Stacey Abrams Faces Uphill Battle to Defeat Brian Kemp in Georgia

Stacey Abrams is facing an uphill battle in her upcoming rematch with Georgia Governor Brian Kemp as she seeks to unseat the Republican four years after he narrowly defeated her.

Abrams won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination without a contest on Tuesday, while Kemp overcame a challenge from former Senator David Perdue in the GOP primary.

Perdue had enjoyed the support of former President Donald Trump, who had also publicly attacked Kemp. However, Kemp defeated Perdue easily and won more than 73 percent of the vote on Tuesday.

While Kemp is now set for a rematch of his 2018 race with Abrams, political scientists who spoke to Newsweek argued that this year's gubernatorial contest in Georgia is different from four years ago.

Different Race, Different Stakes

Mark Shanahan, an associate professor at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Reading University in the U.K., and co-editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage, told Newsweek that Abrams may wish she came to political prominence "anywhere but Georgia."

He noted her role in flipping Georgia's two Senate seats in January 2021 but warned: "In 2022 it will be a different race with different issues at stake."

"On the one hand, Abrams versus incumbent Governor Brian Kemp will be one of the key races to watch in November and may lift the curtain on a potential national race in 2024 should both Trump and [President Joe] Biden finally leave the stage," Shanahan said.

He said that Kemp "is perceived to have done surprisingly well in his first term in office—not least in putting distance between himself and Donald Trump."

"His own business credentials have played well and his stump speeches in the Republican primary have succeeded in still sounding suitably conservative for a very conservative state, but clearly distanced from the incessant culture wars of Trump politics," Shanahan said.

A Lightning Rod

Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, also told Newsweek that the Kemp-Abrams rematch would not be the same as in 2018.

"Abrams has evolved into a national political figure who's a much more known quantity," Gift said. "Four years ago, Abrams was a relative unknown striving to make a name for herself in Georgia politics. Today, she's a darling of America's Left who—for better or for worse—is well-known for refusing to concede her loss in 2018, for leaning into the culture wars, and for leading the fight against GOP-led voting reforms."

"She'll clearly mobilize progressives, but she'll also be more of a lightning rod for attack by Republicans," he said.

Divided Republicans

The Georgia GOP primary pitted Kemp against Perdue, a Trump-endorsed candidate who made unfounded claims about the 2020 presidential election a part of his campaign. Kemp, who was endorsed by former Vice President Mike Pence, had strongly defended the integrity of the state's elections.

David A. Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University, told Newsweek that "conditions are very different today" than they were in 2018.

"Kemp is governor, so he is likely to benefit from some incumbency advantage—but also the responsibilities of governing," he said, adding that Abrams benefited from "the continued development of the political organizing work she had been leading."

"Republicans seem at least somewhat divided, with Trump attacking Kemp possibly suggesting a more bitter and divided Republican Party than usual after a primary," Bateman added.

National Dynamics

Abrams is challenging Kemp at a time when many believe Democrats are on track for defeats in the midterm elections. The president's party often performs poorly in midterms and recent polling suggests Republicans are in a better position in House and Senate races.

"What she has going against her is that the national dynamics are bad for Democrats, unlike in 2018," Bateman said.

"That year was a midterm election with a Republican president, and so Democrats did well, while this year is likely to be the reverse," he said. "Georgia is pretty polarized, so expect a close race. And Abrams is an impressive organizer though, so I wouldn't rule anything out."

Gift told Newsweek that "the national political climate is considerably different than in 2018."

"With Trump out of office, Democrats controlling Washington, and Biden's popularity in the doldrums, all members of Abrams's party will face political headwinds in a midterm year," he said.

"That doesn't mean Abrams can't beat the odds and defeat Kemp in her second go-round. But it does give her opponent a head start in a state that—despite all the talk of Georgia's changing demographics—still maintains a predominantly Republican electorate and hasn't elected a Democratic governor for almost 20 years," Gift said.

Democratic Drag

Shanahan said Abrams "will go into the election as part of the party machinery governing nationally."

"While she will be setting her stall for change in Georgia, this time she'll be the one backed by the drag of an unproductive Congress and an underperforming president," he said.

"And that's not likely to play well in GOP-leaning Georgia where they haven't elected a Democrat governor for two decades."

Brian Kemp  and
Republican gubernatorial candidate Gov. Brian Kemp (L) speaks during his primary night election party at the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame on May 24, 2022. Georgia gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams speaks during a campaign rally. The governor's race appears to be an uphill struggle for Abrams. Joe Raedle/ Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images