DALTON, Ga. (AP) — Campaigning in a north Georgia county where President Donald Trump got 70 percent of the vote, the Democratic nominee for governor recently talked about helping small businesses, expanding access to affordable health care and quality public education, and championing emerging energy markets.
Much of Stacey Abrams' pitch could have come from any of the business-friendly Democrats or moderate Republicans who've occupied the Georgia governor's mansion for the last half century.
Yet Abrams isn't one of those men: The Yale law graduate and former state legislative leader is a black woman from Atlanta and an unapologetic progressive who Republicans blast as an extremist.
"Most radical liberal to ever run for governor," one Republican Governors Association ad intones. Her opponent, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, talks of a battle "literally for the soul of our state" because Abrams, he says, is a tool of "billionaires and socialists who want to turn Georgia into California."
The outcome of the nation's most closely watched governor's race this November may well turn on which version of Abrams a rapidly diversifying Georgia electorate believes. And, like most campaign caricatures, Abrams' political philosophy and her record in public office is more complicated — something some Georgia Republicans admit.
"She's a brilliant woman ... one of the smartest people I've ever met," said state Rep. Allen Peake, who backs Kemp but counts Abrams as a friend from their days in the same legislative freshman class.
Peake said he's wary about Abrams' policy agenda, but characterized her as "pragmatic" and avoided broadsides about socialism.
"She did always try to find solutions," he said, noting the state budget passed nearly unanimously during Abrams' tenure because she corralled her caucus to engage with the GOP majority.
Abrams also brought Democrats to the table to help Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, enact a criminal justice overhaul with a distinct focus on juveniles and nonviolent drug offenses.
Brian Robinson, a former top aide to Deal, simultaneously skewers and compliments Abrams. She "has run a campaign as if she's Bernie Sanders," he said, referring to the democratic socialist senator and failed presidential candidate. But, Robinson added, "That doesn't match her record in the General Assembly."
Some see racial overtones in labeling a black woman as a radical. Jason Carter, who is white and a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter, noted that Republicans attacked him as "too liberal" but generally stopped short of calling him a "radical" during his failed 2014 campaign to become governor.
The RGA says it has used "radical" as an attack on five Democratic nominees so far this year, but nearly all of the others hold positions — full-throated advocacy for single-payer health care and abolishing the ICE federal immigration agency — that are further left than what Abrams advocates.
The effort to portray Abrams as a radical is also notable because, during the primary, her work in the legislature exposed her to attacks from the left. Former state Rep. Stacey Evans hammered Abrams for helping Republicans scale back a popular college scholarship program. Abrams defended the move, saying she staved off even worse cuts by negotiating with the GOP. She won 76 percent of the primary vote.
While some of the Republican dichotomy about Abrams is simply campaign rhetoric, it is true that Abrams is asking voters to move state government to the left, even if not to a "radical" degree. It's part of a needle-threading strategy: Abrams must maximize turnout among liberals — non-whites and young voters of all demographic groups — but add to them at least some older, white moderates who generally vote Republican.
Her Medicaid expansion proposal aligns with at least 17 Republican governors who have widened the government insurance coverage under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Deal was among the Republican governors who said his state couldn't afford Obamacare. Abrams is making the argument about economics, pointing to at least a half-dozen rural Georgia hospitals that have closed under the weight of treating the uninsured. Abrams has talked of Medicaid expansion as a "starting point" toward universal coverage, but her position falls short of the immediate "Medicare-for-all" idea that Sanders and several potential Democratic presidential candidates espouse.
Abrams opposes "religious freedom" laws that allow private businesses to refuse service based on religious beliefs, which aligns her with Deal, who vetoed such legislation. She wants to expand Georgia's lottery scholarships, which puts her in company with the late Gov. Zell Miller, the lottery architect and Democrat remembered nationally for endorsing Republican President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election.
Her support of abortion rights and LGBT rights is standard Democratic fare. Abrams' call to ban certain weapons essentially reflects the Brady gun law that President Bill Clinton, whose administration was widely seen as centrist, signed in 1993.
On immigration, she disagrees with state policy blocking people in the country illegally from getting in-state tuition or even admission at some Georgia campuses. But in conservative Dalton, she explained her reasoning: The state constitution requires K-12 public education for every child in the state, "and I believe that if you can graduate from a Georgia high school, you deserve to go to any college to which you can gain admission."
In Dalton, Abrams also faced another topic some Republicans use to characterize her as radical: Confederate monuments. One voter asked Abrams why she'd called to remove three Confederate icons from metro Atlanta's Stone Mountain, a relief begun during the Jim Crow era.
"I answered that question in the context of 'what do I believe,'" Abrams said, recalling that the inquiry came in 2017 after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left a counter-protester dead. Monuments aren't "top of mind for me" compared to education, health care and economics, Abrams explained, but added that she couldn't apologize for acknowledging a distinction between historically accurate Civil War monuments and Confederate monuments put up during the Jim Crow era "to terrify African-Americans" like her family.
Anyone who wants her to abandon her beliefs and her biography, she said, "should not want me to be the next governor of Georgia."
Such answers may not fit into 30-second ads. But Peake, Abrams' Republican friend in the legislature, said her willingness to engage should give his party pause. "If the Republican Party and Brian Kemp and his team underestimate Stacey Abrams in any form or fashion," Peake said, "there's a good chance she will win."
Associated Press reporter Ben Nadler contributed to this report.
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