After winning the tightest election for Georgia governor in decades, Brian Kemp must live up to promises he made to vastly different constituencies.
He’ll have to do it while also confronting a new push to overhaul voting rules backed by critics who question the legitimacy of his victory.
To social conservatives, he vowed to sign the nation’s toughest abortion restrictions, enact gun rights expansions, cap state spending and ink a “religious liberty” bill. To win over the broader electorate, he outlined a teacher pay raise package and a slate of school safety measures.
Add to that mix a growing consensus over the need to enact broad changes to election laws after an outcome marred by allegations of voter suppression, either through unforgiving state laws or incompetent management.
Making good on those campaign promises got more difficult after his slim win over Democrat Stacey Abrams, who ended her campaign with a fiery assertion that “democracy failed Georgians” under Kemp’s watch as secretary of state. She’s preparing a lawsuit that will amplify those claims.
He must also contend with a shrunken GOP majority in the state Legislature after Democrats paved a blue streak through the Atlanta suburbs. That means he’ll need significant bipartisan support for constitutional amendments and some other hotly debated legislation.
Kemp said he’s preparing for this precarious balancing act as he begins charting out his policy priorities. But true to his campaign message, he’s made no hint that he’ll abandon any of the conservative proposals that helped him win a tough GOP nominating contest.
That means he’s set to try to cut taxes and boost rural Georgia while at the same time exploring new ways to crack down on violent gangs, deter illegal immigration and push a sales-tax holiday for guns and ammunition.
And to emphasize his conservative roots, he tapped a transition team stacked with prominent Republican politicians, activists and financiers who will set the foundation for his incoming administration.
“We got our folks energized and we got them out, and that’s why I’m sitting here,” Kemp said in an interview from his transition office under the Gold Dome. “Georgians have made their decision, and now it’s my job to keep our state moving forward. I’m going to do exactly what I told people I’d do.”
‘Hold out hope’
Kemp will be sworn into office in January as the new Legislature convenes at the statehouse for a tone-setting session where his first budget plan and a slate of campaign vows will be on the table.
His proposal to give every public school teacher a $5,000 pay raise will likely be front and center, but it must overcome skepticism from leaders on both sides of the aisle concerned over how to squeeze more than $600 million out of the state’s budget for the program.
And his idea for a cap on state spending would require winning over Democratic lawmakers who ardently backed Abrams — and who staunchly oppose his stance on abortion restrictions and support for a “religious liberty” bill they see as discriminatory.
And one of the dominant issues he’ll confront will revolve around voting suppression claims that dogged him throughout his tight race against Abrams, who came within 17,000 votes of forcing a December runoff after 10 days of post-election drama.
State lawmakers were already set to debate replacing the state’s outdated voting machines with a system that will have a verifiable paper trail. But some lawmakers are considering more sweeping changes triggered by high-profile flaws exposed by this month’s vote.
Counties had uneven procedures for counting absentee votes and provisional ballots. Local decisions to consolidate voting precincts sparked national attention. And Democrats have already proposed a bill to block the purging of voters who didn’t cast ballots in recent elections from the state rolls.
“If I were Brian Kemp and I got elected under the circumstances he did, the first thing I would do is say the Legislature needs to try to correct some of the voting issues,” said state Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, a Lithonia Democrat.
“I have not seen that indicated by his post-election interviews, so my gut is not telling me that will not happen,” said Kendrick, a member of the House Democratic leadership team. “But I’ll hold out hope. Because if he wants to unite Georgia, I think that’s one of the best things he could do.”
Kemp has said he’s open to broader changes to voting rules but would not specify which he supported, only saying “there will be a willingness from the Legislature to try to address some of these concerns.”
“But we had record turnout in this election,” he said. “It’s very frustrating when people talk about voter suppression when minority participation is up, there’s record turnout and a million more people are on the voting rolls than when I took office.”
‘A lousy job’
The tone of Kemp’s administration will reverberate to the 2020 election, when Georgia’s 16 electoral votes will be up for grabs and the Atlanta suburbs will be the state’s main battleground as President Donald Trump stands for another term.
So, too, will U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a staunch Trump ally who could face a range of Democrats already rumbling about a challenge — with Abrams the foremost possible contender. Perdue called the tight election a “wake-up call to Republicans who believe in conservative governance.”
“This race was much closer than it should have been, and it’s because of one party modifying their course,” he said in an interview, invoking Abrams and other Democrats who more aggressively embraced liberal issues.
“My lesson is that Republicans have to broaden their outreach and have to get more aggressive on the ground game,” Perdue said, praising Democrats for success in identifying and mobilizing new voters. “Republicans have done a lousy job getting their message out about what we stand for.”
Kemp tried to soften his image as Election Day neared, spending millions of dollars on a flood of TV ads bombarding metro Atlanta screens that featured his wife, Marty, and three daughters.
But that came after more than a year of taking hard-right stances that began when he entered the race with Trump-like messaging and a relentless pledge to pursue base-pleasing policies even if it meant a sharply polarizing administration.
Other veterans of the November vote hope he takes a more conciliatory approach after his razor-thin win.
Mary Robichaux, a Democratic health care executive, narrowly toppled a Republican incumbent in the Georgia House with plenty of help from conservatives. She said she learned valuable lessons from knocking on 4,000 doors — including many GOP households.
“He needs to reach out to the other side of the aisle, to some of the people who didn’t agree with him,” said Robichaux, whose district encompasses a conservative stretch of Roswell. “People want to have their voices heard.”
As governor, Kemp will also have swift opportunity to rebrand himself. After a bruising campaign, Nathan Deal used his inaugural address in 2011 to foreshadow a bipartisan push to retool the HOPE scholarship program and launch the first part of his popular criminal justice overhaul.
“The proof is in action,” Perdue said. “He’s going to have to build an administration, and I think that should reflect the diversity of Georgia. And he needs to bring Georgia together. The governor has an opportunity to heal some of these wounds from elections and bring us together.”
That’s a rare area where Abrams and Perdue agree. In an interview, the Democrat pointed to Deal as an example of a Republican who “worked across the aisle from the very beginning” to set the tenor of his administration.
“What Governor Deal did was move beyond partisanship immediately to try and solve problems. I hope Brian Kemp will do the same,” she said. “I hope he’ll listen to voices that differ from his own, and I hope that he will work to make Georgia’s elections better.”
Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at ajc.com/politics.