ATLANTA – In their bid to win the Republican nomination in the Georgia governor's race, incumbent Brian Kemp and challenger David Perdue are often at odds — except when it comes to Stacey Abrams.
The rivals united this week in condemning Abrams, the leading Democrat running for governor, for hypocrisy after a photo surfaced of her posing maskless with students at an Atlanta-area elementary school she visited to mark Black History Month. Abrams' campaign has encouraged schools to require masks.
“Stacey Abrams wants state government mask mandates for Georgians and their children,” Kemp tweeted. “But it looks like they wouldn’t apply when she’s attending a photo op.” Perdue tweeted that “liberals’ thirst for power during this pandemic has caused enormous damage to our kids, while the elite like Stacey continue living their lives.”
The response was a notable moment of alignment in a state where former President Donald Trump's election lies have divided the GOP, fueling Perdue's unusual challenge to an incumbent from his own party. But it's a sign that both men view opposition to Abrams as an animating issue for the Republican base heading into Georgia's May 24 primary.
“David Perdue and Brian Kemp need to find contrast with each other,” said Chip Lake, a Georgia Republican consultant who isn’t working for Kemp or Perdue. “But, at the same time, it never hurts either of them to be drawing a contrast with Stacey Abrams and reminding the base what’s at stake.”
The photo is an unhelpful development for Abrams, whose national stature has skyrocketed in recent years from a state legislator to prominent voting rights activist and a contender in 2020 to become Joe Biden's running mate.
In trying to move past the controversy, her campaign has said she wore a mask to the school and only removed it to be better heard by students watching remotely — and for pictures on the condition that everyone around her kept theirs on.
But in an interview Tuesday on CNN, Abrams said, “Protocols matter and protecting our kids is the most important thing, and anything that can be perceived as undermining that is a mistake and I apologize.”
Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo had said it was “shameful” to use a Black History Month event “for a false political attack."
Still, in a sign of her national political profile, Republicans around the country have piled on. House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted the picture of Abrams and wrote that “the same liberal politicians pushing the arbitrary mandates blatantly ignore their own self-imposed rules.”
The Republican Governors Association — in the wake of his staunch opposition to school masking rules helping to lift Republican Glenn Youngkin to an upset victory in the Virginia governor's race last fall — hustled out a digital ad built around the Abrams picture. The Republican National Committee released a statement predicting that “Georgians will reject Stacey Abrams and her hypocritical mandates.”
Abrams allies warn the attacks are loaded with racism and sexism, since she is vying to be Georgia’s first Black governor and the first Black woman governor in U.S. history.
“She’s female, she’s Black, and of course everybody ducks it, but that’s a huge part of it,” said Democratic state Rep. Al Williams, who serves on the board of the Abrams-founded Fair Fight voting rights group. “And then there are those who are really angry with the Lord, and they say ’Why was I not born with a brain like that.’”
The attacks cast Abrams as a Republican foil not unlike Hillary Clinton or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, where antagonism for someone in the other party helps the GOP base overlook fissures within its own ranks.
“This is a battle about turnout,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “So, the idea that Republicans are trying to rile up their base by saying that Stacey Abrams is a hypocrite who you shouldn’t follow, what they’re hoping is this mobilizes their base and that it discourages or demobilizes her base.”
The opposition to Abrams also allows Republicans to talk about something other than Trump's election falsehoods, which carry special resonance in Georgia, where the former president spent his final days in office aiming to pressure officials into reversing Biden's win.
Trump is backing Perdue, a former Senator who lost his reelection bid last year, because Kemp refused entreaties to thwart Biden's Georgia victory, which was affirmed by three recounts. He has escalated his involvement in recent weeks, helping convince another Republican running for governor, Vernon Jones, to drop his campaign to clear the field for Perdue.
Perdue even turned Jones’ departure from the race into an attack on the race's top Democrat, tweeting that “Conservatives are united and ready to beat Stacey Abrams.”
But the shared antagonism may not be enough to heal GOP divisions. Both Kemp and Perdue have long targeted Abrams for their own purposes, with Kemp arguing that Republicans need to unify behind him to fend off the Abrams threat since he narrowly bested her four years ago.
Perdue counters that some Republicans are still mad at Kemp for not doing enough to overturn Georgia's 2020 election result — which the former senator says proves only he can garner enough support to outpace Abrams.
Kemp allies founded a group called Stop Stacey in January 2021 — more than 10 months before Abrams announced she was running for governor again. Perdue declared, “I’m running for governor to make sure Stacey Abrams is never governor,” at the very beginning of his announcement video in December.
Perdue released a campaign ad this week featuring the photo of an unmasked Abrams and declaring, “This is the Georgia Stacey Abrams wants” but also adding, “This is the reality Brian Kemp has allowed. Unmask our kids.”
Kemp, who had long allowed local districts to make decisions on classroom mask rules, hit back by suggesting he might now use the power of his office to try and end classroom mask mandates — further escalating the reaction to the Abrams picture.
“A small handful of school boards continue to ignore the science and impose mask mandates on our children while leading Democrats refuse to follow the mandates when visiting those same schools," the governor tweeted. “Enough is enough.”
Weissert reported from Washington.
This story was first published on February 8, 2022. It was updated on February 10, 2022, to correct attribution of the quote “Georgians will reject Stacey Abrams and her hypocritical mandates.” The statement was from the Republican National Committee, not the Republican Governors Association.