SAVANNAH, Ga. – When Gov. Brian Kemp won election two years ago, he pushed back forcefully against an outcry from Democrats who accused him of suppressing voter turnout to improve his odds of winning.
“Look, we have laws on the books that prevent elections from being stolen from anyone,” Kemp, who oversaw that election as secretary of state, said on Nov. 17, 2018, as he urged Georgia voters to accept the results of a close, bitterly contested race against Democrat Stacey Abrams.
In contrast, the Republican governor hasn’t stepped forward to defend the integrity of this year's elections amid attacks by President Donald Trump and other members of his own party, who claim without evidence that the presidential vote in Georgia was tainted by fraud.
Unofficial results show Trump trailing Democrat Joe Biden in Georgia by a narrow margin. The Associated Press has not declared a presidential winner in the state, where officials are conducting a hand-counted audit of the contest. The AP did declare Biden the winner of the overall election.
The claims of fraud in Georgia have sparked infighting among Republicans, with GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger stating categorically that the election was fair and secure. Georgia's two Republican U.S. senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, have demanded Raffensperger's resignation.
Kemp, Georgia's top elected Republican, has staked out a position on the sidelines. Having recently emerged from quarantine after a possible coronavirus exposure, he made his only public appearance since Election Day last week to tout a trade magazine's ranking of Georgia as the most business-friendly U.S. state.
Pressed by a reporter, he brushed off the question of whether Raffensperger should resign as “moot.” He said he supported the secretary's decision to order a hand-counted audit of Georgia's roughly 5 million presidential votes.
"Let’s let that happen and let the chips fall where they may," Kemp told reporters last week.
The governor has said little else about the GOP infighting in his own state as Trump seeks to overturn Biden's victory by challenging the results in Georgia and other battleground states. Kemp has neither endorsed Trump's fraud claims nor backed Raffensperger in his assertion that the election was conducted fairly.
Asked if the governor has seen evidence of widespread irregularities or vote fraud, spokesman Cody Hall said Kemp wants to wait until after Georgia certifies its election results. The deadline is Friday.
"At the end of that process, he will make a determination in his own mind if he’s seen anything of that nature,” Hall said.
Hall said he expects the governor's next public appearance to be Friday, when Vice President Mike Pence comes to Georgia to campaign for Perdue and Loeffler, both of whom face runoffs against their Democratic challengers on Jan 5.
Some of Kemp's supporters think he is wise to remain neutral.
“For the governor, it would be a catch-22 — it's going to be hard to make any side happy with any statement he can make," said Jason Shepherd, Republican Party chairman for Cobb County in the Atlanta suburbs.
Eric Johnson, a former Republican leader of the Georgia Senate, agreed Kemp should stay out of the fray over Trump's election and focus on the Senate runoffs. He said he's concerned an escalating debate over the validity of Georgia's presidential election could hurt Republican turnout in January.
“A Republican civil war doesn’t do anything except hurt the voters we need to come back on Jan. 5,” Johnson said. “If they think there’s corruption, then why vote? If they think it was stolen, why vote? Because it’ll just be stolen again.”
Trump's endorsement two years ago helped Kemp win a heated Republican primary and eke out a narrow general election victory over Abrams. Even after losing the White House, Trump is expected to remain a powerful influence with GOP voters in the upcoming Senate runoffs as well as in 2022, when Kemp will have to seek reelection.
That could be one reason why the governor, like other leading Georgia Republicans, has avoided wading deep into the election controversy — even when Trump has taunted him personally.
“Governor Kemp will hopefully see the light before it is too late. Must finally take charge!” Trump tweeted Tuesday, referring to a poll that suggested Kemp's approval among Georgia voters was sagging.
Raffensperger hasn't blamed any of his fellow party members for keeping a lower profile.
“I understand if they get too far out on a limb, they start getting blasted also,” the secretary told The Associated Press. He added that Kemp has “plenty on his plate as governor, and he's doing a fine job.”
Kemp will ultimately have to take a stand. State law requires the governor to sign off on the slate of presidential electors who will cast Georgia's 16 votes in the Electoral College.
"His name’s going to be on the certification of the electors, one way or another,” Shepherd said.
___ Associated Press writer Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.