Abrams vs. Kemp vs. Perdue

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S1: Almost as soon as they got Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Greg Bluestein on the phone, we got interrupted.

S2: And let me pause really quickly here. My doorbell just rang.

S1: I didn’t hear it. But if you need to go get that Amazon Prime. In pandemic times, interruptions like this are pretty common. Just not this kind.

S2: That’s call someone who is delivering us a cake.

S1: Greg is a political reporter.

S2: This is the weird thing about like covering this stuff. I’m not kidding. Like readers being a local reporter. Readers will send like champagne bottles.

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S1: I see this cake as an indicator of just how crazy Georgia politics has gotten over the last year. You do not send your local reporter baked goods. If you feel like they’re having an easy time of it, what does it say on it? Is it like great reporting Greg or is it like this?

S2: Says thanks for your hard work reporting and things for all you do. And it’s and it’s people I don’t know.

S1: Greg and reporters like him. They have not caught a break since a runoff election sent two Democratic senators to Washington in January, tipping the balance of power ever so slightly in the Dems favor.

S2: It’s funny because our readers and my friends and family and community, you know, at first it was kind of neat that we were the center of the political universe and it was new for us because, you know, folks in Iowa and South Carolina and the like, they’re used to that sort of scrutiny. And we’re not I mean, we’ve been an afterthought in so many of these battles for years. And now people are like, Oh gosh. 2022 is going to be a nightmare.

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S1: 2022 is set to be a nightmare because the outcome of that last election spun Georgia’s GOP into a very public identity crisis over election security, over whether Trump was actually defeated or not. And all those questions, they’re about to be dredged up again as Georgia’s Republican governor faces re-election as I was getting ready for this interview. I just had to wonder if you ever feel as a political reporter in Georgia that you’re stuck in a rerun.

S2: That’s a great question, because it kind of does feel like we’re stuck and we run a few different levels, right? We’re stuck in a rerun. It seems like relitigating the false claims, the lies, the conspiracy theories surrounding the 2020 elections, and we’re stuck in a rerun as well with Republican and Republican fighting and all this stuff that we thought was in our rearview mirror but is clearly not

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S1: today on the show. During the 2020 election, a few choice Republicans maintained the rule of law in Georgia now is one of them going to pay a political price. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. In Georgia, the gubernatorial field is crowded, but Greg Bluestein says you only really need to keep your eye on three of these candidates so far. Brian Kemp, the current governor, Stacey Abrams his Democratic challenger. And David Perdue, the former Republican senator who’s just thrown himself into the race. The candidate with the most at stake here is the governor himself. He’s a Republican, a very conservative Republican. When he came into office three years ago, he vowed to crack down on reproductive rights, championed religious freedom and loosen restrictions on guns.

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S2: Brian Kemp made good on that promise as soon as he was elected in 2019, when he took office by signing into law one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the nation and certainly the most restrictive abortion ban Georgia has ever seen. And since then, he’s also promoted other conservative vows that he made, like slashing regulations and cracking down on illegal immigration and expanding gun rights and fighting Joe Biden’s policies and the like.

S1: So what you’re saying is this this is no moderate.

S2: No, this is no moderate is not someone who has to move much to the right to defend his his right flank.

S1: So why is he seen as vulnerable right now?

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S2: Well, that’s the core of it. The reason the main reason he’s seen as vulnerable is one day in Trump

S3: and your rhino, Gov. Brian Kemp, who’s been a complete disaster on election integrity.

S2: The former president was infuriated that Brian Kemp didn’t try to call a special session to invalidate the election results, that he didn’t go on TV and promote these false claims of of election fraud that he didn’t do enough to to fight for him. And Governor Kemp would always say, Look, I’m just following the law. I had to certify the election, and he said he’s done everything he could to to get on better terms with Donald Trump. But clearly there is nothing that the governor could have done to soothe those tensions with the then president, who is in Georgia at campaign rallies, saying Next year I will be back here

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S3: and I’m going to be campaigning against your governor and your crazy secretary of state

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S2: and thousands in the crowd, which here.

S1: So over the last few months since Biden’s election was certified and since two Democrats were elected to be senators from Georgia. I’m curious what Brian Kemp has done. Has he shored up his relationship with the Republican Party?

S2: Yeah, the governor started the year and those really prickly territory, you know, with with not so great poll numbers, with questions about his viability in 2022 and then Republican lawmakers pushed for with his support and election overhaul, which included new obstacles to voting that was meant to placate the pro-Trump crowd.

