In the aftermath of his losing 2020 campaign, former President Donald Trump marked Georgia as the bullseye of his political vengeance tour and positioned Governor Brian Kemp at the dead center of the target.
Trump’s motive was clear. He was furious at Kemp for refusing to “find the votes” to flip Georgia’s election results in his favor. But after a year of threats and bluster, Trump is now nowhere to be seen in the Peach State. His last appearance was on March 26, when he made what reporters described as a “rescue mission” to resuscitate the candidate he recruited to primary Kemp, former Sen. David Perdue.
The effort failed: Kemp continued to batter Perdue in the polls, even though Trump invested more into Perdue than any other candidate, ever. Trump has adjusted accordingly—in a reverse of the January 2021 Senate runoff, when Trump went all-out for Perdue up to the eve of the election. This time around, Trump abandoned Perdue on the field. Trump is—quite literally—phoning it in. In the final weeks of the campaign, Perdue was MIA on the campaign trail. So call it what it really is: Total surrender.
Think about the split-screen: Trump is probably at home in Mar-a-Lago right now stewing, looking for screwy things to “ReTruth” on his pretend social media platform. Meanwhile, IRL, Republican governors are flocking to Kemp’s side. Kemp ran Trump outta Georgia with his tail between his legs. Kemp won’t say that, of course. He’s a politician courting Trump voters. But, here’s the real rub for Trump: Former Vice President Mike Pence—who shares with Perdue the distinction of having defied Trump’s demands to block Joe Biden’s election—will be in Georgia today to campaign alongside Kemp on the eve of his all-but-certain victory.
Perdue didn’t always appear to be such a hapless candidate hoping to coast by on nothing more than Trump’s endorsement and “Stop the Steal” desperation. Kemp made his own destiny in this race by outhustling the former senator on almost every issue and leaving him with nothing else to campaign on.
Kemp is a canny operator. Think of him as a savvier Ron DeSantis without the fratty antics. Both are popular GOP governors who know how to cater to the base. Kemp, however, is craftier when it comes to delivering the goods. He’s a rarity in that he has accomplished his legislative achievements despite Trump, not in hopes of pleasing him or transparently hoping (as DeSantis has) to succeed him in MAGA hearts.
For instance, Kemp was so far ahead of the curve when it came to how Republicans felt about COVID that Trump criticized Kemp in April 2020 for reopening Georgia too early. That decision was a boon to Kemp, and he has made it a feature of his campaign without the “Don’t Fauci My Florida”-style buffoonery.
Even though Kemp didn’t cave to Trump’s “Stop the Steal” demands, he did go on to sign an “election integrity” bill that rolled back some of the COVID-related voting expansions. Republican voters liked it, and they hated it when President Biden distorted it, calling it “Jim Crow 2.0.” Major companies, such as Major League Baseball, Delta Airlines, and Coca-Cola, followed the Democrats’ lead and denounced the law. Kemp fired back with a promise never to back down and decried corporate “cancel culture” and “woke political activists.” GOP voters liked that, too. He proved he wouldn’t back down from a fight, an all-important quality for the modern conservative pol. Kemp has been proven right. The bill didn’t cause voter suppression. According to the Washington Post, voting is surging in the Georgia primaries.
Kemp also signed Georgia’s “fetal heartbeat” bill, which prohibits abortions once a fetal heartbeat is present. The bill was challenged in the courts, but last September the Eleventh Circuit paused the case so it could await the Supreme Court’s consideration of this term’s major abortion case. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, Georgia’s law will presumably be upheld. Then, Kemp can take credit for implementing one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country—a law that permits abortion beyond the point of a fetal heartbeat (around six weeks) only in cases of rape, incest, saving the mother’s life, or the “medical futility” of the baby. Abortions in cases of rape or incest would require that an “official police report” be filed “alleging the offense of rape or incest.” The law includes language to provide unborn children “personhood” status for the purpose of “alimony and child support” and claiming unborn children as “dependent minor[s] for income tax purposes.”
In just the last few weeks, as Kemp’s re-election campaign has progressed, he has signed several other laws meant to please the conservative base. He banned mask mandates in schools. He delivered a “parental rights” education bill that prohibited teaching “divisive concepts” about racism and allowed the Georgia High School Association to ban transgender athletes. He signed another bill to preserve free speech on college campuses.
Kemp also made it difficult for Perdue to outflank him on gun rights issues by signing legislation to allow permitless open carry of handguns in public.
And he signed a $1 billion tax cut—twisting the knife in Perdue’s dying campaign by holding the signing ceremony in one of Perdue’s favorite restaurants. Oh, and as if that weren’t enough, Kemp held a campaign event with Sonny Perdue, one of Georgia’s most respected political players—and David Perdue’s cousin.
To top it all off, Kemp gave Georgians a gas tax holiday, which is very conveniently set to expire one week after the primary.
Given his record and his ability to triangulate MAGA, the real question is why Kemp isn’t being talked up as a possible 2024 presidential contender. Pulling off back-to-back wins in a purple-trending state should, theoretically, shoot him to the top of the list.
Maybe it’s too soon. To really amp up the speculation, Kemp will have to win the general election, of course. And Trump isn’t necessarily out of options.
If Trump is genuinely committed to defeating Kemp, Trump could support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, which is actually a position he has toyed with in the past. At a Georgia rally last September, Trump said, “Stacey, would you like to take his place? It’s okay with me. . . . Having her, I think, might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know the truth, might very well be better.”
He could test that theory. It would be a suicidal gamble for any Republican who wants to keep Georgia red. That said, Trump does have a well-established losing record. First the House, then the Senate, then his re-election campaign. The 2022 midterms will be another test. For now, the important thing to note is that the scoreboard will soon read Kemp 2–Trump 0.