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Abrams and Warnock pursue very different strategies in key Georgia races

Stacey Abrams' strategy relies on inspiring and turning out Democrats with bold plans. Raphael Warnock is emphasizing bipartisan issues to court Republicans and independents.
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ATLANTA — Democratic candidates in the two marquee Georgia races are blitzing the airwaves with television ads — and making two markedly different pitches to voters.

A new spot cut by Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor, presents her as a “math whiz” with bold progressive ideas to raise teacher pay, extend child care and fund preschool. Another ad vows to put Georgia’s surplus toward fresh stimulus checks for the middle class and to expand affordable housing.

Meanwhile, Sen. Raphael Warnock is running as an independent-minded legislator and highlighting bipartisan pursuits like capping insulin costs as he seeks a full six-year term. One ad touts his work with Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama to protect peanut farmers. Another features testimonials from GOP-leaning voters who say they’re supporting Warnock this fall.

The ads reflect two diverging visions by Democrats about how to win Georgia, a former Republican bastion that narrowly voted for President Joe Biden and two Democratic senators in the 2020 election cycle. Abrams is relying heavily on mobilizing the base, aiming to inspire and register disaffected Georgians and turbocharge progressive turnout. Warnock is putting a greater emphasis on courting the center, appealing to soft Republicans and center-right independents, including white college graduates in the booming Atlanta area who feel out of sync with a GOP transformed by former President Donald Trump.

As early voting begins, polling averages show a notable split in partisan preferences: Warnock leads Republican challenger Herschel Walker by about 4 percentage points, while Abrams trails GOP Gov. Brian Kemp by roughly 5 points.

“They are running two very different campaigns,” said an adviser to Kemp, who was granted anonymity to candidly assess Democratic strategy. “It’s pretty obvious, watching their speeches and ads and their social media.”

Abrams is “not so much in the persuasion business; she’s in the mobilizing business,” the Kemp adviser said, attributing Warnock’s relative success in 2020 and his lead in this year’s race to his focusing on “middle-of-the-road policy positions,” like lowering prescription drug costs, and not emphasizing “some of these more left-leaning issues.”

A recent Quinnipiac University poll of likely Georgia voters found Warnock outperforming Abrams by 14 points among independents against their rivals. Among Republicans, Warnock had 7%, while Abrams had 3%. Among Democrats, both were equally dominant.

Their mixed fortunes may also be shaped by their opponents. Walker brings a turbulent past, allegations of domestic violence and recent stories that he paid an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009, which he denies. Kemp doesn't carry the same baggage.

Melissa Clink, the Democratic chair in conservative Forsyth County outside Atlanta, said the local party has noticed a “divide” in support for Warnock and Abrams, which she called "perplexing."

Democratic volunteers knocking on doors in the area have been met by voters who say “they’re thinking of voting for Kemp but also voting for Warnock,” Clink said in an interview. “So I think we’re going to see some really interesting splits.”

Clink attributed Warnock’s outperforming Abrams to several factors. For one, she said, Kemp’s rejection of Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election “does matter” to independents, whereas Walker is a longtime friend of Trump, who handpicked him to run for the Senate. “I think independents would definitely shy away from a candidate who was a Trump supporter.”

A fixture of Warnock’s stump speech is his amendment with far-right Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to bolster the Interstate 14 corridor in the South, which was adopted unanimously in the infrastructure law. “Ted Cruz and I did an amendment!” he recently told a crowd, prompting a mix of surprise and laughter. “Yes, we did.”

“There is a road that runs through our humanity that is bigger than partisan politics,” Warnock added.

At a recent debate, when Walker sought to undercut that image and paint Warnock as a rubber stamp for Biden, Warnock boasted that he “stood up to the Biden administration” to keep open a combat training readiness center in Savannah.

Still, Warnock picks his moments to appeal to progressives, having become an outspoken voice in Washington for abolishing the Senate filibuster to pass federal voting rights legislation. After voting early Monday, he touted his pressure on Biden to cancel federal student loan debt as he stood alongside Morehouse College students.

At a debate Monday, Abrams was given an opportunity to ask Kemp a question, and she highlighted an issue important to nonwhite constituencies in Georgia, asking him for his plan to address the “racial equity gap” in contracts and purchasing for “minority-owned businesses.”

“We need a governor who actually believes in equity — racial equity, economic equity — for the people of Georgia,” Abrams said.

In 2018, Abrams lost her bid for governor by about 55,000 votes. Her aggressive voter registration campaign made her a hero among progressives — some credit her efforts with Democrats’ successes in painting Georgia blue two years later. Yet her struggles this cycle have sparked a new debate about the limits of mobilization alone and the necessity of crossover appeal to win this purple state.

“There are some voters — many voters — that are already pretty much fixed in their opinions. And, of course, there is a group in the middle that are still yet to decide,” Democratic Rep. Sanford Bishop, who faces re-election in Georgia’s most divided House district, said after a debate Sunday in Atlanta with GOP opponent Chris West.

Clink theorized that Abrams’ “celebrity status” may have led some Georgians to question whether she’s in touch with her “roots” back home, which she said “couldn’t be further from the actual truth, but, unfortunately, perception matters.” And she said sexism is a factor: “As a woman and as a Black woman, she’s scrutinized a whole lot more anyway. Even if she wasn’t running for governor, she would be facing negative backlash for just existing.”

Clink said Democrats need to keep telling voters that Abrams would "start to change Georgians’ lives on the very first day by expanding Medicaid, something we’ve been fighting for here for years.”

As for Warnock, she said: “I think that it’s really important for him to highlight his crossover appeal.”