ATLANTA – Brian Kemp often tells supporters to “keep choppin’ wood,” the way the self-described “country guy” urges a steady, deliberate approach. Yet the Georgia governor also says he’ll be “running scared” as he seeks a second term. Because precious little about Georgia politics is calm heading into 2022.
A swath of Republicans' right flank joins Donald Trump in blaming Kemp for not doing more to reverse the former president's loss last year. Some moderate Republicans, meanwhile, have cooled to a party under Trump's control. And Democrats have proven they can capitalize: They won both of Georgia's U.S. Senate seats in January runoffs two months after President Joe Biden won the state's 16 electoral votes.
Now, the 57-year-old Kemp has to refashion the GOP coalition that helped him climb the state's political ladder.
“We need everyone engaged, because we know the Democrats are united,” Kemp told a crowd of more than 300 supporters Saturday at his campaign kickoff in Perry, Georgia, south of Macon.
The governor’s inner circle planned for as much since Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by 55,000 votes - or 1.4 percentage points — out of more than 3.9 million ballots. In that contest, Kemp widened typical GOP margins beyond Georgia’s metro areas. But his advisers recognized that four more years of a rapidly urbanizing, diversifying electorate could eliminate his narrow statewide advantage if Abrams, as expected, seeks a rematch.
What Kemp and his team didn’t bargain for was Trump losing Georgia in 2020 and promising retribution against the governor and other state officials. Kemp has since been censured by multiple local GOP committees and booed by a minority of state Republican convention delegates who roared for long-shot primary challenger Vernon Jones. Even Saturday, one attendee in a crowd stacked for Kemp shouted “We need an audit,” echoing Jones' calls to keep rehashing 2020.
A former Democratic state lawmaker, Jones thus far has proven no threat to Kemp in a primary. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t damage the governor with the already roiled right flank, while reminding suburban moderates why they’ve drifted from Republicans in the Trump era.
“It used to be you never challenged the incumbent governor within your party,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a former chief of staff to two-term Gov. Sonny Perdue and a top national fundraiser for Republicans. “That just makes you weaker as a party going into the general election.”
Republicans need only look back to the January Senate runoffs for proof. With Trump making false claims of voter fraud, disputed by courts, election officials and his own attorney general, turnout sagged in GOP strongholds and Democrats exploited the melee in suburbs to send Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate.
Kemp's plan so far echoes how he won three previous statewide contests including 2018: play to conservatives in rural and small-town Georgia, while appealing to enough moderates concentrated around Atlanta. His argument that pivots from Trumpian drama to continuing 20 years of GOP control.
“Our state’s been on a tremendous path here for decades now,” Kemp told The Associated Press in an interview before Saturday. “And it’s because we’ve had good leadership, not only in the governor’s office, but also in the General Assembly.”
State House Minority Whip David Wilkerson, a Democrat from suburban Atlanta, gave Kemp begrudging credit for the approach: “I think he’s an incrementalist.” But Wilkerson said Kemp is getting credit for the money Democrats have pumped into the economy, saying he thinks people want “fundamental change.”
For the GOP base, Kemp's strategy means hammering Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat and Biden ally, amid a crime increase, publicizing a letter to the state school board urging members to ban critical race theory from Georgia classrooms and saying Democrats want “open borders.”
To the middle, Kemp promotes a teacher pay raise, investments in rural broadband and a GOP version of Medicaid expansion. To all, he touts his “measured reopening” after the initial shutdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic and one of the lowest state unemployment rates nationally.
On the most contentious issue -- voting laws in the wake of 2020 -- Kemp walks his highest tightrope. In a nod to Trump's hardcore supporters, Kemp signed an overhaul by the Republican-led General Assembly that he insists will restore confidence in Georgia elections. The law mixes tighter restrictions on absentee voting and after-hours drop boxes, which Trump labeled as ripe for fraud, while expanding some in-person early voting opportunities. It also gives the state more power to usurp local authority over elections, a move Democrats and some civil rights advocates see as targeting strongly Democratic urban counties.
Yet Kemp avoids repeating Trump’s assertion that November results were fraudulent and notes Abrams and her supporters questioned his election two years earlier. Kemp insists it’s “simply not true” that the new law “was all done in reaction to the Big Lie” that Biden stole the election. He emphasized in an interview that more draconian proposals, such as scrapping no-excuse absentee voting altogether, “went too far” and thus never reached his desk.
Liberal advocates have filed multiple federal suits challenging the law anyway, arguing it disproportionately affects minority voters, who lean Democratic.
Meanwhile, the governor’s campaign trumpets that he’s raised $12 million so far -- an impressive early sum meant to quell talk that he can’t compete with Abrams’ national fundraising prowess if she reprises her effort to become the nation's first-ever Black woman governor.
The question, though, is whether Kemp can effectively present himself as an unapologetic but still mainstream conservative in a political climate where Trump casts the longest shadow.
Matt Donaldson, mayor of Twin City and a longtime Kemp supporter, predicted conservatives would “look at the facts” over “a lot of the rhetoric that’s out there.” But he tacitly acknowledged Trump’s influence: “I would tell President Trump that I appreciate his service to our country, but I would hope that he would continue to support conservative candidates for office.”
Reflecting Georgia’s new tossup status, Democrats are perhaps more bullish on Kemp’s ability to withstand the dynamics than some Republicans.
Rep. Debbie Buckner, the last rural white Democrat in the General Assembly, said Kemp made an impression just by coming in 2019 to tour tornado damage in Talbotton, east of Columbus. “That was very meaningful” to residents, she said.
Democrats also vowed to hammer Kemp over his handling of COVID-19, including an attempt to block local mask mandates, but aren't sure anymore of the issue's power as the pandemic fades. And Kemp can point to a strong economy and flush state coffers, even if buoyed by federal pandemic aid Republicans didn’t support.
“I don’t count the governor out,” said Wilkerson, the Democratic floor leader, even if “he’s going to have to run with Trump whether he likes it or not.”
Democrats and Republicans also largely agree that Kemp has a potentially unifying variable awaiting: Abrams.
“I really feel like a lot of the race will be based on race,” said Buckner, explaining that most white voters in her district aren't willing to vote for a Black woman for governor.
For his part, Kemp said “reminding people of my record, which I didn’t have in 2018” will corral support. And even if Georgia Republicans run the gamut from archconservative Rep. Majorite Taylor Green to metro Atlanta residents who voted for Biden, Kemp disputed the idea the GOP is too factionalized for him to win a second term.
“It depends on where you are. Some people may say that Marjorie Taylor Greene’s a problem for the party,” Kemp said. “But, you know, if you’re up in her district, she seems to be pretty well liked. I respect the voters. I’m going to campaign on who I am, running statewide.”
Barrow reported from Atlanta.