The ad that helped put Brian Kemp in the Georgia Governor’s Mansion.

Torpy at Large: Governor Shotgun has some tough choices to make

It’s going to be interesting which path Governor Shotgun takes.

Back in the Republican primary, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp was a middling candidate who carved out a striking image as a “politically incorrect conservative” by hoisting a shotgun and firing up a chainsaw and cranking up his pickup truck so he could round him up “some criminal illegals.” 

When Republican state Rep. Scott Hilton saw those ads, he figured two things: Kemp would win the primary. And he would lose his own race.

Hilton was right on both counts. The one-term legislator from Gwinnett County lost a squeaker — 155 votes — in what he called a “country-club Republican district” where many voters were disgusted with Trump.

Hilton said the Kemp ads hurt his own campaign, “But I don’t blame him for that ad. You have to do what you do to win. But it didn’t help in my area.”

Nor did it help in other suburban areas where GOP legislators bit the dust. In all, Republicans lost 13 seats as Kemp scratched out 50.22 percent of the vote in a dogfight with Democrat Stacey Abrams.

Kemp tacked toward the center after the primary, which is normal, trotting out his wife and daughters to show suburban moms that he wasn’t a meanie.

So now that he can move his gun safe to the Governor’s Mansion, Kemp must determine what to do with his primary promises: about outdoing Mississippi and signing the nation’s toughest abortion law, about inking a religious liberty bill, and about passing a gun law allowing concealed carry without a permit.

After all, it was rural counties that often voted 80-20 and offset the urban counties, which have gone blue. Those folks are going to remember Chainsaw Brian. And he has got to remember that you dance with who brung ya.

Support for Brian Kemp runs wide and deep in rural Georgia, including in the town of Rhine, in Dodge County, where Kemp attended a fish fry and rally in his honor while campaigning for governor on Oct. 4, 2018. 

Recently, former Republican state Sen. Fran Millar, who was beaten soundly in his north metro district, said if the GOP pushes its hot-button issues, “the metro area will continue to be lost to Republicans. Hopefully, leadership will remind the members of the recent results.”

Republicans can’t continue to count on the boonies for their winning ways. The metro area is growing, Millar noted, adding that “people aren’t going to move to Hahira.”

Kemp senses that and is starting out the way most incoming pols do, portraying himself as the Across-the-Aisle Governor.

“We will keep our schools, our streets, and our kids safe and put people ahead of divisive politics,” the new governor said during his inaugural speech Monday. “We will be known as a state united. It can be done.”

Photos of the crowd at the Georgia Tech arena show a snowy white audience. You know, the base.

Georgia’s 83rd governor, Brian Kemp, speaks after taking the oath of office during the swearing-in ceremony at McCamish Pavilion on the campus of Georgia Tech on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. 

Early on, Kemp is pushing for a $3,000 raise for teachers (remember, they helped run Gov. Roy Barnes out of office years ago). Kemp will also provide security grants to make schools safer.

But the base will not stay quiet if he forgets abortion, guns and religious liberty.

“He’ll be expected to pursue the promises he made,” said Eric Johnson, a Republican who used to be the state Senate president pro tem. “The public is tired of politicians who say things to get elected and then make excuses in not delivering.”

However, Johnson expects the Legislature to provide Kemp some cover by bottling up some of the more controversial measures, or at least watering them down.

“If (a bill) doesn’t get to him, it’s not his fault,” Johnson said. “The lesson of 2018 is the Republicans need to win back the suburbs.”

Gov. Brian Kemp is greeted by General Assembly and court members as he enters the House chamber on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. Kemp delivered his first State of the State address and released his first budget. 

Forgetting or misremembering campaign promises is a proud political tradition.

In 1970, Jimmy Carter veered to the right and his campaign hinted that former Gov. Carl Sanders would be more robust in pushing integration. Carter won and then moved toward moderation.

In 2002, Sonny Perdue, a huge underdog, helped turn the state Republican by employing Confederate pride to beat up on Gov. Barnes, who had torn the Rebel banner from Georgia’s flag. But Governor Sonny forgot all about the flaggers who helped put him in office. He knew that revisiting that issue could be devastating to Georgia’s standing in the business world.

Georgia Speaker David Ralston is helping Kemp out by saying that he’s not hot on the conceal carry bill, nor does he think the Legislature should get bogged down on religious liberty bills — fights that frighten both gays and the business community.

Ralston is doing Kemp a real solid here. Ralston is the guy at a bar hanging onto his friend who is lurching to get into a fight, yelling, “Lemme at ‘im!!! Lemme at ‘im!!!” All the while Kemp secretly hopes Ralston doesn’t let go of him.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston during his annual pre-session press conference on Jan. 10, 2019. 

The base is mad at these pronouncements. The Georgia Gun Owners blog is excoriating Ralston, with comments like, “The lowest of the lows in my book. Worse than a Communist!” and “R.I.N.O. He is what’s wrong with America.”

State Rep. Alan Powell, a longtime conservative Dem who was one of the last legislators to jump to the GOP, said Governor Kemp will combine both his primary self with his post-election embodiment.

“They wanted to paint Brian as a redneck because he hunted, drove a pickup and used a chainsaw,” said Powell, whose Facebook profile picture has him toting a shotgun by his pickup. “But his inaugural address was probably one of the most down-to-earth I’ve seen. He talked about the divisions between rural and metro, black and white, male and female. I think you’ll see him as a surprisingly good governor.”

Democratic state Sen. Scott Holcomb told me he thought incoming Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan outdid Kemp in his speech at the Eggs and Issues breakfast when it came to substance.

He said Kemp has been like a “weather vane” in tailoring his speeches to his audiences, and sooner or later he’s going to have to make a stand.

“There’s considerable risk that if he pushes a hard-right agenda, they’ll continue to lose seats,” said Holcomb. “Do they want to push it? Or were they saying those things to get elected?”

Only Governor Shotgun knows for sure.

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