Kemp and Abrams in the final days of Georgia's race for governor Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams have competed before. Since then, the pandemic, the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the 2020 election have made governors even more visible.

In Georgia, Kemp and Abrams underscore why governors matter

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It used to be that campaigns for Senate and Congress absorbed most of the spotlight. But recently, the power of governors has come into sharper relief as decisions about voting, the pandemic and abortion have fallen to the states more than Washington, D.C. WABE's Sam Gringlas takes us along for one day of the campaign for governor in Georgia, where Republican Governor Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams are competing for a second time.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: The morning after Halloween, Brian Kemp bounds off his red-and-black campaign bus and weaves through a crowd of supporters gathered in a leafy suburban park.


BRIAN KEMP: Say, how's it going?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good, governor. Nice to see you.

GRINGLAS: With four years under his belt, Kemp has been running on his record.


KEMP: When I gave my inaugural address, I said, I'm going to work hard for every Georgian, and that's exactly what I've been doing.

GRINGLAS: But America's governors have also been tested by events that would have been hard to anticipate just a few years ago, like the overturning of Roe v. Wade, a global pandemic, the aftermath of the 2020 election and inflation.

ANN AUSTIN: My everyday life is at the pump, so I'm concerned about inflation.

GRINGLAS: Ann Austin, who's wearing a pink jacket and waving two small American flags, says Kemp has impressed her on all fronts, especially his refusal to help then-President Trump undermine the 2020 election results.

AUSTIN: He's a man of integrity. He stood against a lot of political pressure on his side.

GRINGLAS: On the trail, Kemp doesn't talk much about the fallout from the last election or the new Republican-backed voting law Democrats have roundly criticized. But he returns often to his decision to reopen schools and businesses early in the pandemic.


KEMP: We're the incubators of democracy. A lot of the things that you've seen that are good for our state end up maybe being good national policy or they're better done at the state level than the national level. And I think COVID only exacerbated that.

GRINGLAS: About 30 miles away, Stacey Abrams' blue campaign bus is idling in a strip mall parking lot. Volunteers are grabbing clipboards to knock doors as they wait for Abrams to speak.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: How you doing?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Looking to canvass?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK. Where would you like to go?

GRINGLAS: One volunteer is Shirley Connor.

SHIRLEY CONNOR: I'm 66 years young and able to participate in putting Georgia on a brand-new course.

GRINGLAS: Connor emerged from the pandemic with strong feelings about the governor's approach.

CONNOR: I lost six family members - my father, my mother, both of my sisters. When it came time to wear a mask, there was this big upheaval. But these are the same people that want to tell you that you have to have an unwanted pregnancy.

GRINGLAS: Kemp signed a law banning most abortions after about six weeks. It's something Abrams highlights at every rally.


STACEY ABRAMS: It took a man to break the promise of Georgia. It's going to take a woman to put it right.


GRINGLAS: On board her tidy bus, I asked Abrams how she sees the role of governors in this moment.

ABRAMS: Governors have the greatest amount of power that people rarely understand. 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.

GRINGLAS: Abrams' voice is starting to wear down.

ABRAMS: There's the whole phrase, no sleep till Brooklyn, but - you know, I'm not going to quote the Beastie Boys. But if my voice has to give out a little bit, then that is more than a price I'm willing to pay.

GRINGLAS: This is one thing the two candidates might actually agree on.

KEMP: We're not worried about being rested or well fed. We're just worried about getting the vote out.

GRINGLAS: At Curt's Restaurant in the Atlanta exurbs, Kemp's favorite entree is the fried chicken. But on this day, he doesn't get to sit for a meal. He's got voters to talk to.


KEMP: So our focus over the last six months has been helping you all and other hard-working Georgians fight through this 40-year high inflation.

GRINGLAS: Eighty-year-old Winston Pittman is pushing his tray along the cafeteria line.

WINSTON PITTMAN: There's wonderful meatloaf here. It's almost like my mother used to make.

GRINGLAS: Pittman is retired law enforcement.

PITTMAN: He can talk to us and make us understand what he's saying. And, God, I just want him to win so bad.

GRINGLAS: Polls show Kent leading Abrams despite a majority of voters agreeing with her on issues like guns and abortion. As the two candidates top midterm ballots in Georgia for a second time, they've laid out very different visions for the state on everything from the budget to health care and public safety at a time when Georgia's politics and demographics are in flux.


KEMP: When you think at what's at stake in this country, do you want those same policies that are in Washington, D.C., in Georgia? 'Cause that's what Stacey Abrams would bring.


ABRAMS: This is not just about our economy. It's about our rights. See, we live in a state where we have fewer freedoms today than I did when I was a 19-year-old on Spelman's campus.

GRINGLAS: As night falls, Abrams arrives at a new brewery in the suburbs for one more rally. She ticks through her platform on affordable housing and Medicaid expansion and then, when it's over, organizes the day's final photo line.


ABRAMS: Anybody in here want a picture?


ABRAMS: OK. We're going to line up outside by the bus.

GRINGLAS: Just a few more photos and a few more days to go before results come in.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Marietta, Ga.

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