Commentary

Bookman: National politics, career arcs explain why Kemp polls ahead of Abrams

September 22, 2022 1:00 am

Recent polls indicate incumbent GOP Gov. Brian Kemp holds a healthy lead over Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams in a renewal of their 2018 rivalry. Bazemore-Pool/Getty Images (2018)

I follow polls. I study polls. I look to polls for insight into how people outside my immediate circle might be thinking about things. 

But no, I do not trust polls. If you trust something you put faith in it. Trust implies a readiness to make decisions based on what those polls tell you, and that would be foolish, particularly this year. The ongoing chaos of Donald Trump, the Dobbs decision on abortion, the after-effects of the pandemic, the rapidly changing electorate, inflation, technology … the first challenge for pollsters is to build a sample that accurately models the likely voter pool, and with so many wildcards that’s difficult to do with any degree of confidence this year.

All that said, I accept in rough terms what the polls seem to be telling us here in Georgia: Raphael Warnock has a slight advantage over Herschel Walker in his re-election bid to the U.S. Senate, and Brian Kemp has a larger lead over Stacey Abrams in his re-election campaign for governor. But why? Why does a Democrat have the advantage in one statewide race while a Republican leads in the other?

Part of the explanation may be incumbency. In the opinion of many, Abrams has also drawn a much tougher opponent in Kemp than Warnock has in Walker, but I’m not sure I agree. I have a hard time understanding how a simple preacher like Warnock could walk into the lion’s den of a debate and do well against an opponent who was his high school valedictorian, graduated in the top one percent of his class at the University of Georgia, built a business empire and worked secretly for the FBI as well as the Cobb sheriff’s department, all the while playing a little football on the side. It would almost take someone with multiple personalities to pull off all that. It’s a puzzle to me that Walker has only agreed to one debate in which to show off that shining intellect.

But back to the question: In an era in which national politics so often dictates who gets elected to state and local offices, I think our answer lies with the different career arcs of Kemp and Abrams.

Since resigning from the Georgia Legislature in 2017, Abrams has turned herself into a national political brand. Her name and face are more famous nationally than those of most governors and of a majority of U.S. senators, and that high profile has allowed her to generate a lot of campaign donations and publicity. 

Fame, however, can be a two-edged sword, and with her political celebrity has come tradeoffs that appear to be undercutting Abrams’ campaign against Kemp. The reputation that Abrams built during her time as Georgia House minority leader — a policy-oriented centrist, someone willing to negotiate and cut deals across the aisle — would come in handy right now in a statewide race in a red Georgia slowly transitioning toward purple, but that image simply isn’t available to her any longer. In part because of her own choices, in part because Republicans have turned her into a caricature, many of the Georgia swing voters who hold her fate in their hands now see Abrams as a symbol of the national Democratic Party and its more progressive wing.

That’s proving to be a hard burden to overcome.

Kemp, her opponent, is in some ways the mirror image. Sure, he campaigns and governs as a hard-core Southern conservative. He stubbornly refuses to allow some 500,000 Georgians to be insured under Medicaid, for no reason other than to keep nursing the conservative grudge against “ObamaCare.” He has pushed abortion bans, gutted what remained of the state’s gun-safety laws and rewritten state tax laws to suit the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of those who are neither. Both as governor and previously as secretary of state, Kemp has also not been shy about employing the powers of the state on his own behalf.

Polling tells us that Kemp’s stances on those issues are increasingly unpopular in Georgia, to the degree that a well-financed opponent ought to have enough traction to give him a serious challenge, especially with voters legitimately concerned about the dangerous, anti-democratic extremism growing within GOP ranks. Yet those polls show Kemp with a healthy, consistent lead over Abrams.

Why? Because despite his very conservative record, Kemp is not seen as a symbol of the national Republican Party to the degree that Abrams is seen as a Democratic symbol. The fact that Kemp said no to Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia has given him a layer of protection against such suspicions, and in a general election in a purple state that is proving a powerful asset.

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.

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