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No middle ground: Georgia governor race could be most ideologically polarized in nation

The contest between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp is being called the "battle of the bases" and the attacks are already underway.
Democrat Stacy Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.
Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.Paras Griffin, Jessica McGowan / Getty Images for Essence, Getty Images

WASHINGTON — She's an outspoken proponent of gun control; he's a gun-loving NRA member who posed with a small arsenal in his campaign ads.

She decries the "heartless" treatment of immigrants; he says he's "got a big truck just in case I need to round up criminal illegals."

She's a progressive Democrat who would be the nation's first black female governor; he's a white male "politically incorrect conservative" with the backing of President Donald Trump.

This year's race for governor of Georgia features a striking contrasts between the candidates, with each party's hopefuls offering a clearer distillation of their base's passions than you'll find in almost any other race in the nation this year.

"I'm calling it the battle of the bases," said Kerwin Swint, a political scientist and dean at Kennesaw State University, just outside Atlanta. "This may be where our politics are headed: This race is going to be ideological in a way that Georgia is not really used to. And it's going to be nationalized in a way that is Georgia is not really used to.”

Georgia Republicans on Tuesday nominated Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whom Trump backed, to face off against Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the state House, who won an earlier Democratic primary.

In both cases, the partisans in each party opted decisively for the more rousing option over rivals who were seen as too moderate or "establishment."

Kemp won all but two of Georgia's 159 counties in Tuesday’s runoff election, beating Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who had been secretly recorded saying the GOP primary had devolved into a contest of "who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest."

Abrams, meanwhile, won the May Democratic primary in a landslide, beating former state Rep. Stacey Evans with 76 percent of the vote.

"Make no mistake: There's a crystal-clear contrast as we go forward," Kemp told supporters Tuesday night. "This election is going to be for the soul of our state."

And he warned about the challenges ahead, predicting that national progressive forces would invest resources in Georgia like they never have before. "Hillary Clinton, George Soros and Nancy Pelosi all have Georgia on their mind," Kemp said.

From the beginning, Kemp styled himself after Trump as a brash conservative who likes to get under the skin of liberals. His viral campaign ads featured chainsaws, explosions, pickup trucks and lots of guns.

And both Kemp and Cagel's camp agree the president's endorsement was probably decisive in the Republican runoff.

Abrams, meanwhile, has built her entire political career around a novel electoral strategy for Southern Democrats: Focus on expanding the Democratic base rather than trying to win over soft Republicans and moderate independents.

Given her race, gender and progressive policy platform, she may be unlike anyone Georgia Democrats have ever had before as a statewide candidate.

That makes her exciting to both local and national Democrats, who believe she has a real chance to transform the politics of a rapidly diversifying state that has been trending in Democrats' direction.

"There's a lot of energy on the progressive side," said Amy Morton, the chair of the liberal group Better Georgia. "She has an opportunity to pull together a coalition of voters that may be unprecedented in November. And she's certainly going to have the resources behind her."

Republicans have telegraphed their attack plan, with the Republican Governors Association calling Abrams "a far-left Democrat" with a "radical agenda" that includes "some of the most extreme liberal positions of any Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia’s history."

Democrats are using the same strategy in reverse on Kemp, saying he's the real radical in the race. "Let's be clear: Brian Kemp's brand of extremism is not welcome in Georgia,” said Laura Simmons, the state director of the abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice.

Kemp has vowed to outdo Mississippi to sign the toughest anti-abortion law in the country. Abrams has pledged to make support for abortion rights "a central facet of this campaign."

And Kemp has vowed to expand gun rights in the state. Abrams, meanwhile, not only supports gun safety measures like universal background checks, but seems to take pleasure in taunting the NRA.

All this might make some Georgians long for the quieter politics of a seemingly bygone era. But Swint, the Kennesaw State professor, said hadn't he encountered much nostalgia for conservative Democrats and softer-spoken moderate Republicans.

"If there are out there, I haven't heard from them," he said.