Can Brian Kemp Make It to His Stacey Abrams Rematch?

RICHMOND HILL, Ga.—It’s a bright misty morning, and the mood is cheerful and low-key in the clubhouse of the golf course in this small town in the southeast corner of the state. The gathered people, 50 or so, chat amiably as they sip coffee and munch biscuit sandwiches. When the man they’re there to see, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, gets up to speak, he starts by thanking them for the extra effort of getting out of the house early on this, the morning after St. Patrick’s Day.

“We are chopping hard every day,” he says, “regardless of the circumstances.”

It’s hard to dispute. The legislative session isn’t over yet, but Kemp is already finding time—weekends, mostly—to sneak out onto the campaign trail. Last Friday, he was hours outside Atlanta, accompanied by his wife Marty and two of his three daughters, hitting a series of towns south of Savannah—Richmond Hill first, then a wedding venue in Ludowici, a seafood buffet in Jesup, a café in Waycross, an oyster bar in Darien.

“When you’re building a construction project like I used to do, it’s not something you do in a week or in a month. You grind away every single day to get that job finished,” Kemp says. “And that’s what I’m doing as your governor. People are gonna make a lot of promises, a lot of talk, do this, do that, Monday morning quarterback. But what I’m reminding people of every day in places just like this is just to say, remember what I promised I would do when I was here on the bus tour in 2018. Remember what I told you and then look at my record. I have done exactly what I told you I would do.”

It’s no surprise he’s pulling double duty as governor and candidate these days, since Kemp is gearing up for the fight of his political life. Four years ago, the then-secretary of state won a photo-finish victory against Stacey Abrams, whose turnout operation among black voters made her a national Democratic hero and forged a new political lane in a state long dominated by Republicans. Then, in November 2020, Georgia surprised the nation by breaking for Joe Biden in the presidential race, then shocked it two months later in the Senate runoffs, when Democrats unseated two Republican incumbents, flipping control of the chamber to Chuck Schumer and handing Biden a unified majority in both houses of Congress. Now, Abrams is back for a rematch, and the second fight promises to be as tough as the first.

But before he can square off against Abrams, Kemp has to overcome another obstacle: David Perdue, one of the Republican senators unseated by those runoffs, who has launched a Trump-fueled primary bid against the governor.

In ordinary times, Kemp would be a head-scratching target for a Republican primary insurgency. His first term has been defined by the sort of controversy-sparking fights that conservatives rally around: In 2019, Kemp backed and signed a heartbeat bill (later overturned in court) banning most abortions beyond six weeks, sticking to his guns despite widespread threats by actors and directors to boycott the state, a serious threat to Atlanta’s blockbuster entertainment industry. In April 2020, barely a month into the COVID-19 pandemic, he permitted nonessential businesses to reopen if they followed certain public health guidelines, a decision that brought a storm of criticism not only from Democrats but even from President Donald Trump, who suggested it was premature. And, last year, Kemp championed the passage of an election security bill, SB 202, that was pilloried even more savagely in the press, causing Major League Baseball to pull its annual All-Star Game out of the state.

“We’re in a weird spot in Georgia where you’ve got basically Hollywood Part Two in Atlanta, with the film industry, we’ve got huge businesses here, and we’re a swing state,” Cole Muzio, president of the Frontline Policy Council, a Georgia family policy group, told The Dispatch. “You’ve got pressures here that most red governors don’t have. And, you know, Kemp has not governed like a moderate whatsoever. He’s governed like a hardcore conservative, despite beating Stacey Abrams by only 55,000 votes. So there’s not much room to run to the right of Kemp on the issues.”

In Trump’s eyes, however, Kemp’s first term was also marked by one unforgivable sin: In the wake of Biden’s narrow win in Georgia, he did not throw his weight behind Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud and subsequent campaign to overturn the results. While it was Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger who became an icon of resistance to Trump’s “stop the steal” fictions, Kemp spent the fight on the sidelines, not disputing Trump’s claims but insisting (correctly) that he had no power to affect the tallied votes.

Still, it was enough to earn the enmity of the former president, who has always viewed anything short of total loyalty as tantamount to political betrayal. Throughout last year, Trump made no secret of the fact that he would campaign to keelhaul Kemp’s reelection bid. The vessel he eventually selected for exacting that punishment was former Sen. Perdue.

Not long ago, this probably would have been all there was to it. In recent years, no name has carried more power in Republican circles than Trump’s; no accusation has been more dire than that of insufficient devotion to his MAGA agenda.

But so far, Perdue has failed to seize the pole position. He lags Kemp significantly in fundraising, and primary polls show Kemp with a consistent lead of 8 to 12 points. Importantly, those same polls show that both candidates are known commodities with very high name recognition among primary voters—suggesting that there isn’t some vast pool of potential Perdue voters out there who just haven’t heard the gospel yet.

