NYT: After a Primary on the Fringe, Georgia Republican Tacks Toward the Center

By Richard Fausset

Sept. 2, 2018

ATLANTA — Brian Kemp, the Republican running for Georgia governor, won his party’s nomination with the help of a TV ad that explicitly arguedthat he is not a moderate guy. Titled “So Conservative,” it portrayed Mr. Kemp as a gun-toting, “politically incorrect conservative” who would personally round up “criminal illegals” in his pickup truck.

But that was then. In his latest TV ad, playing now in the Atlanta Metro market for the November general election, Mr. Kemp, in a check-print, button-down shirt, speaks to the camera in a kindly, drawly baritone about “growing jobs, not government,” investing in education (of the locally controlled variety), and “rewarding legal — not illegal — behavior.”

In many Republican primaries, it seemed impossible to be too far right as long as the candidate succeeded in getting President Trump’s endorsement, as Mr. Kemp did. But now, locked in a competitive general election race against the Democrat Stacey Abrams, Mr. Kemp has been trying to gravitate to the center, attempting at least one strategy for surfing the volatile, polarizing energy that permeates the 2018 election season.

So ConservativeCreditCreditVideo by Kemp for Governor

That energy was on display last week in neighboring Florida, where Republican voters chose their own “so conservative” nominee for governor (the Trump acolyte Ron DeSantis), while Democrats opted for a “so liberal” choice (the Bernie Sanders-endorsed Andrew Gillum). It is too early to know, in that race, how, or whether, those candidates might seek to pivot to the center.

Mr. Kemp’s pivot has been both stylistic and substantive, and it comes as Ms. Abrams, 44, a Yale Law School graduate and former state house minority leader, has been campaigning around Georgia arguing, with wonkish delight, that her progressive policy ideas — including robust investment in public education, gun control and the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare — amount to mainstream common sense. Her campaign calls it an “opportunity” agenda, and believes it will resonate more widely than the hot-button conservative agenda that Mr. Kemp is still known for that focuses on issues like illegal immigration and the Second Amendment.

Ms. Abrams is also hoping to appeal to moderate voters, placing decidedly more emphasis on her plans to create jobs and invest in education than her criticism of some Confederate memorials, which she has modulated recently.

On policy, Mr. Kemp, 54, Georgia’s secretary of state, recently made a small but important tweak to his longstanding promise to sign a state version of a federal religious freedom law, a possibility that frightens many in the Atlanta business community who fear that it could prompt harmful boycotts and backlash from liberals who believe such a law would be used to discriminate against the lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender community.

Various iterations of a similar state law have been promoted by Georgia conservatives in recent years as a way to protect people of faith from being forced to engage in practices they deem contrary to their beliefs. In 2016, Nathan Deal, the current governor and a Republican, vetoed a religious freedom bill that did not exactly mirror the federal law, pleasing some of Georgia’s most powerful corporations.

Mr. Kemp ran as a far-right conservative during the Republican runoff and was endorsed by President Trump.CreditJessica McGowan/Getty Images

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mr. Kemp told a hospitality industry group Tuesday that he would veto any religious freedom bill that went beyond the federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

It was an example of how Mr. Kemp must simultaneously placate the social conservatives and rural Georgians who responded to his primary messages, as well as white suburbanites and the powerful Atlanta corporate community, whose sensitivities have been heightened by the fact that metro Atlanta is among those cities trying to attract a second Amazon headquarters.

Such sensitivities are well known to Ms. Abrams, who opposes such legislation not only on moral terms but on economic ones, arguing that it sends a message that could scare off investment and potentially harm Georgia’s burgeoning film and television industry.

Mr. Kemp will have to walk a fine line from here on out, said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

“If Kemp moves too far to the center he risks alienating some of his strong supporters from the primary,” he said. “They may feel they’ve been betrayed, or lied to, once again.”

But others say Mr. Kemp’s excesses in the primary were more in terms of atmospherics than positions he might have to walk back, and that he faces few risks of losing rural white conservatives in a race against an African-American liberal woman from Atlanta.