can­di­dates draw paths to vic­tory

Abrams, Kemp will try to keep their bases while woo­ing in­de­pen­dents.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Greg Bluestein gbluestein@ajc.com

Stacey Abrams needs to reach deep into the vast pool of left-lean­ing vot­ers who rarely cast bal­lots in midterm elec­tions. Brian Kemp aims to wring out ev­ery con­ser­va­tive vote he can. And they both in­tend to re­lent­lessly ap­peal to skep­ti­cal in­de­pen­dents who skipped the pri­maries.

Each can­di­date for gover­nor faces com­pli­cated elec­toral math as the race nears the fi­nal twom­onth frenzy that be­gins af­ter the La­bor Day hol­i­day. And both will steadily step up the tightrope act of en­er­giz­ing their bases while also try­ing to broaden their coali­tion of sup­port.

The few pub­lic polls that have emerged since the gen­eral elec- tion matchup was set re­flect a con­sis­tent theme: Par­ti­san vot­ers are re­treat­ing to their cor­ners, while in­de­pen­dents — tra­di­tion­ally a large bloc of Repub­li­can-lean­ing vot­ers in Ge­or­gia — are up for grabs.

Kemp’s path to vic­tory starts

with the blueprint Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump carved out when he car­ried Geor- gia by a 5-point mar­gin in 2016. He strug­gled might­ily in metro At­lanta and other dense ur­ban ar­eas, but he ran up huge mar­gins in more lightly pop­u­lated ar­eas.

The Repub­li­can nom­i­nee hopes to hold his own in metro At­lanta — par­tic­u­larly the more mod­er­ate sub­urbs — and try to rack up huge gains in GOP ter­ri­tory in the ex­urbs and ru­ral stretches.

Cob­bling to­gether sup­port from the vote-rich sub­urbs and sparser ru­ral ar­eas has been a part of the GOP’s for­mula in Ge­or­gia for more than a decade, though Trump up­ended that cal­cu­lus by los­ing the tra­di­tional GOP strongholds of Cobb and Gwin­nett coun­ties while win­ning in Repub­li­can bas­tions out­side the city by even big­ger hauls.

“He’ll be de­pen­dent on proTrump forces in ru­ral ar­eas, and that will give him some breath­ing room if he strug- gles in metro At­lanta,” Ker­win Swint, a Ken­ne­saw State Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, said of Kemp. “It will hinge on just how large the Trump turnout will be.”

Kemp’s plan is built on an as­sump­tion that the state elec­torate still leans to the right of cen­ter. He’s push­ing his pledge to cut taxes, slash busi­ness reg­u­la­tions and rein in spend­ing to ap­peal to cen- trists, while Kemp and his al­lies are point­ing to­ward Abrams’ pro­gres­sive stances to gal­va­nize their base.

The Repub­li­can Gover­nors As­so­ci­a­tion has al­ready launched mul­ti­ple ads on that front, cast­ing Abrams as a Cal­i­for­nia-style lib­eral. And Kemp and his back­ers have re­lent­lessly as­sailed the Demo­crat over the $54,000 debt she re­ported ow­ing to the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice even as she loaned her cam­paign for gover­nor $50,000.

Abrams, who is on a pay­ment plan with the feds, said she in­curred the debt while help­ing to pay her par­ents’ med­i­cal ex­penses and that the loan was needed to jump- start her cam­paign. Vot­ers will hear that back-and-forth even more over the next two months.

‘Heavy lift’

Abrams’ elec­toral math is more com­pli­cated as she seeks to flip a state of­fice that hasn’t been in Demo­cratic hands since Roy Barnes was de­feated in 2002.

She of­ten points to the roughly 230,000-vote gap be­tween Democrats and Repub­li­cans in re­cent topticket con­tests, in­clud­ing Gov. Nathan Deal’s 8-point vic­tory over Ja­son Carter in 2014.

About 1.1 mil­lion Democrats voted in that con­test out of a broader uni­verse of nearly 3 mil­lion likely left-lean­ing vot­ers who have never faced con­certed ap­peals be­fore. Abrams’ plan hinges on dip- ping deeply into that bloc of vot­ers.

She has long ze­roed in on two some­times-over­lap- ping blocs: mi­nor­ity vot­ers who make up the bulk of the Demo­cratic elec­torate and low-propen­sity vot­ers who rarely cast bal­lots in midterm elec­tions.

She’s tai­lor­ing her ap­peal by not veer­ing from pro­gres­sive stances on guns, abor- tion and tax pol­icy while also key­ing on broader themes to tar­get moder­ates who could be open to vot­ing for a Dem- ocrat.

That’s why she’s high- lighted a trio of is­sues that she hopes will ap­peal to the mid­dle of the elec­torate. Build- ing a more di­verse econ­omy. Ex­pand­ing Med­i­caid. And devot­ing more state fund- ing to pub­lic schools.

Some of them are white lib­er­als and moder­ates who have cast bal­lots for GOP can­di­dates in the past. But the bulk of those per­suad­able vot­ers are African-Amer­i­cans who skip the lower-pro­file midterm bal­lots.

State Democrats have steadily built a field net­work of 12 of­fices and dozens of field or­ga­niz­ers, with one as­signed to each county, to lay the ground­work. In the run-up to the pri­mary, the cam­paign said it had reached more than 1 mil­lion of those vot­ers through tar­geted mes­sag­ing or in-per­son ap­peals.

“She’s got to mo­bi­lize and ac­ti­vate vot­ers who are reg­is­tered who don’t of­ten vote,” said Trey Hood, a Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist. “And that’s a pretty heavy lift. And the clock is tick­ing. Black turnout would have to be up from the typ­i­cal midterm to give her a fight­ing chance.”

That strat­egy will likely play out across the state as she aims to push black vot­ing strength to be­yond 30 per­cent of the elec­torate.

She’ll aim to run up the score in deep-blue ur­ban pock­ets as well as ma­jor­ity-African-Amer­i­can coun­ties in the fer­tile re­gion cut­ting across the mid­dle of the state known as the Black Belt. And she’ll try to keep the mar­gins tighter in con­ser­va­tive strongholds in North Ge­or­gia.

In the At­lanta sub­urbs, she’ll in­ten­sify ef­forts to keep both Cobb and Gwin­nett coun­ties in the party’s fold af­ter Hil­lary Clin­ton be­came the first Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date to carry them since Jimmy Carter. That will boil down to woo­ing col­lege-ed­u­cated white women who could be up for grabs.

“If her base turns out big, she’ll be close no mat­ter what,” Swint said. “But if she re­ally wants to win, she’ll have to cut into the sub­ur­ban fe­male vote in metro At­lanta.”

FILE PHO­TOS

Repub­li­can Brian Kemp and Demo­crat Stacey Abrams face com­pli­cated elec­toral math as the race nears its fi­nal frenzy.

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