VALDOSTA – Past midterm elections have come and gone without much notice from Ebony Guidry.

But 27-year-old south Georgia teacher says there is no way she will miss this year’s election, which pits a Democrat vying to become the country’s first African-American female governor against a Republican endorsed by President Donald Trump.

Guidry said she likes Abrams’ story, which includes financial struggles and a brother who has been in and out of jail.

“All of the issues that she addressed, it’s not something that she knows or something that she’s researched. It’s something that she’s lived,” said Guidry, who said she especially liked Abrams’ call to “decriminalize being poor.”

Abrams, a former state House minority leader, says she wants to end cash bail and reduce the number of people incarcerated for small amounts of marijuana. Her proposals stand in stark contrast to those offered by her opponent, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who prefers a tough-on-crime approach targeting gangs and illegal immigration.

That’s not where the differences end. She’s an Atlanta tax attorney and self-styled “unapologetic progressive” whose political style has drawn comparisons to President Barack Obama.

Kemp is an Athens businessman with a folksy style who has described himself as a “politically incorrect conservative” and whose controversial ad showing him holding a shotgun next to a young man drew national attention earlier this year.

This closely watched race to succeed Georgia’s term-limited Republican governor is already the most expensive in the state’s history, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. As of the last filings, which were submitted last month before Kemp clinched the Republican nomination, Abrams had raised about $6 million and Kemp had tallied $5.1 million.

If Abrams’ personal financial challenges make her relatable to some voters, Kemp is counting on it having the opposite effect on others. Specifically, Kemp has criticized Abrams for deciding to loan her campaign $50,000 when she owes the IRS nearly the same amount.

“If that’s not criminal, it should be,” Kemp said.

Abrams says she deferred her tax payments to support her family and help pay for her father’s cancer treatments. Abrams is on a payment plan with the IRS, and the important thing now, she argues, is that she is paying her debts, however slowly.

“I could not defer my family’s needs. I could defer paying my taxes, and I am paying them,” Abrams said.

She also owes about $174,000 in student loan and credit card debt, which she says she racked up in college.

She talks openly about her debts while on the campaign trail. She often slides in a self-deprecating joke, as she did when a voter recently asked for her thoughts on requiring the state Department of Education to adopt a financial literacy curriculum.

“Well, you may have heard I’m in a little bit of debt myself,” she said.

Her supporters say they aren’t worried about the focus on her finances. Vivian Miller-Cody, who serves on the Valdosta City Council in south Georgia, said she doesn’t fault Abrams for loaning money to her campaign instead of paying off her tax debt because, in her mind, the money was being used in a positive way.

Ultimately, Miller-Cody said she doubts voters are going to care.

“Who doesn’t have a bill? Who doesn’t have a student loan? Who doesn’t owe somebody?” she said. “We may not talk about it, but everybody got a bill.”

“Every vote that I can get”

Abrams has spent the early weeks of the race trying to rally like-minded voters in reliably red corners of the state, including in counties that helped push Trump to a 5-point victory in Georgia less than two years ago. Her town halls have attracted large, diverse and rapt crowds.

“I’m hyped,” said Emily Johnson, a 20-year-old Virginia native and Valdosta State University student, after hearing Abrams speak. Johnson said she was excited to have a progressive option on a Georgia ballot.

Valdosta State University’s campus is in Lowndes County, where 58 percent of voters supported Trump. An earlier campaign stop took Abrams to Whitfield County, where 71 percent of voters rallied behind Trump.

But Abrams is not venturing into communities such as Fitzgerald, Valdosta, Camilla, Donalsonville and Dalton in hopes of wooing back disaffected Democrats who have bolted for the Republican Party.

Rather, she is trying to fire up voters like Guidry, the teacher, who may not normally show up for a midterm election. Energizing these voters, whether they live in the state’s urban centers or far-flung communities, is a key part of Abrams’ plan to flip the state.

“We have to run in every county no matter where we are because I want every vote that I can get,” Abrams said. “But my job isn’t to flip every single county. It’s to get as many voters as I can from every single place.”

Abrams faces tough odds in her bid to become Georgia’s next governor. Georgia hasn’t put a Democrat in the governor’s mansion since 1998, and voters here have never elected a woman as their top official. Republicans also hold every statewide office and control the General Assembly.

And even though Georgia’s demographics are becoming increasingly diverse as its population balloons and more transplants make their home here, many observers believe the shift to date hasn’t been enough to trigger a political transformation this year.

“It would take a substantial new pot of Democratic voters to really make the election in play, if you will,” said Trey Hood, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

As of the last gubernatorial election in 2014, the composition of the electorate was still very much Republican leaning, Hood said. And not enough is known yet about the voters who are likely to cast a ballot this fall.

Abrams’ strategy is a challenging one that hinges not only on registering new voters but also keeping supporters motivated to show up in force on Nov. 6. Turnout among new voters, who have not yet made casting a ballot a habit, can be especially unpredictable. The deadline to register is Oct. 9.

Abrams appears to be undaunted by such skepticism. She points to a shrinking margin of victory for Republicans in gubernatorial races since 2006, a pool of voters who may lean to the left but who do not usually show up at the polls and a surge in voters who pulled a Democratic ballot during this year’s primary. All said, only about 52,000 more Republican ballots were cast.

“It is not that this a Republican state,” Abrams said. “It is that those who share Democratic values have not lifted their voices sufficiently in recent years, and my mission is to make certain they hear my message.”

Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jnolin@cnhi.com.

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