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S1: So it feels like he’s kind of doing what he can here, right?

S2: Yeah, yeah. And so that that helped him shore up some of his standing. But then these things are Caesar’s. It’s like a roller coaster. So, you know, Donald Trump and in some of his allies started stepping up their attacks and then governor got booed at a GOP rallies in certain quarters. So he’s faced a lot of backlash from the grassroots. And I’ll say this, too, though he hasn’t, he has not backed down is he’s not been ducking these events. And, you know, I’ve been to many events where he’s been booed and then he goes out right up to the people and says, Hey, let’s talk.

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S1: OK, so I understand why Brian Kemp is vulnerable. And then earlier this month, Kemp gets a Democratic opponent. Stacey Abrams enters the race. I’ve worked a lot of jobs in my life. How are you? Come easily. And for the past four years, for our daily bread. When the hardest times hit us all. And I’ve work to do my part to help families make it through. And this was kind of expected. But it’s still a big deal because it’s a rematch, right? Like the last time that Brian Kemp was up for election, he was running against Stacey Abrams.

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S2: This is enormous, right? I mean, this is the democratic icon, the the Titanic political figure, not just in Georgia, but around the nation. I mean, someone who has built herself in defeat into an even bigger figure than she was during her campaign in 2018.

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S1: 2018 was the year Stacey Abrams first ran for governor. Back then, Brian Kemp was Georgia’s secretary of state. And that meant, technically speaking, it was his job to oversee the very election he was running in. Abrams and her allies alleged that Kemp depressed her voters turnout by understaffing, their polling places and purging voter rolls.

S2: To say that these two candidates hate each other is an understatement. There is real deep vitriol between them and Governor Kemp right now, like nothing more to do than focus on Stacey Abrams and pull her day in and day out. But he can’t because of David Perdue in the race.

S1: David Perdue is a local millionaire and former U.S. senator. He comes from a long political dynasty in Georgia. His cousin, Sonny, was the first executive to return the Georgia governor’s mansion to Republican control. But last year, Perdue lost his Senate seat to Jon Ossoff in a runoff election. And that might have been the end of his political story, except earlier this year. Donald Trump, who still has not forgiven Brian Kemp for certifying Georgia’s general election results, began courting Perdue to challenge the governor.

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S2: Donald Trump is put on the hard core press to entice David Perdue to run. He promised them his endorsement. They went golfing at Mar a Lago shortly after Perdue’s defeat in the runoffs, and he encouraged him to keep on fighting and to stay in the political world. He went to Georgia in September and staged the rally, where he publicly called for David Perdue to run. They went to a golf retreat a few weeks earlier before he announced, so it was very much on top of mind for Donald Trump to entice David Perdue enter because he wanted a grade, a top notch Republican to beat Brian Kemp. So he got he got his wish.

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S1: So did Trump convince Perdue to run, or did Perdue convince Trump to endorse him?

S2: I think that knowing that Donald Trump would endorse him as soon as he got in the race was huge, right? I mean, and that’s what happened a few hours after David Perdue announced. Donald Trump followed up with with a glowing endorsement and another to another in a long, long line of attacks targeting Brian Kemp. And that’s huge in the Republican primary vote right now. I mean, our polls still show that a significant majority of Republican and conservative voters in Georgia value the president hold them in very high esteem.

S1: I wonder a little bit. Like, what are the candidates in this governor’s race say it’s all about? And then what is it actually about? Are those the same thing? Are those different things?

S2: So I talked to former Senator Perdue, who I’ve known for years. I talked to him when she got in the race and said, Look, you know, the big question that everyone’s asking me and that I want to ask you is, how can you say that you’re running to unify the Republican Party when you are challenging the incumbent GOP governor who has no plans to back off? And what he says is that he likes Brian Kemp personally, nothing against him. But this is about beating Stacey Abrams in 2022. He thinks that if Brian Kemp is the nominee, that Stacey Abrams sweep to victory and undo two decades of GOP policies. But what he’s also saying and that even between the lines, is that he thinks Governor Kemp is a weak, ineffective leader who didn’t do enough to fight for Trump, who didn’t promote these false conspiracy claims that he is backing and who isn’t being strong enough of a conservative leader for the state of Georgia.

