In Georgia gov race, Trump's on voters' minds but not in stump speeches

Georgia gubernatorial candidates (L-R) Democrat Stacey Abrams, Republican Brian Kemp and Libertarian Ted Metz talk before their debate at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Midtown October 23, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.

GEORGIA — If ever there was a place to tout President Donald Trump’s endorsement, it’s this quiet town of 2,000 in South Georgia.

Pearson is the seat of Atkinson County, which gave Trump his biggest margin of victory in the 2016 primary, and the dozens who showed for a Brian Kemp rally had the president on their minds.

But the president occupies an unusual space in this campaign. Many of his supporters obviously back Kemp, who modeled parts of his campaign after Trump’s run in 2016 and benefited greatly during the primary from the president’s backing. But at this phase in the governor’s race, Trump plays no significant role in Kemp’s stump speech.

Kemp’s Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, treats Trump in a similar fashion, even though her appeal is strong among voters who hold the president in disdain.

Neither candidate wants the race to center on Trump.

Instead, Kemp sticks to state-specific issues and attacks on Abrams, as was evident here Friday.

That’s not to say he’s running away from Trump. The president’s support helped turbocharge his runoff victory over Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in July, and Vice President Mike Pence is set for a three-stop tour with Kemp next week. His closing strategy centers on revving up turnout from Trump supporters.

He’s not running away from Trump, but on the campaign trail Kemp is far more likely to invoke the last two Republican governors — Nathan Deal and Sonny Perdue — than the president. At stop after stop, Kemp assailed Abrams for trying to present herself as the heir to some of Deal’s legacy.

That’s a stark contrast from earlier in the campaign, when he directly tied himself to Trump and even unveiled a “Georgia First” mantra inspired by the president’s slogan. In an interview, Kemp said there was no deep strategic motivation behind the shift.

“I’m trying to stay on the Georgia message. People know both candidates. They do not know how extreme Stacey Abrams is. They don’t know about her agenda,” he said. “It’s clear I have the president’s support — it’s not strategic.”

Abrams has taken a similar approach. She’s condemned Trump’s selection of Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court, but otherwise, she has mostly steered clear of federal debates even as a string of potential 2020 candidates have campaigned with her.

Georgia Democrats are wary of turning the race into a referendum on Trump — and possibly further energizing Republicans — in a state he carried by 5 percentage points. Still, some of her backers see the race as a chance to reject Trump.

Amy Spray felt so alienated by both Trump and Hillary Clinton that she skipped the vote and went on a long hike instead. She woke up the next day shocked by the results - and determined to get engaged in this election. She’s enthusiastically backing Abrams.

“I was very naive,” said Spray, a reflexologist in Toccoa. “And I won’t make that mistake again.”

Even as Abrams’ campaign tries to motivate “unlikely” left-leaning voters such as Spray who usually skip midterm elections, Kemp has stepped up his pursuit of Trump voters to try to offset her gains.

That description fits Phil Lyles, a Pearson resident who points out he lives behind a towering pro-Trump sign down the street.

“People realize his values are with Trump — he doesn’t need to say it,” Lyles said. “He’s a lot like Trump. And his focus is where Trump’s focus is: jobs.”

Still unclear is whether Trump will make a personal intervention in Georgia. He’s launched a campaign blitz to shore up Republicans in other tight races, and he is mounting a political rescue mission in Florida to boost Ron DeSantis and other struggling candidates.

With polls showing Georgia Republicans in considerably better shape than their Florida counterparts, the president may bypass the state. But Kemp said he’s got the welcome mat ready for Trump, whose approval ratings have ticked upward to around 50 percent in some recent polls.

“We’re certainly hoping that’s the case,” Kemp said of a potential presidential visit. “We’d love to have him down.”

That’s a tantalizing prospect for Anthony Morris.

After Kemp’s stop in Pearson, the Willacoochee contractor eagerly displayed pictures of himself standing beside Trump in Atlanta. Still, he quickly added, Republicans in his corner of Georgia don’t need much extra motivation.

“We’re still enthused,” Morris said. “Look, the race is definitely about state issues. But we also want to help Trump.”

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