Two hosts of Fox 5 TV’s weekly political talk show “The Georgia Gang” predicted moderate and women voters to be key to winning the race for governor during an Oct. 9 Sandy Springs event. Hosts Tharon Johnson and Phil Kent also discussed key issues, including transportation and crime, and made predictions for the next legislative session.

Johnson is a Democratic consultant who has advised U.S. Rep. John Lewis, former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. Kent is a Republican who publishes the InsiderAdvantage and JAMES political magazines. They spoke at a Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Phil Kent, left, and Tharon Johnson debate issues and governor race predictions at the Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber luncheon on Oct. 9. (Evelyn Andrews)

Both said the candidate of their party, Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp, will need to capture the independents and moderates that may be swayed by national factors such as President Donald Trump and the recent U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

If Abrams can rally her base while also capturing moderate and women votes, she has a strong shot at defeating Kemp in the Nov. 6 election, Johnson said.

“I’m very optimistic. I think Stacey Abrams has the money, she has the message and she has the grassroots campaign strategy to really make this race very competitive,” Johnson said.

Her move to more moderate positions will help her get those votes, Johnson said.

“She’s definitely fired up,” Johnson said. “She made, I think, a very smart pivot towards the middle, to be more moderate in her message without running away from her true progressive beliefs.”

Kent agreed moderates are key in this election and said both Republican and Democrat bases are “energized.”

“The Republican base right now is especially energized after witnessing the left-wing mob rule and character assassination in the U.S. Senate,” Kent said, referring to the hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

“Here in Georgia, I think there is a unique opportunity for Brian Kemp to reach out to those moderates and independents just like Stacey Abrams is trying to do,” Kent said.

Johnson believes women voters will be key and their opinions of Trump may swing their vote toward Democratic.

“I truly believe, as we sit here in Sandy Springs, there are a lot of college-educated, suburban, white, Republican women that I think are really taking a second and third look at the Abrams candidacy,” he said.

If Kemp is able to keep those voters and consolidate his base, he will “probably become governor,” Johnson said.

And Georgia’s long history of Republican dominance puts Abrams in a position to easily lose the race with any mistakes, he said.

“She has to run a very perfect campaign because Brian Kemp, being a Republican in the red state of Georgia, is in the driver’s seat,” Johnson said.

Key issues

The two agreed that transportation, criminal justice reform and healthcare are the three key issues in the governor race.

Kent added that crime, especially gang violence, is playing a big role, saying it has been correctly described as a “crisis.”

“I don’t care if you’re a suburban housewife or someone in rural Georgia, the gang problem is out of control,” he said. “The problem is liberal, permissive judges that keep putting people back on the streets.”

Kent said he and Johnson often agree on transportation topics, including the state’s recent approval of a new authority overseeing all metro Atlanta transit called “The ATL.”

Kent encouraged the use of more public-private partnerships that get more private sector funding poured into transit and transportation infrastructure.

He said “managed lanes,” which charge drivers demand-based prices and are planned for the Ga. 400/I-285 interchange, are “the wave of the future.”

Johnson said the push to expand MARTA farther north, past its current end at the North Springs station in Sandy Springs, should continue. Doing that will include clearing the hurdle of the racist opinions about the service, Johnson said.

“One thing I’ll say as an African-American male, sitting in a room of a predominately white crowd, is that we’ve got to get over this whole connotation around crime and race when it comes to MARTA,” he said.

He said Sandy Springs has been a bright spot in the push for expanding transit and that Mayor Rusty Paul and the City Council deserve credit for taking “bold” steps.

In the upcoming legislative session, Kent predicted more transportation measures to be introduced, in addition to the return of “religious liberty” bills, healthcare reform and more efforts to assist rural Georgia. Johnson agreed and said he also expects medical marijuana and gambling legalization measures to return.