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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.

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."

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.

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.

"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.

"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.

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 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.

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