By BEN NADLER and RUSS BYNUM
PEACHTREE CORNERS, Ga. (AP) — With the Georgia governor’s race now set, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams returned to the campaign trail Thursday, where their approaches proved just as different as their starkly contrasting policies.
Kemp, hoping to unite his party on the heels of a divisive primary runoff, wasted no time before attacking his opponent, while Abrams mainly focused on jobs while seeking to reintroduce herself to Georgia voters after being out of the spotlight for two months.
The race between Kemp, a hard-line white conservative, and Abrams, a self-declared progressive black woman, is set to be among the most closely watched of the November midterms.
Secretary of State Kemp headlined a Republican “unity rally” Thursday night in a half-full ballroom at a hotel in Peachtree Corners, a suburb north of Atlanta.
U.S. Senator David Perdue, U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson and sitting Gov. Nathan Deal were all in attendance. So too was Kemp’s opponent in the bruising GOP runoff, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who spoke in favor of the man he had days earlier called incompetent and devoid of ideas for the state.
One after one, the speakers framed the race as a battle for the soul of the state against liberals, who they say are largely outside Georgia, trying to steer the state wrong.
“The march to socialism will not come through the state of Georgia,” Perdue said after calling Abrams “the most radical liberal.”
“We have one mission tonight and that is to defeat Stacey Abrams and keep Georgia red,” Kemp boomed at the rally. “She’s backed by billionaires and socialists that want to make Georgia into California,” Kemp said, to loud cries of “NOOOOO” back from the audience.
Abrams, meanwhile, refrained from engaging Kemp or his supporter-in-chief — President Donald Trump — as she kicked off her campaign for the general election Thursday in Pooler, Georgia, far from the state’s Democratic base in Atlanta.
The Democrat, who is seeking to become the first black woman elected a U.S. governor, focused on jobs as she visited a union apprenticeship program for ironworkers near Savannah.
Largely out of sight since she won Georgia’s Democratic primary May 22, Abrams said she was returning to the campaign trail well outside Atlanta to assure residents across the state that she wants them to prosper as much as those living in the “economic engine” of Georgia’s capital city.
“I’m not running to be the governor of Atlanta,” Abrams said. “I’m running to be the governor of all of Georgia.”
Asked by a reporter about how she plans to defeat Kemp, Abrams replied: “I’m going to win that election.” She also dodged a question about Trump, who on Wednesday used Twitter to call Abrams an “open border, crime loving” candidate.
But Abrams, a former state House leader, was willing to discuss her policy differences with Republicans.
While promoting small business growth, Abrams promised to ensure Georgia is “an open and inclusive state” and to fight any proposals that would “take us backwards or would discriminate against Georgians” — a reference to past attempts by GOP lawmakers to pass so-called “religious liberty” bills that critics say would let businesses deny service to LGBT people.
She also said she would oppose “programs that use our law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws.” And while never mentioning Trump by name, Abrams said new tariffs on U.S. trade partners are hurting workers — from farmers in rural Georgia to dockworkers at the booming Port of Savannah.
“Tariffs are an important conversation,” Abrams said. “But creating a trade war unnecessarily makes no sense, especially when Georgians are being harmed every single day.”
Bynum reported from Pooler, Georgia.