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S1: When we come back, some bigger questions about the implications of this gubernatorial race. Well, I get that Trump prefers David Perdue over Brian Kemp for maybe personal reasons, may be vindictive reasons. I don’t know how different Kemp and Perdue are when it comes down to the issues like are they actually is there daylight between these two?

S2: There’s a little bit of daylight that’s emerged over the past few days after David Perdue entered the race. One is on tax policy. David Perdue supports eliminating Georgia state income tax, which accounts for about $14 billion of our state revenue here.

S1: Can Georgia afford that?

S2: No, no. He has no plan to fill that out. So I mean, bluntly, no, because because, you know, not not, you know, filling that hole would mean schools would close and roads would go unpaved and and public services would go on and offered and and all sorts of other issues. So no, it’s it’s not feasible right now to even talk about it. But David Perdue let off his campaign by promising to eliminate it without a plan to replace it. And Brian Kemp says that’s just, you know, you’re just talking about poll tested messaging that has no nothing under it. You’re just you’re just you’re just blowing smoke, is what he’s saying. So that’s one big rift. And the other one is this. It’s very it sounds very parochial, but it’s going to be a very big issue next year. But the the Buckhead neighborhood in Atlanta, it’s the wealthiest neighborhood in Atlanta. It’s also predominantly white and very powerful. And some citizens of some residents of Buckhead want to split from the rest of the city of Atlanta.

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S1: And I imagine they would take their tax base with exactly.

S2: And that accounts for about 40 percent of Atlanta’s tax base. So a huge number, a huge a huge, huge revenue chunk for Atlanta, but also dividing the state’s capital city, right? Well, David Perdue a day after a couple of days after he got in the race in the interview with me endorsed the idea of the Buckhead referendum and said he supports Buckhead splitting for the city of Atlanta, something that Brian Kemp has not yet said. So that’s just a glimpse of what’s to come. But I can see that the David Perdue will try to outflank Brian Kemp any way he can by calling for a vast expansion of gun rights, by calling for new anti-abortion restrictions by, you know, calling for new immigration crackdowns, things that Brian Kemp might not necessarily oppose. But David Perdue will try to pull him even further to the right as lawmakers in Georgia prepared to provide for the special session.

S1: Yeah, we talked about how important this race is to Donald Trump, and I think one of the ways this became clear to me was in an interview David Perdue gave to Axios in the last week. And I’m I’m curious if you can talk about it a little bit because in this interview, David Perdue was very explicit about what he would do differently than Brian Kemp when it came to the 2020 election. He straight up said he wouldn’t have certified the results for Joe Biden. And that seemed like a real a moment of honesty, but also a moment that made me go, Wow, OK, this is what this race is about. But I wonder if you felt like that as a local reporter?

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S2: Yeah, and he said something exactly similar to me. That same day. And look, I mean, the big question that we’ve had for David Perdue, who has been critical of Brian Kemp for, you know, not doing enough to help Donald Trump is OK. So what would you have done if you were in office? And he says, Look, I wouldn’t have certified the the election results. Well, you know, in Georgia, that is illegal. The governor of Georgia must certify the election results. They’re bound by law to do so. David Perdue also said in an interview with me that he would have called a special session that wouldn’t explicitly seek to overturn the election results. He didn’t say that, but he wanted a special session to for lawmakers to investigate claims of ballot fraud, an absentee mail in ballots. But by that point, we knew that there was no evidence backing that up, right?

S1: There had been investigations.

S2: Yeah, there have been multiple tallies that confirmed Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia, and there had been an audit of about 15000 mail in ballots in suburban Cobb County. It didn’t find a single instance of voter fraud. So you already had evidence that there is no any sort of inkling of proof behind these unfounded lies about election fraud in Georgia. And that is what David Perdue sort of opened his campaign with by playing into them. Hmm.

S1: OK, here’s another thing that’s perplexing me about this race. We just saw a gubernatorial race in Virginia that seemed to make a strong case against a candidate like David Perdue, because in Virginia, a Republican did win the governorship. But he did that basically by keeping Trump at arm’s length, by being more like Brian Kemp. So how does that information figure in to your race?

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S2: Yeah, that’s exactly the dilemma. But the difference is that in Virginia, there wasn’t this internal Republican warfare, and Trump hadn’t soured on Glenn Youngkin, the GOP nominee.

S1: Right? Famously, Trump tried to endorse Glenn Youngkin many times.

