ATLANTA — Brian Kemp, the Republican running for Georgia governor, won his party’s nomination with the help of a TV ad that explicitly argued that he is not a moderate guy. Titled “So Conservative,” it portrayed Mr. Kemp as a gun-toting, “politically incorrect conservative” who would personally round up “criminal illegals” in his pickup truck.
But that was then. In his latest TV ad, playing now in the Atlanta Metro market for the November general election, Mr. Kemp, in a check-print, button-down shirt, speaks to the camera in a kindly, drawly baritone about “growing jobs, not government,” investing in education (of the locally controlled variety), and “rewarding legal — not illegal — behavior.”
In many Republican primaries, it seemed impossible to be too far right as long as the candidate succeeded in getting President Trump’s endorsement, as Mr. Kemp did. But now, locked in a competitive general election race against the Democrat Stacey Abrams, Mr. Kemp has been trying to gravitate to the center, attempting at least one strategy for surfing the volatile, polarizing energy that permeates the 2018 election season.
That energy was on display last week in neighboring Florida, where Republican voters chose their own “so conservative” nominee for governor (the Trump acolyte Ron DeSantis), while Democrats opted for a “so liberal” choice (the Bernie Sanders-endorsed Andrew Gillum). It is too early to know, in that race, how, or whether, those candidates might seek to pivot to the center.
Mr. Kemp’s pivot has been both stylistic and substantive, and it comes as Ms. Abrams, 44, a Yale Law School graduate and former state house minority leader, has been campaigning around Georgia arguing, with wonkish delight, that her progressive policy ideas — including robust investment in public education, gun control and the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare — amount to mainstream common sense. Her campaign calls it an “opportunity” agenda, and believes it will resonate more widely than the hot-button conservative agenda that Mr. Kemp is still known for that focuses on issues like illegal immigration and the Second Amendment.
Ms. Abrams is also hoping to appeal to moderate voters, placing decidedly more emphasis on her plans to create jobs and invest in education than her criticism of some Confederate memorials, which she has modulated recently.
On policy, Mr. Kemp, 54, Georgia’s secretary of state, recently made a small but important tweak to his longstanding promise to sign a state version of a federal religious freedom law, a possibility that frightens many in the Atlanta business community who fear that it could prompt harmful boycotts and backlash from liberals who believe such a law would be used to discriminate against the lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender community.
Various iterations of a similar state law have been promoted by Georgia conservatives in recent years as a way to protect people of faith from being forced to engage in practices they deem contrary to their beliefs. In 2016, Nathan Deal, the current governor and a Republican, vetoed a religious freedom bill that did not exactly mirror the federal law, pleasing some of Georgia’s most powerful corporations.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mr. Kemp told a hospitality industry group Tuesday that he would veto any religious freedom bill that went beyond the federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
It was an example of how Mr. Kemp must simultaneously placate the social conservatives and rural Georgians who responded to his primary messages, as well as white suburbanites and the powerful Atlanta corporate community, whose sensitivities have been heightened by the fact that metro Atlanta is among those cities trying to attract a second Amazon headquarters.
Such sensitivities are well known to Ms. Abrams, who opposes such legislation not only on moral terms but on economic ones, arguing that it sends a message that could scare off investment and potentially harm Georgia’s burgeoning film and television industry.
Mr. Kemp will have to walk a fine line from here on out, said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.
“If Kemp moves too far to the center he risks alienating some of his strong supporters from the primary,” he said. “They may feel they’ve been betrayed, or lied to, once again.”
But others say Mr. Kemp’s excesses in the primary were more in terms of atmospherics than positions he might have to walk back, and that he faces few risks of losing rural white conservatives in a race against an African-American liberal woman from Atlanta.
Josh McKoon, a Republican state senator who is leaving office in January, said that Mr. Kemp had done a good job of “checking the boxes” with conservatives in the primary, while leaving himself space to bring a broader message to the general-election voter.
“I think you’ve seen in the last couple of weeks him rolling out some things that have very broad appeal,” said Mr. McKoon, who mentioned a plan to support veterans that Mr. Kemp announced last week. The plan proposes, among other things, eliminating the state income tax on military retirement income.
Voters have taken note of Mr. Kemp’s shift in tone. On Sunday at an exotic car show in the parking lot of Perimeter Mall, in the Atlanta suburbs north of downtown, Jimmy Heisler, a contractor, said he found Mr. Kemp’s primary ads funny, and an effective way to get across the importance of gun rights and a strong immigration policy.
Mr. Heisler, 46, votes for both parties but said he was leaning toward Mr. Kemp. He said Mr. Kemp might risk some authenticity if he went too far to the center. At the same time, he said, Mr. Kemp needed to appease the more buttoned-up conservative Georgian. “You’re going to have to appeal to the people who thought that was a little too much,” said Mr. Heisler, 46, referring to the primary ads.
Reco Edwards, 31, the owner of a custom car shop, thought that it was too late for Mr. Kemp to change his image — but that it didn’t matter, given how conservative much of Georgia is beyond metro Atlanta.
“He’s now feeding us that typical politician B.S.,” Mr. Edwards, who is African-American, said of Mr. Kemp’s new moderate tone. “When he first came out, that was the real Brian Kemp.”
Even so, Mr. Kemp’s shift is a sign that Georgia voters in the middle are not being abandoned by either campaign, even as the candidates work to energize their respective bases.
Ms. Abrams, who hopes to be the first African-American woman elected governor in U.S. history, is hoping to ride to the governor’s mansion on a wave of minority and less-than-frequent voters. But she will also need white voters, particularly in the Atlanta suburbs, and her team is convinced that her message will resonate with many of them.
Soon after announcing her candidacy, Ms. Abrams called for the removal of the giant Confederate-themed carving on Stone Mountain, east of Atlanta. It was a bold move in a state where some whites still see such markers as tributes to Confederate heritage and not, as Ms. Abrams has put it, monuments that were “by and large put up post-Reconstruction to terrorize African-Americans.”
Mr. Bullock calls the position “an unforced error” on Ms. Abrams’s part, arguing that it could cost her some crucial white votes if the race turns out to be a tight one. And while Ms. Abrams has not backed down from the position, she has been speaking more lately about her desire to find common ground on the issue.
Still, for all its visibility as an issue, the Confederacy is not likely to be among the chief points that Republicans raise when they argue that it is Ms. Abrams, rather Mr. Kemp, who is out of touch with the Georgia mainstream.
Jason Shepherd, the chair of the Cobb County Republican Party, noted this week that Ms. Abrams has said that undocumented immigrants should be eligible for the Hope Scholarship, the wildly popular college program that has had its share of funding issues over the years.
Mr. Shepherd said that the program could become “insolvent” if the state expanded it to such immigrants based on “a very left-wing ideology.”
“I think Brian Kemp’s message needs to be based on that,” Mr. Shepherd said.