AJC poll: As Kemp readies State of the State address, he’s never been stronger

Gov. Brian Kemp, shown with his wife, Marty, enjoys peaking approval ratings as he prepares to give his State of the State address on Wednesday. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp, shown with his wife, Marty, enjoys peaking approval ratings as he prepares to give his State of the State address on Wednesday. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Gov. Brian Kemp is opening his second term in an unusual position for a much-targeted incumbent in one of the nation’s premier political battlegrounds: His approval rating now sits at a record high, and most Georgians say the state is squarely on the right track.

As the Republican prepares to deliver his first State of the State address since his reelection, he faces the challenge of how to deploy the political goodwill he’s accrued after notching victories over both Democrat Stacey Abrams and Donald Trump in one election cycle.

A new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll underscores his rising stature. About 62% of Georgia voters “strongly” or “somewhat” approve of Kemp’s performance, according to the poll conducted by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. The poll has a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.

It’s the highest approval Kemp has logged in an AJC poll since taking office in 2019 and a dramatic reversal from a nadir two years ago. Vilified by Trump and scorned by Democrats, just 42% of Georgia voters approved of Kemp’s performance back then.

The new poll’s results speak to his changing fortunes after fending off a Trump-backed primary challenger and then defeating Abrams. Nearly 90% of Republicans approve of Kemp, along with about half of independents. Roughly one-third of Democrats also give him high marks.

“I’m trying to be fair. He has done some things that have really helped people. I’m not going to bash him simply because he’s a Republican,” said Becky Edenfield, a retired Statesboro teacher who votes Democratic. “I don’t like where we are with the abortion issue, but I’ll give him this: He hasn’t just been hawking Donald Trump.”

Kemp’s rating contrasts with two other political figures: President Joe Biden and Trump.

About 35% of Georgia voters approve of the way Biden is handling his job, compared with nearly 60% who disapprove.

Biden’s approval ratings have been underwater in Georgia since January 2022, one reason that U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock distanced himself from the president throughout his reelection campaign.

The poll shows a key bloc of liberals and independents retain doubts about Biden, who became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Georgia in decades when he bested Trump by fewer than 12,000 votes.

“I think Joe Biden means well, but I’m not so sure he’s up on everything,” said Charlotte Profit of Bartow County. “I voted for him in 2020 because I thought he was the lesser of two evils, but the jury is out in 2024. It’s still early.”

As the next race for the White House takes shape, the poll shows a majority of Georgians — 55% — have a negative view of Trump. That includes one-fifth of Republicans. Former Vice President Mike Pence is also underwater, with a favorable rating of only 35%.

Voters are relatively split over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another potential contender. He has a 38% positive rating and a 38% negative rating, while the rest of respondents are undecided.

And many Georgians are up in the air about U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, a first-term Democrat who plans to stand for reelection in 2026. About 46% approve of Ossoff’s performance, compared with nearly 30% who disapprove. An additional one-quarter of voters is undecided.

‘Now is the time’

Kemp’s popularity in Georgia bolsters his clout at a time when other parts of the Gold Dome are in flux. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and House Speaker Jon Burns are new in their posts and testing the bounds of their power, while dozens of legislative newcomers are simply trying to learn the ropes.

The governor’s edge over Abrams in the polls during the campaign meant Kemp could steer clear of making far-reaching promises and instead focus on more modest goals. He’s called for new crackdowns on violent crime, pay hikes for state employees and roughly $2 billion in tax refunds.

But he’ll add new dimensions to his second-term agenda on Wednesday when he convenes a joint session of the state Legislature for his annual address.

He’s expected to sharpen his criminal justice policies in the wake of violent protests at the site of a proposed public safety center where authorities say a trooper shot and killed a 26-year-old activist after an exchange of gunfire.

Atlanta firefighters prepare to extinguish a police car that was set afire during a Forest Defenders protest Saturday in Atlanta. (Steve Schaefer/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Steve Schaefer / AJC/TNS

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Credit: Steve Schaefer / AJC/TNS

Kemp is also set to detail his health care agenda now that a federal judge has approved his plan for a limited expansion of Medicaid tied to work and engagement requirements. And he’ll hone his vision for a surplus that tops $6.6 billion.

And unlike past legislative sessions, aides and allies say he’s not planning to push new expansions on gun rights or additional limits on abortion, part of an attempt to portray a unified approach as he tries to position Georgia as the “electric mobility” capital of the U.S.

His window of opportunity may be limited. Few know that better than Kemp himself, whose approval ratings hit peaks and valleys through a first term shaped by the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s failed attempt to pressure the governor into overturning his election defeat.

“If you want to do something as governor, now is the time to do it,” said Bobby Kahn, a former top aide to Democrat Roy Barnes when he was governor. “You’re in a honeymoon phase and you’re getting positive national press. That can turn on a dime.”

‘I’m confident’

Indeed, Kemp faces pitfalls as he navigates a growing national profile — he’s already been mentioned as a potential GOP running mate in 2024 — while leading a swing state where split-ticket voters are playing an increasingly decisive role.

House Minority Leader James Beverly, the top Democrat in the chamber, is among many in his party who say Kemp should tap the surplus to finance a full-scale expansion of Medicaid and fund new infrastructure, education and workforce training programs.

“The governor wants to burn through our state’s hard-earned reserves, made possible by federal funding, to give Georgians a one-time shot in the arm at the cost of billions of dollars,” he said. “He has failed to deliver on the long-term support Georgians need to make a better life for their families.”

Still, the governor has already signaled he’s willing to buck political convention in his second term. He plans to travel the nation to support political allies rather than hunker down in Georgia, and he trekked to an elite conference in Switzerland this month vilified by many in his party.

He told the AJC he used the trip as a “one-stop shop” to pitch Georgia to corporate executives and international leaders in one posh setting. The governor also touted his cautious approach to the state’s bulging coffers as a potential economic downturn looms.

“We need to continue to be fiscally conservative and cautious and not grow government just because we have a lot of reserve money,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to help our citizens fight through whatever is coming in ‘23.”

The poll suggests Georgians are generally optimistic about what’s in store — at least on a local level. While more than two-thirds of voters say the nation is on the “wrong track,” only one-third say the same about the state’s outlook.

“I’m confident in Georgia’s direction right now,” said Carol Greene of Haralson County. “The state’s leaders are using common sense. They are putting Georgians first.”