S2: Exactly. And so Glenn Youngkin could keep Trump at arm’s length and talk about conservative policies and say, Hey, we’re all on the same. We’re all fighting for the same issues here, but not ever explicitly, you know, rally with him or or or cater to him. But the problem that Brian Kemp faces is that he’s already gone on Trump’s bad side, and there’s nothing he can do to fix that. And so no matter what he does, he have to fight both Democrats and pro-Trump Republicans in his own party and do everything he can to placate them. So that’s where, like the parallels to Virginia, stop because Duncan didn’t have to worry about an active, you know, pro-Trump faction of his party saying that he wasn’t conservative enough. And Brian Kemp does.

S1: So what are the Democrats doing right now like Stacey Abrams? She’s got a little less than a year here. The primary is going to be in May for this governor’s race. How does she use this moment? And is her team talking about that or are they just kind of standing back and letting this mess exist right now?

S2: There’s sort of a two pronged strategy. On the one hand, the Popcorn’s out Democrats are eagerly munching and watching as Republicans fight and Democrats are very wary of trying to make any misstep that would refocus attention on anything they’re doing right. They’re very much enjoying the Republican infighting while quietly and maybe not so quietly working to, you know, rebuild the infrastructure that helped them win in 2020. I mean, the big question for Democrats after 2020 is, can they rebuild that coalition of of, you know, moderate leaning suburbanites, newcomers from liberal areas, minority voters, voters of color who really helped fuel Stacey Abrams near-miss in 2018 and helped fuel Biden’s victory in 2020? Can they rebuild that coalition without Donald Trump on the ballot? And so Stacey Abrams helped lay the groundwork for that coalition a decade ago when she first started getting involved in Georgia politics. So right now, they are rebuilding that and really, they’re enjoying all the attention on the Republican feuding. And if you are Stacey Abrams, she’s an author. She writes legal thrillers and and romance novels, and she couldn’t have have have scripted this better because instead of everyone focusing on her right now, there’s this Republican on Republican feud. And meanwhile, she’s promoting broad based issues that the polls show a majority of Georgia’s electorate support like expanding Medicaid, like boosting education funding like, you know, improving public health systems, things like that that that are not very controversial

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S1: when Abrams ran in 2018. She came within striking distance of Brian Kemp, but she fell short. Do you think enough has changed in the last few years for the outcome to look different this time?

S2: I mean, look, that is that is the principal question to the Democrats face is that yeah, she came within fifty five thousand votes of defeating him. But since then, since 2018, more than a million new voters have been added to the rolls, and many of them are younger voters or people of color who tend to favor Democrats. Since then, you’ve also seen the Atlanta suburbs swing decisively to Democrats. I mean, areas like Cobb County in Gwinnett County that used to be Republican strongholds are now Democratic territory. So that has changed. And of course, since then, now you’ve got the proof point that you’ve got the example, they’ve got evidence the Democrats can actually win statewide. You know, despite four years, Democrats and we can do it. We’re almost there. We’re almost there now. They can. All they have to do is point to 2020 and say we did it. So Democrats have that evidence to back them up. They still have huge questions. They still are facing a really tough election cycle, a midterm where where the party in power tends to be on the ropes right in turmoil. And so that’s not playing in Stacey Abrams favor. But what is is this Republican infighting is the fact that she’s she’s going to base her campaign on energizing voters that usually skip midterms and and she’s going to also talk about authentic liberal values, too.

S1: I know you’re trained not to bet as a reporter, but in May, when Brian Kemp and David Perdue finally get a chance to go mano a mano on the ballot. What do you think is going to happen?

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S2: This is the fascinating part of this race is that it is a toss up. I mean, these are boldface names the Republican world in Georgia, but both of them are viewing this race as a toss up. There’s no there’s no clear favorite. There’s no clear frontrunner right now. Internal polls are showing the same thing. Internal polls for Brian Kemp have him very close and have David Perdue in some of the, you know, Republican polls. I’ve seen that from outside groups show David Perdue double digits ahead. But either way, both candidates are viewing this as as a tossup, and it really could go. It could go down to to April of 2022 with no clear favorite in this contest.

S1: Greg Bluestein, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thank you for having me.

S1: Greg Bluestein is a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Mary Wilson, Danielle Hewitt and Elaina Schwartz. We’re led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. Go find me on Twitter. Look at my Christmas cookies. I’m at Mary’s desk. All right. Talk to you tomorrow.