Gov. Brian Kemp is in an epic political squeeze as he runs for a second term, caught between pro-Donald Trump forces pressuring him on his conservative flank and a challenge from Democrat Stacey Abrams on his left.
Kemp was always destined for a tough reelection challenge. But Abrams’ entry into the race this week crystallized his dilemma, as Democrats rallied around her rematch bid and Republicans fretted that infighting could end their 20-year grip on the Governor’s Mansion.
Abrams’ announcement, while not unexpected, could speed up former U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s decision on whether to mount a primary challenge against Kemp. Perdue has told friends he’s considering a run because he fears Kemp can’t pull off a repeat win against Abrams.
Democrats rejoiced that the speculation over whether Abrams would run is over, giving them roughly a year to coalesce behind a ticket that will also include U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, one of the most vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbents on the ballot next year.
Kemp on Thursday portrayed a sense of confidence as he prepares for two very different threats: Abrams, a Democratic icon whom he narrowly defeated in 2018; and a potential new adversary in Perdue, who was once a close political ally of the governor.
“Anybody else that wants to get in the race, you would have to ask them why,” Kemp said. “Why are they going to do that? Do they not like how great our economy is?”
None of those efforts have tamped down attacks from Trump or his allies who still blame Kemp for the former president’s election defeat in Georgia.
Fox News personality Sean Hannity took to the airwaves after Abrams announced her candidacy to call on Kemp to “bow out” of the race to make way for Perdue.
The former president, too, showed he’s still determined to exact revenge on Kemp, predicting in a late Wednesday dispatch that the pro-Trump “MAGA base will just not vote” for the governor in 2022.
“But some good Republican will run, and some good Republican will get my endorsement,” Trump said in a statement, “and some good Republican will WIN!”
Kemp could never have envisioned himself in this bind. He planned to share the 2022 ticket with U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, his hand-picked choice for an open seat, to make a stronger appeal to suburban white women who had spurned the party in droves.
Now Kemp, the first lifelong Republican governor in Georgia history, is forced to prove his bona fides to the conservative base. And none of the Trump-endorsed candidates for higher office in Georgia — including U.S. Senate contender Herschel Walker, Kemp’s former ally — will vouch for him.
“I can’t control what other people are saying. I can control what I’m saying, what I’m reminding Georgians out there,” Kemp said. “There’s other people talking about certain things, and they’re free to do that. We’re gonna talk about what I think Georgians care about.”
Of the prospect of a challenge from Perdue, who once pledged to support him: “I hope he’ll be a man of his word. But again, that’s not anything I can control.”
Kemp is taking the threats seriously. He has reloaded his campaign coffers, sharpened his reelection platform and unveiled volleys of endorsements. The Republican Governors Association has pledged its support. His campaign recently returned to the airwaves with a TV ad touting his agenda.
And he’s calling in favors. The Georgia Chamber, which declined to support Kemp in 2018, endorsed his reelection bid this week. That development was seen in political circles as a signal to both Perdue and Abrams about where the corporate crowd is leaning.
Many, though, are still on the sidelines — or actively encouraging Perdue to jump in. Among them is former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said recently that the former senator is the only “unifier” in the party who could beat Abrams.
Perdue remains conflicted about whether to run, though some of his friends say he’s leaning toward a challenge. In a recent interview with Martha Zoller of WDUN, Perdue outlined a potential line of attack against Kemp.
“We have a divided party in Georgia right now,” Perdue told Zoller. “Forget about me. It’s divided. And a lot of people feel like that people in power haven’t fought for them and caved in to a lot of things back in 2020 that didn’t have to be done.”
The governor and his allies said heeding Trump’s demands to call a special legislative session to overturn the election would have violated the law, triggered “endless” litigation and distracted from January runoffs that decided control of the U.S. Senate.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Zoller, who is close with both the governor and Perdue, is among many conservative leaders who worry an all-out brawl would further divide Georgia Republicans. She said she found little about Kemp’s record for Republican primary voters to criticize.
“The question is how do you take the great outcomes of the last three years and say you are going to do it better?” Zoller said. “I support contested primaries, but this may be a mess for everybody — except former President Donald Trump.”
The governor prefers to focus on Abrams and the plight awaiting Democrats, under pressure to prove their upset wins in the last election cycle were no Trump-driven anomaly but the start of a lasting political restructuring.
Democrats must wage that battle in a challenging electoral climate: The party in power typically loses seats in a midterm vote, and Biden’s approval ratings have taken a hit.
That means that state Democrats who weren’t shy about tying themselves to Biden and other national figures in 2020 might be forced to pull away from them in 2022.
“Abrams nationalized Georgia races in 2018 and 2020 when it was to her advantage with Trump in the White House,” said Jay Morgan, a former Georgia GOP executive director.
“She will not want her next race to be a referendum on Biden,” he added, which is the narrative Republicans are already pursuing.
And some Republicans say Abrams might have handed Kemp an early Christmas present by giving fractious Republicans a chance to unite against a hated adversary. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in May found 89% of Republicans had a negative view of Abrams, though the overall electorate was roughly split.
Chip Lake, a veteran GOP operative who has sometimes sparred with Kemp, said Abrams allows the governor to pivot to the offensive.
“Governing is very lonely at times. I suspect the governor will welcome the attacks from the left on his governing record,” Lake said. “It will help inoculate him from the attacks of the former president and might possibly help him in a likely general election.”
Of course, Abrams also could counterbalance that effect by revving up already-confident Democrats.
State Rep. Erick Allen, a Democratic contender for lieutenant governor, predicted Abrams’ candidacy “brings focus to not only the governor’s race but the entire ticket.”
“Georgians will have a clear choice for our next governor,” he said, “and her governing partners.”