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In Georgia, Kemp and Abrams underscore why governors matter

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to supporters at a campaign stop in Marietta, Ga., on Nov. 3. Kemp emphasized how he kept businesses open during the pandemic despite criticism from Democrats and health experts. "Who was fighting for you then when the political winds were blowing a different way?" he said.
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Republican Gov. Brian Kemp speaks to supporters at a campaign stop in Marietta, Ga., on Nov. 3. Kemp emphasized how he kept businesses open during the pandemic despite criticism from Democrats and health experts. "Who was fighting for you then when the political winds were blowing a different way?" he said.

ATLANTA – When Georgia's Republican governor, Brian Kemp, took office fresh off a tight victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams in 2018, he pledged to invest in infrastructure, curb crime and improve schools.

"When I gave my inaugural address, I said, 'I'm going to work hard for every Georgian, whether you voted for me or not,' " he recently reminded a crowd of supporters as he seeks a second term this year. "And that's exactly what I've been doing."

Kemp signs a flier in Marietta, Ga., on Nov. 3. He urged supporters to ignore the polls showing him ahead of Democrat Stacey Abrams. "I don't want you to believe any polls," he said. "Look, the national media is already writing stories about this and about that. Let me tell you what they're doing: they are trying to lull us to sleep. Don't buy into that. Keep working like we're five points down."
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Kemp signs a flier in Marietta, Ga., on Nov. 3. He urged supporters to ignore the polls showing him ahead of Democrat Stacey Abrams. "I don't want you to believe any polls," he said. "Look, the national media is already writing stories about this and about that. Let me tell you what they're doing: they are trying to lull us to sleep. Don't buy into that. Keep working like we're five points down."
A crowd of more than a hundred supporters cheers as Kemp steps off his campaign bus in Cumming, Ga., on Nov. 1 just ahead of a rally featuring former Vice President Mike Pence.
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A crowd of more than a hundred supporters cheers as Kemp steps off his campaign bus in Cumming, Ga., on Nov. 1 just ahead of a rally featuring former Vice President Mike Pence.

But beyond those perennial topics like public safety and education, the country's governors have also been tested by events that would have been hard to anticipate just a few years ago, like the demise of Roe v. Wade, a global pandemic and a tumultuous 2020 election.

For many Americans, the upheaval has brought the power of their governors into sharper relief, as decisions about abortion, the pandemic and voting fall to the states, more than Washington D.C.

Kemp smiles as Pence touts the governor's leadership during a rally in Cumming, Ga., on Nov. 1. "I'm here because Brian Kemp is singularly one of the most successful conservative governors in the United States of America," Pence told the crowd. "I'm here because Stacey Abrams can never be governor of the great state of Georgia."
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Kemp smiles as Pence touts the governor's leadership during a rally in Cumming, Ga., on Nov. 1. "I'm here because Brian Kemp is singularly one of the most successful conservative governors in the United States of America," Pence told the crowd. "I'm here because Stacey Abrams can never be governor of the great state of Georgia."

On the campaign trail, Kemp doesn't talk much about the fallout from the 2020 election, nor last year's overhaul of Georgia's voting laws that Democrats have roundly criticized.

But he does refer back to 2020 in other ways, often launching into his stump speech by recounting his decision to reopen schools and businesses early in the pandemic, when most governors did not.

Kemp supporters snap selfies as the governor joins Pence onstage at a campaign rally in Cumming, Ga. on Nov. 1.
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Kemp supporters snap selfies as the governor joins Pence onstage at a campaign rally in Cumming, Ga. on Nov. 1.
Pence joins Kemp for a second rally this campaign cycle. The Republican incumbent has successfully avoided any interference from former President Donald Trump on the campaign trail while he woos conservative voters.
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Pence joins Kemp for a second rally this campaign cycle. The Republican incumbent has successfully avoided any interference from former President Donald Trump on the campaign trail while he woos conservative voters.

"We're the incubators of democracy," Kemp said in an interview. "A lot of the things that you've seen that are good for our states end up maybe being good national policy or are better done at the state level than the national level. And I think covid only exacerbated that."

Like other Democrats running for governor around the country, Abrams has made abortion rights a centerpiece of the campaign. As governor, Kemp signed a law banning most abortions after about six weeks.

