Collins, whose congressional tenure ended on Sunday, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Seth Bringman, a spokesperson for Abrams, said Georgia Republicans are “focused on fighting each other” while Democrats have “been united from day one.” And Abrams told reporters on the campaign trail last week that her attention remains on the Senate runoffs, adding: “I will let the Republicans deal with their internecine challenges on their own.”
GOP officials in the state are sounding the alarm about the infighting, warning it could hurt the party on Tuesday and beyond as Abrams and her coalition stay laser-focused on their own mission.
“I think what we as Republicans need to do is to look at what Stacey has done and say, ‘We’re going to knock on doors, sign people up to vote. We’re going to energize our base,’” said Greg Dolezal, a state senator who rallied with Loeffler and Cruz.
Kemp has dismissed Trump’s attacks as distractions, saying at a press conference last week that he’s not focused on “what somebody’s tweeting” about him. Kemp said he has “worked as hard as anybody in the state on [Trump’s] reelection” but “at the end of the day I also have to follow the laws and Constitution.”
Perhaps more urgently, though, Trump’s attacks on Kemp have put Loeffler and Perdue in a bind as they nominally maintain their support for Trump’s efforts to overturn the election result but also remain focused on boosting turnout for their own races.
That’s especially the case for Loeffler, who Kemp appointed to the Senate a year ago when then-Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) resigned. Trump had reportedly pushed Kemp to pick Collins, who defended the president during the House’s impeachment process, instead.
While Kemp’s rejection of Trump’s post-election demands is in keeping with state law, it’s also a nod to the state’s newly cemented status as a swing state.
“He’s kind of caught in the middle. I think he followed the law. I think he did what he had to do. And Trump is just trying to really drum up his base,” said Jared, a 40-year-old history teacher who attended the rally with Loeffler and Cruz and declined to give his last name. “Georgia is not as safe as it once was. Kemp’s in a tough spot.”