Brian Kemp's victory in Georgia proves how the Republican Party is changing its tactics after Trump

Kemp oversaw the purge of more than 1.4 million registered voters from the rolls – a move that the local newspaper called the 'largest mass disenfranchisement in US history' – and he consciously mirrored a lot of Trump's tactics from his 2016 campaign

Jeffery Lazarus
Wednesday 07 November 2018 11:49 GMT
Midterms 2018: Inside the Democrats' multi-billion dollar campaign

One of the most closely watched races in the midterm elections was the race for Georgia’s governor. Republican Brian Kemp was facing off against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Late last night the race was too close to call, with hundreds of precincts not yet reporting — but in the end, Kemp came out victorious.

The race represents Democrats’ best chance in almost 20 years of winning a major statewide race in the state. The party has not won a race for Senator or governor in Georgia since 2000.

Nevertheless, Georgia is not as solidly Republican as it appears from the outside. Recent Democratic candidates for governor and Senate have won as much as 45 per cent or 46 per cent of the vote (the high point was Jim Martin, who won 46.8 percent of the vote in his 2008 Senate race).

African American and Latino populations, and a steady stream of people moving to the Atlanta area from more expensive, liberal cities, buoy the Democratic vote. As a result, for all their losses, Georgia Democrats tend to fare better in Georgia than in virtually any other “red” state.

This trend continued into 2018: the Georgia governor’s race was one of the most closely contested races in the nation, with no poll taken during the entire campaign giving either candidate more than a two-point edge.

One important factor in the race has been Kemp’s position as Secretary of State for the state of Georgia. Among other things, Secretaries of State are responsible for administering elections. This put Kemp in the unusual position of being in charge of, for example, certifying the voter registration applications of voters who were seeking to vote in an election he himself was running in. Kemp has held the position since 2010.

As Secretary of State, Kemp has taken a number of actions which have made it more difficult for a massive number of Georgians to vote.

For example, Kemp’s office closed 214 voting precincts across the state. Additionally, he has overseen the purge of more than 1.4 million registered voters from the rolls – a move that the local newspaper, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, called the “largest mass disenfranchisement in US history.”

In the run-up to this election, Kemp’s office also denied 53,000 applications for absentee ballots and had to be ordered two separate times by federal courts to allow the affected voters to vote on election day. Kemp, it seemed, was pushing the limits on how far he could go to make it difficult for people to re-enter the voting rolls once their application had been denied. This has been a hallmark of his tenure as Secretary of State. He has taken a hard line in an effort, he claims, to safeguard procedures and prevent voting fraud.

However, Kemp’s critics charge that he has gone too far and engaged in an active campaign to prevent likely Democratic voters – in particular, black voters – from participating in the election. These critics point to the precincts closed by his office, which disproportionately served African American communities. Also of concern is the fact that 70 per cent of the people who were absentee ballots were from African American voters, even though only 32 per cent of the state’s population is black.

At one point, more than 4,700 absentee ballot applications in majority-black Dekalb County simply went missing. Compounding this perception, election-day snafus which prevented people from voting at all happened in counties with the most minority voters, primarily at precincts that serve black populations.

These moves hit especially close to home for Abrams, whose chance for victory depended heavily on an African American turnout. Her campaign invested heavily in mobilising black voters in ways that past Democratic candidates have not. Many of her campaign events have taken place in black communities and at events heavily attended by African Americans. She has courted and received the support of prominent Atlanta-area rappers, and perhaps most importantly, registered tens of thousands of new African American voters.

An Abrams victory would have be particularly meaningful for Democrats both in Georgia and nationwide. Nationally, Abrams would have been the first African American female governor of any state.

An Abrams victory would also have allowed the Democratic Party to make headway in its efforts to mobilise African American voters in general. In most elections, 85 to 90 per cent of African Americans vote Democrat. The higher the turnout among African Americans, the better Democrats tend to do.

An Abrams victory would have been a huge boost for Democrats, who have struggled for nearly two decades to cross the line from almost-winning to winning.

A Kemp victory, on the other hand, is something closer to a status quo outcome. It signifies that despite their narrow margins, Republicans are still in control of state-level politics in Georgia. And it is a victory for the increasingly dominant conservative wing of the Republican Party, where Kemp places himself ideologically.

In the primary election, he soundly defeated establishment Republican Casey Cagle by establishing strong conservative positions on illegal immigration and gun rights, and has much changed his stance since then. Indeed, Kemp very much modelled his political approach on Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Kemp’s success is yet one more sign that the Republican Party is transforming itself into the party of Trump. Out-and-out, far-right conservatives are edging out business-oriented, small-government conservatives.

Jeffery Lazarus is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University

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