(NewsNation) — Four years ago, Republican Brian Kemp narrowly defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams to take control of Georgia’s governor’s mansion. Kemp won by around 55,000 votes, making it the closest gubernatorial race in decades.
The narrow loss elevated Abrams, a former state representative and House minority leader, to national fame, allowing her to launch a renewed bid for governor this year. She has at times outraised the sitting governor.
But while the candidates are the same, the dynamics of the race this year are different. Kemp spent much of 2018 campaigning toward the Republican base — at one point promising to round up some undocumented immigrants by himself in a campaign ad.
Kemp now stresses his independence from partisanship. During a campaign stop outside a barbeque restaurant in Marietta, Georgia, on Thursday, Kemp repeatedly noted that he had taken heat from both parties, such as when he decided to reopen Georgia businesses early in the pandemic.
“People on the both sides of the aisle, including Stacey Abrams, were criticizing me,” he said of his decision.
Although Kemp didn’t mention the former president by name, he was likely alluding to Trump. Trump first criticized Kemp’s decision to allow businesses to reopen in April of 2020; he later clashed with Kemp over the results of the 2020 election. Trump maintained that the election had been stolen by Democrats, but Kemp stood by the results. The former president eventually encouraged former Republican Senator David Perdue to challenge Kemp in his party’s gubernatorial primary — a contest that Kemp easily won.
Voters who attended the event said they supported Kemp because of his economic policies and political independence.
Harikrishna Bhatt, a small business owner has been in the state for 20 years, noted that his livelihood depended on Kemp’s decision to allow businesses to reopen during the pandemic and pointed to the state’s growth in population over the past few years: “People coming from Texas, people coming from Florida, people coming from New Jersey, New York to settle here.”
Bhatt also viewed Kemp as a nonpartisan governor: “He works always for public, for citizens, whether they believe in Republican or they believe in Democrats.”
Gail Cook, another voter, also said she believed Kemp was independent-minded and that he supported public workers. “He’s not one of the good old boys, he’s for Georgia. He’s not for the politicians,” she said, also pointing to bonuses Kemp got passed for teachers.
Kemp stayed largely on economic themes during his address in Marietta, pointing to Georgia’s economy during his tenure.
“Man, have we thrived; we’ve had two record years in a row of investment, two records years of job growth in this state,” he said.
In making that economic pitch, Kemp has often strayed from traditional GOP messaging. He is campaigning on his support for a Hyundai electric vehicle plant that is opening in southeast Georgia and recently appeared at its groundbreaking. The factory is expected to be one of the largest economic developments in Georgia’s history.
It was notable, however, what Kemp didn’t address during his campaign speech in Marietta. The governor never mentioned the abortion law that just went into effect this year following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
The law, which is among the strictest in the country, disallows abortions after six weeks except for cases of rape, incest or harm to the mother’s life. Polling has generally found that a majority of Georgians oppose the new law, and Abrams has made campaigning on abortion a cornerstone of her campaign against Kemp.
Yet polling finds that Kemp maintains a healthy lead over Abrams, with the RealClearPolitics polling average currently showing Kemp 8.2 percentage points ahead. This might be because the economy continues to dominate in Georgia voters’ minds.
A recent Echelon Insights poll asked Georgia voters whether reducing inflation or protecting abortion rights was more important to their vote. Two-thirds answered inflation.
Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin, a Republican who has endorsed Kemp, pointed to pocketbook issues as most motivating for voters.
“Falling stock market, inflation, oil dependence, big picture … things that affect our dinner tables, how we spend our Friday paycheck,” he said in an interview.