Abrams at a rally in Marietta, Ga., on Nov. 1. She has argued Georgia's $6.6 billion surplus should be used to bolster state services like affordable housing programs, schools and health care. "We need a governor who knows that it's not enough to say you know there's a problem," she said. "We've got to have a governor willing to invest in the answer."
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Abrams at a rally in Marietta, Ga., on Nov. 1. She has argued Georgia's $6.6 billion surplus should be used to bolster state services like affordable housing programs, schools and health care. "We need a governor who knows that it's not enough to say you know there's a problem," she said. "We've got to have a governor willing to invest in the answer."

"Governors have the greatest amount of power that people rarely understand," Abrams said in an interview. "But because of the U.S. Supreme Court stripping women of their right to choose, because of the weakening of the Voting Rights Act, more and more of the power to make decisions is being relegated to the states."

Still, an issue that may help decide tight races in Georgia and other states is mostly out of governors' hands – inflation. Kemp and other Republicans have tied rising costs for everyday expenses like groceries and gas to Democrats' control in Washington.

Abrams stands with protestors outside of the closed Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center on Nov. 1. Since 2018, Abrams has advocated for full Medicaid expansion and argued it would have saved many of Georgia's closing hospitals. "We are steps away from M.L.K.'s home and yet we are watching this community lose health care in real time," she said.
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Riley Bunch/GPB
Abrams stands with protestors outside of the closed Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center on Nov. 1. Since 2018, Abrams has advocated for full Medicaid expansion and argued it would have saved many of Georgia's closing hospitals. "We are steps away from M.L.K.'s home and yet we are watching this community lose health care in real time," she said.
In front of a crowd of supporters in Marietta, Ga., and flanked by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, Abrams emphasizes abortion restrictions by her opponent. After the Supreme Court decided to overturn <em>Roe v. Wade</em>, Georgia's strict abortion ban passed in 2019 went into effect. "When Brian Kemp tells you who he is, believe him," she said Nov. 1.
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Riley Bunch/GPB
In front of a crowd of supporters in Marietta, Ga., and flanked by U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, Abrams emphasizes abortion restrictions by her opponent. After the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe v. Wade, Georgia's strict abortion ban passed in 2019 went into effect. "When Brian Kemp tells you who he is, believe him," she said Nov. 1.

While governors can't reverse inflation on their own, both candidates have outlined ways the state can help relieve voters' economic pain. For example, Kemp has kept the state's gas tax suspended for months now. Abrams has redoubled her pledge to expand Medicaid.

In the final stretch to Election Day, Georgia Democrats called in high-profile surrogates. Former President Barack Obama stumped for Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in College Park, Ga. on Oct. 28. "There may be a lot of issues at stake in this election," he said. "But the basic question, fundamental question that you should be asking yourself right now is, who will fight for you?"
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Riley Bunch/GPB
In the final stretch to Election Day, Georgia Democrats called in high-profile surrogates. Former President Barack Obama stumped for Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in College Park, Ga. on Oct. 28. "There may be a lot of issues at stake in this election," he said. "But the basic question, fundamental question that you should be asking yourself right now is, who will fight for you?"

In recent months, Kemp has led Abrams in most polls by several points.

But as the two candidates top midterm ballots in Georgia for a second time, they have laid out very different visions for the state – on everything from economic development and the state budget to healthcare, voting and public safety – at a time when Georgia's demographics and politics are in flux.

So the outcome of Georgia's gubernatorial race is likely to both shape the everyday lives of voters – and the trajectory of their state.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Supporters of Abrams and Warnock dance in the stands of The Gateway Center in College Park, Ga., ahead of remarks by Obama on Oct. 28.
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Supporters of Abrams and Warnock dance in the stands of The Gateway Center in College Park, Ga., ahead of remarks by Obama on Oct. 28.
Abrams and Warnock greet supporters during a rally in College Park, Ga. on Oct. 28. <em>"</em>Over the course of this campaign, I have had the honor of reaching out to voters across Georgia – listening to their voices and their dreams" Abrams said. "Because regardless of where we live, we share a common belief: that Georgia can do more, can be more, for all of us<em>."</em>
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Riley Bunch/GPB
Abrams and Warnock greet supporters during a rally in College Park, Ga. on Oct. 28. "Over the course of this campaign, I have had the honor of reaching out to voters across Georgia – listening to their voices and their dreams" Abrams said. "Because regardless of where we live, we share a common belief: that Georgia can do more, can be more, for all of us."

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Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.
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