CLAYTON, Ga. – Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is a conservative by any measure.
As the Republicans seeks a second term in November, he can trumpet multiple tax cuts. He helped enact a ban on abortions after six weeks, before many women know they're pregnant. He presided over an election law overhaul that could make it harder for some Georgians to vote.
And in case anyone still doubts his credentials, Kemp is fond of noting he's the first modern Republican governor in Georgia who wasn't a Democrat at some point in his political career.
Still, his decision to defy Donald Trump and ratify Joe Biden's presidential electors in 2020 has won Kemp credit with some Democrats. That goodwill showed up in Georgia's May primaries, when a notable number of Democratic-leaning voters cast Republican ballots to help Kemp trounce his Trump-endorsed challenger.
Now, heading into the general election, Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams needs those voters in her column. And she is unvarnished in arguing that Kemp is due nothing from voters for refusing to subvert a free and fair American presidential election.
“Let me be clear,” Abrams says near the end of her half-hour campaign pitch. “Not committing treason does not make you a hero.”
The crowds at Abrams' events roar at the line, betraying at least some worry that Kemp's handling of Trump could curry favor with enough moderate voters and prove a decisive variable in this rematch from four years ago.
Kemp and Georgia's Republican secretary of state drew Trump's public ire when they signed off on Biden's victory in the state, which had been a Republican lock in presidential elections since 1996.
Of course, Kemp never explicitly pushed back on Trump's false claims that Biden's win was fraudulent; the governor stuck to a matter-of-fact explanation that he was following the law. His approach incensed Trump's most ardent supporters. But it also proved a subtle way for Kemp to position himself as a moderating force within Trump's party, giving the governor an opening to fashion a November coalition of his own core supporters and key swing voters.
That balance is how Kemp narrowly defeated Abrams in 2018 and how Democrats, in turn, shifted Georgia their way in 2020.
“It’s a base-plus strategy for Republicans, and a base-plus strategy for Democrats,” said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist, explaining the shared pressure on Kemp and Abrams to win the narrow middle.
Four years ago, Kemp won by 55,000 votes out of about 4 million cast. Biden topped Trump by less than 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast. In concurrent U.S. Senate runoffs two months after the presidential election, about 4.5 million Georgians voted; Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won by 2 percentage points and 1.2 percentage points, respectively.
In May of this year, Kemp topped former Sen. David Perdue with almost 74% of the vote in a record-turnout Republican primary, despite Perdue having Trump’s endorsement. Perdue’s 262,000-plus votes could be of concern to Kemp in such a hotly contested state.
“There are still plenty of election deniers in our party,” said Ed Henderson, a local GOP officer in Rabun County, where Kemp and Abrams each held events recently. “I'm not one of them,” Henderson said, “but Kemp has to deal with them.”
On the other hand, an Associated Press analysis of early voting records from data firm L2 found that more than 37,000 people who voted in Georgia’s Democratic primary two years ago cast ballots in May's Republican primary, an unusually high number of so-called crossover voters.
That gave Kemp a clear anti-Trump boost that he never sought openly and also drew notice in Abrams' camp.
“Both sides have similar concerns,” Johnson concluded.
Hence Abrams’ frustration at any possibility Kemp would be rewarded for not helping Trump thwart an election.
Kemp, she told reporters at a stop in heavily Republican north Georgia, is “being lauded for not committing treason.” She pointed to other Kemp actions: expanding gun-possession rights with a concealed-carry law and signing a bill banning abortions at six weeks of pregnancy.
“It is wrong to suggest that Brian Kemp is some form of anti-Trump moderate,” Abrams told reporters. “He is not. He is not simply a fiscal conservative. He’s a hard-right, religious extremist who is using the law of Georgia to implement his belief system.”
Lance Hammonds, president of the NAACP chapter in heavily Democratic DeKalb County in metro Atlanta, said he's aware of the crossover votes in May and is working to educate voters about Kemp's full record.
“I'd say he's done a fair job as governor,” Hammonds allowed. “But there are plenty of gaps,” he said, pointing especially to Kemp's refusal to expand Medicaid fully.
As for Kemp's navigation of Trump, Hammonds drew a distinction between Kemp and his relative silence and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who has criticized the former president and testified before the congressional panel investigating Trump's role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Raffensperger “stood up,” Hammonds said, while Kemp “still followed the party line. That's not real political courage.”
Indeed, Kemp doesn’t talk about Trump unless asked. That's a notable turnabout from 2018, when he won Trump's endorsement in a contested Republican primary. Instead, Kemp cites his decisions to eschew extended statewide business closures and mask mandates during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, and he tries to link Abrams to Biden and an inflationary economy. Kemp calls her “extreme,” just as she labels him.
Still, Kemp makes his electoral strategy clear.
“We saw what happened” with Democrats’ wins in 2020 and 2021, Kemp said of the GOP base during a recent stop in Rabun County, where he got 80% of the vote in 2018. “We have to unite, and we have to get all our folks out,” he warned. Then, he promised, “We’re going to go after that middle.”
Only with reporters afterward did the governor begrudgingly acknowledge the potential effects of the 2020 drama in that equation. He said Trump loyalists give him credit for signing an overhaul of the state’s election laws in 2021 — a reaction to Democrats’ wins. Among other provisions, the law shortens runoff campaigns to four weeks and limits drop boxes for absentee ballots in the most populous counties. Both moves force Democrats to recalibrate their turnout operations.
Pressed on whether he could get swing votes for ratifying Biden’s victory, Kemp said, “People want elected officials that are going to abide by their oath of office to protect the law and the Constitution of this state and the Constitution of the United States. I think there are a lot of people in the middle who appreciate that.”
Of course, he added, “There’s probably a lot of people who won’t vote for me who appreciate it, too. But I’ve tried to be consistent.”
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