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Trump looms large over Georgia's vote for governor

ATLANTA -- President Donald Trump has already proved he can remake a Georgia primary for governor with a single tweet. But his polarizing influence also seems destined to shape the final two months of the general election between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.

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Greg Bluestein
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- President Donald Trump has already proved he can remake a Georgia primary for governor with a single tweet. But his polarizing influence also seems destined to shape the final two months of the general election between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.

In vivid detail, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll illustrates the galvanizing force of his influence in Georgia, a state he carried by 5 percentage points two years ago.

The poll showed roughly one-third of Georgia voters said they are more politically active since Trump's election, most of them Democrats. And roughly 40 percent of voters said they were less likely to back Trump-connected candidates -- along with half of women and 84 percent of Democrats.

By contrast, about one-fifth of Georgians said they are more likely to support candidates linked to Trump, including about half of Republicans and 10 percent of independents.

Whether that's a bad omen for Kemp remains to be seen, though his campaign is racing to broaden his appeal while mindful of Trump's remarkable ability to energize the GOP base.

Trump's surprise endorsement of Kemp, after all, catapulted the secretary of state to a blowout GOP runoff victory in July. And the White House's help remains central to his strategy. Vice President Mike Pence is headed to Atlanta on Thursday to campaign for Kemp for the second time in two months.

The Trump Effect also has implications for Abrams, a staunch opponent of Trump who largely avoids mention of the president on the campaign trail. Like some other Democrats running in conservative-leaning territory, she has no intention of turning a state election into a referendum on the president.

Many voters don't need that nudge. Nancy Weaver, a homemaker from Rockmart, was asked her reason for supporting Abrams -- and spent several minutes unloading on the president.

"I'm for anybody who is not with Trump. That's just what it boils down to," Weaver said. "I'm not a big fan of his, and I feel like anyone who is with him on his issues is not for me. To be honest with you, anybody who thinks that man is right couldn't be mentally stable. I'm just sick of him."

Kemp's campaign hinges on core Trump supporters to turn out in droves, and their bases broadly overlap. Although 51 percent of Georgians disapprove of Trump's performance, some 85 percent of Republicans give him favorable reviews.

"I support our president, and I think he's done a great job with the economy," said Jim Smiley, a Tucker retiree. "I think Georgia is headed in the right direction, and Governor Deal has put a steppingstone out there that Brian Kemp will continue."

'Georgia First' and 'Georgia Resists'

The candidates are employing vastly different strategies to campaign in the shadow of Trump.

Kemp jumped in the contest last year with a "Georgia First" slogan straight out of Trump's playbook, and during the runoff he portrayed himself as the most loyal supporter of the president. He won't veer from that support, saying of Pence's upcoming visit: "We've got to turn the base out in the race."

But these days he's now more likely to bring up Gov. Nathan Deal or his predecessor Sonny Perdue on the campaign trail.

And he's departed from the shotgun-pointing, pyrotechnic-exploding image he honed during the runoff, instead preferring softer TV ads. In the latest, Kemp's wife, Marty, confides that she once told her husband he's "too honest for politics."

Abrams, who once promoted a "Georgia Resists" website to challenge Trump's policies, has steered her campaign toward an almost single-minded focus on health care, public education and economic policies -- the three issues that polled highest with voters in the AJC/Channel 2 survey.

"There is an energy that has been created across this country where people understand how important voting is. The 2016 election put into sharp relief the consequences of not voting," Abrams said, highlighting the "very dangerous" implications of trade wars. "But my race is not against anyone. I am running for Georgia and for Georgia voters."

No matter the campaign messages, many voters say Trump can't be divorced from the dialogue. Take Tim Evans, an accountant in Johns Creek and Trump supporter who praises his "bull in the china shop" mentality.

"I want to see my Republican candidates support the president," he said. "Why would I not want to support a candidate who fights for the Second Amendment, who wants to limit abortion. Their name could be Frick and Frack -- it doesn't matter as long as they support the president."

'I've had to reconcile a lot of things'

Amy Spray is a onetime Libertarian from Toccoa who was so disgusted by both Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 that she skipped the vote. She woke the next day "bumfuzzled" by Trump's win, and she's felt a deep sense of guilt ever since.

"Look, I was asked to leave a friend's home a few months later when he found out I didn't vote for Clinton," Spray said. "I've had to reconcile a lot of things. I have to admit it shocked me and opened my eyes."

She looks at this election, in some sense, as a way to make amends.

"I'm still not super-interested in politics, but I see where the country is going and we need to fix it," said Spray, a reflexologist. "And I know we need Stacey Abrams so badly."

Still, Democrats hoping that moderates upset with the president will reflexively back Abrams may be disappointed. Take Alexis House, a retiree in Hampton who was a reluctant Trump supporter in 2016 but is now embarrassed by his administration.

She's kept an open mind to Abrams in part because Kemp was so inextricably tied to Trump. But she recently decided to support the Republican because she can't stomach Abrams' 2017 call to remove the giant carving of Confederate leaders from Stone Mountain, which the candidate described as a "blight on our state."

"Stacey and I have a little issue. She's going to mess with my Stone Mountain -- trying to wipe out my history," House said. "It's not a history we're proud of, but we're not always proud of our history."

Rachel Quartarone said those fraught debates dominate her political conversations. At home in Grant Park, where she works as a writer and historian, she often wonders about the internal tug of war between Democrats over the party's pitch: Do they aim for progressives like her or try to woo disenchanted Republicans into the fold? Or a blend of both?

"We're seeing a big political and cultural shift right now, and it just feels crazy," Quartarone said. "We're on the precipice of something, and I hope it's good. But it's just bizarre."

And strained conversations with her family in Forsyth County and elsewhere in North Georgia, where she stands out as one of the only liberals in an extended clan, led her to another conclusion.

"If you vote for Kemp, you're voting for Trump. It's saying you're OK with what the Republican Party is doing. That's hard for some of the people I know who don't like Trump," she said. "But they also can't fathom the idea of voting for a Democrat."


Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

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