For Perdue, the silver lining comes down to one stat: A Trafalgar Group poll last month showed that only 58 percent of likely primary voters knew that Trump is backing his candidacy. With the former president planning to visit the state repeatedly in support of the former senator between now and the late-May primary, there will be ample time for that number to grow.

In this way, the rest of the race will function as a sort of barometer for Trump’s ongoing pull within the party as his presidency recedes in the mirror. With a growing share of Republicans focused on affecting the future rather than relitigating the past, how far can a 2020 sour-grapes message and a stamp of Trump’s approval carry a candidate with few other natural advantages in the head-to-head?

Brian Kemp isn’t a particularly stirring public speaker. His voice doesn’t rise above a conversational drawl as he reels through a stump speech that’s light on sweeping rhetoric and heavy on his policy record. Occasionally an ad-lib will meander off in some head-scratching direction, as with this digression in the middle of a critique of top-down COVID policymaking: “In other states, you had people that wouldn’t even give you the opportunity to fight through this. … I mean, we’ve literally seen one person take away liberties and freedoms in this country like we had never experienced before. And we’re watching what those kind of decisions end up with over in Russia and Ukraine right now. That is what we are fighting for.”

But where Kemp has always excelled on the trail, observers say, is in what comes before and after the speech: the hard work of retail politicking and relationship building in town after town, day after day, for weeks and months on end. In a book out this week called Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power, Georgia reporter Greg Bluestein recalls how Kemp won his 2018 primary in large part thanks to “a personal touch that helped distinguish him from other politicians.” Bluestein recounts how Kemp would scan local newspapers every morning, “tapping out condolences to families he spotted in the obituary section of the Journal-Constitution and congratulatory notes to folks honored in the Walton County paper.”

“He made efforts to attend the funeral of every law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty, often appearing in the back pews of a church with no notice, and kept his calendar full of fish fries in Tifton and barbecues in LaGrange,” Bluestein writes. “Everywhere he went, even the most remote towns off dusty backroads, he seemed to have a friend willing to throw him a fundraiser—and then put him up for the night in a spare bedroom or on an air mattress.”

Still, extensive political relationships or no, conservative policy record or no, Trump’s breakup with Kemp over the 2020 election unquestionably hurt the governor’s standing among state Republicans. If the primary had taken place in May 2021 instead of May 2022, when anger over the election was still burning fresh in Republicans’ minds, he’d likely have been in real trouble.

But with Trump out of office and off Twitter, his messaging significantly diminished, it’s an open question how interested Republicans still are in using their votes to relitigate the 2020 election. “I wish Trump would stay out of the election—let them run the race by themselves,” said one Kemp supporter at the Richmond Hill event. His friend, who said he hadn’t decided which candidate to support, agreed: “In fact, I told Perdue last week when he was here in Savannah, he needs to put all his ads with Trump in the closet for a while and let’s just hear what he has to say.” (Both declined to give even their first names; they’re plenty friendly in southeast Georgia, but you don’t get the sense they like reporters much.)

A recent poll of Georgia GOP primary voters commissioned by the nonprofit Secure Democracy USA and conducted by GOP pollster American Viewpoint found that, while 88 percent of voters view Trump favorably, only 13 percent cited voting and elections as their top issue in deciding their primary vote.

It may not be that Republican voters care less than they used to about elections; it’s also that the election bill Kemp signed last year overhauled many elements of the state’s election laws, including requiring all precincts to have at least 17 days of early voting, shrinking the window for requesting an absentee ballot, and implementing voter ID for absentee ballot applications.

State and national Democrats savaged the law, which Biden absurdly dubbed “Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” Kemp, for his part, argues that the law made it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.” And some state Republicans don’t think it went far enough: Cobb County GOP Chair Salleigh Grubbs told The Dispatch the ballot drop-off boxes should have been removed altogether.

Regardless, the bill complicates the narrative that Republicans who have serious concerns about voter fraud in 2020 are gimmes for Perdue; Kemp allies regularly point to the Heritage Foundation’s “Election Integrity Scorecard,” which in the wake of SB 202 gave Georgia a best-in-the-nation grade.

Of course, the real energy of Perdue’s challenge isn’t in the finer points of election legislation; it’s in the sneers of high-profile allies like Donald Trump Jr., who has held several rallies with Perdue in recent weeks, savaging Kemp at each as a “useful idiot” who has “sold us out.”  

Democrats “love Brian Kemp because they know when it actually matters, Brian Kemp won’t fight,” Trump Jr. said at one point. “We might as well have Democrats” as Republicans like Kemp, he said at another.

Kemp insists he isn’t concerned about these attacks.

“I think that anybody that knows what I’ve done … thinks it’s laughable that anybody would call me a RINO,” Kemp told The Dispatch. “You know, I can’t control what other people that don’t even live in our state are doing. And I can’t control what other candidates are saying. What I’m reminding the people of is my conservative record. That I’m the only one in this state that has beaten Stacey Abrams. And as the polls show, I’m the only one that can beat her in November.”

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