ATLANTA — With the Georgia governor's race now set, the contest between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams becomes a question of which candidate can move beyond their partisan bases to capture the electoral middle in this emerging battleground state.
Kemp, a two-term secretary of state backed by President Donald Trump, hardly moderated his approach as he celebrated an overwhelming runoff victory Tuesday. After a campaign featuring guns, chain saws and his smiling pledge to "round up criminal illegals" in his pickup truck, the newly minted Republican nominee painted Abrams as a radical leftist threat to Georgia values.
Abrams, a former state legislative leader, isn't a radical by any conventional definition of U.S. politics, but she's run an aggressive campaign to energize the Democratic base by pledging to expand Medicaid insurance and spend more on education, infrastructure, and job training. She also backs tighter gun restrictions, abortion rights and removing Confederate monuments from state property. Her effort to become the nation's first black woman elected governor has made her a national political celebrity.
"The contrast ... could not be sharper," said Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz. "Kemp is running as an all-out Trump supporter and a 'politically incorrect conservative.' Abrams is not only the first African-American candidate for governor in Georgia, but probably the most liberal Democratic candidate for governor in history."
Both national parties are running ads labeling the opposition as dangerous.
A Republican Governors Association spot slams Abrams as the "most radical liberal ever to run for governor" -- the voiceover doesn't even limit the claim to Georgia. The Democratic Governors Association labels Kemp irrational, using the same secretly recorded audio Kemp exploited to defeat Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who lamented that the GOP contest came down to "who had the biggest gun, who had the biggest truck, and who could be the craziest."
For her part, the 44-year-old Abrams steered clear of heated partisan broadsides. After Kemp's victory, she sent a Twitter fundraising appeal that mentioned her Republican rival only by his last name. "Service, faith & family guide our vision for GA: Affordable health care. Excellent public schools for every child. An economy that works for all," she wrote. She isn't expected to campaign publicly or grant media interviews until Thursday.
Georgia's version of the widening gulf between the two major parties in style and substance in the Trump era offers plenty of spillover effects nationally. Kemp's victory margin affirms Trump's imprint and the Republican base's continued embrace of hardliners, sending another warning to establishment critics of the president.
November's vote will test this strategy with two candidates that could hardly be more different.
Will a Deep South state — led by white, male governors since 1776 and not long removed from having Confederate insignia on its flag — elect a self-declared progressive black woman from Atlanta as its chief executive?
Or will an increasingly urban, diversifying state — now the eighth most populous and home to The Coca-Cola Company, Delta, Home Depot, UPS and the 1996 Summer Olympics — embrace a brash, chain saw-cranking Republican who pretended to intimidate his daughter's boyfriend with a shotgun in a campaign ad.
Kemp credited Trump's late endorsement for sealing his victory, and Trump tweeted his congratulations on Wednesday, urging Kemp to "go win against the open border, crime loving opponent that the Democrats have given you."
It was trademark over-the-top rhetoric: Abrams has criticized Trump's immigration policy but has never advocated open borders. She also worked with outgoing Republican Gov. Nathan Deal on a criminal justice overhaul that earned broad bipartisan support.
Trump won Georgia by less than 5 percentage points in 2016 -- a closer margin than elsewhere in the South -- and Democrats argue his support is softer among more affluent, educated Republicans and independents, giving Abrams an opening as Kemp copies the Trump playbook.
"The craziest Republican emerged," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said in an interview. Inslee called Kemp a "sycophant for Donald Trump," and said Abrams offers a "real economic agenda." The DGA recently steered $250,000 to the Georgia Democratic Party for its fall efforts.
No Democrat has won a race for governor or senator in Georgia since 1998, and no Democratic presidential nominee has carried the state since 1992. But in the last decade, GOP nominees in those races typically garner no more than 53 percent of the vote.
Both nominees have weaknesses. The personal data of millions of registered Georgia voters was twice compromised during Kemp's tenure as secretary of state; Kemp blamed an employee and the contractor running the state's elections system. Abrams reported $170,000 in credit card and student loan debt along with owing $50,000 to the IRS, liabilities she attributes to her Yale law education and her financial support for her relatives.
Republicans, like party strategist and pollster Mark Rountree, argue that Abrams' agenda means higher taxes, anathema to the suburban voters she'll need.
But Jason Carter, who lost the 2014 governor's race as Democratic nominee, said Abrams "has the substance" to explain her ideas well. The question, he said, is whether Abrams can "connect with enough voters" personally to capitalize on the historic nature of her candidacy "without being consumed by it."