Brian Kemp tries to shore up base as Donald Trump keeps up attacks

Gov. Brian Kemp faces questioning at the Georgia GOP convention in June in Jekyll Island from supporters of former President Donald Trump who blame him for the president's loss in November. Kemp tried to counter by stressing his own conservative record. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

Gov. Brian Kemp faces questioning at the Georgia GOP convention in June in Jekyll Island from supporters of former President Donald Trump who blame him for the president's loss in November. Kemp tried to counter by stressing his own conservative record. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Not long after Gov. Brian Kemp was peppered with boos at the Georgia GOP convention, the first-term Republican camped out in the halls outside the Jekyll Island convention hall to face questions from angry partisans who blamed him for Donald Trump’s defeat.

As activists questioned him face to face, he countered each with a rundown of his credentials: The number of GOP rallies and pro-Trump events he headlined, his support for the former president’s agenda, his own conservative record in office. He calls it “telling the truth.”

Kemp loyalists see the governor at his best in these one-on-one interactions: authentic, edgy and fiery.

Yet his need to constantly prove himself to his party’s core supporters underscores his precarious 2022 positioning as he simultaneously tries to fend off pro-Trump primary challengers while he prepares for a likely tough rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams.

The governor is now preparing a July 10 campaign kickoff in Middle Georgia to solidify support from a once-reliable base unmoored by Trump’s insistence that Kemp should have done more to reverse his November election defeat.

He’ll come armed with a spate of recent attention-grabbing moves meant to put conservatives at ease, including a visit to the U.S. border in Texas to decry President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, a ban on “vaccine passports,” jabs at city leaders over Atlanta’s rising crime rate and a revolt against critical race theory.

It’s a sales job that Kemp and his allies could never have envisioned needing a few years ago, before Trump called for the governor to resign — and vowed to defeat him in 2022 — because he refused to reverse the president’s November loss. Now, though, it’s a necessity.

“I’m getting in front of them, giving them my side of the story, telling them the truth and explaining processes of what I can do and couldn’t do,” Kemp said in an interview, adding that his goal is to “remind those people that they have a true conservative here that has not wavered.”

‘Not a king’

Kemp has lucked out so far. He avoided a primary challenge from former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, whom Trump repeatedly encouraged to run. His poll numbers steadied from a January swoon, due partly to the conservative embrace of an election overhaul that includes voting restrictions.

The ongoing fight over that contentious measure is still helping him rally Republicans to unite behind a common adversary. After the U.S. Justice Department sued to overturn the law last week, Kemp signaled exactly that approach, calling the challenge a “politically motivated assault on the rule of law.”

But his tilt toward the party’s right flank shows just how deeply Kemp is still mired in dodgy political territory, faced with the constant threat of a fresh Trump attack — and pressure from challengers who are promoting themselves as Trump’s favorite.

Chief among them, so far, is Vernon Jones, the former Democrat who is trying to refashion himself an archconservative Trump protege.

At campaign events, Jones tries his best impression of the former president, railing against both the media and the GOP establishment that long abhorred him when he was the Democratic leader of deep-blue DeKalb County.

While Jones’ attempts to impress Trump haven’t won over the former president, several in his inner orbit have endorsed the former Democrat. Among them is Rudy Giuliani, the former Trump lawyer and ex-mayor of New York, who held a pricey fundraiser for Jones in Buckhead on Wednesday.

Vernon Jones, a former Democrat who has tried to cast himself as a protege of former President Donald Trump, is the only Republican currently running against Gov. Brian Kemp. Others could be coming, though. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner

icon to expand image

Credit: Nathan Posner

Others are rumbling about joining the fray. Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager, said on a far-right outlet that he’s recruiting a “known commodity” to challenge Kemp. It’s believed to be Ames Barnett, a former small-town mayor in east Georgia who can self-finance his campaign.

“Brian Kemp is not a king. He doesn’t just get to decide that he’s going to be the governor and not have anyone challenge him,” Lewandowski said, adding that he’s delighted that the specter of a moneyed outsider running against Kemp “scares the hell out of the establishment.”

Kemp’s allies acknowledge he has work ahead to settle a GOP riven by Trump, but they say the governor’s record — and the threat of resurgent Democrats fresh off statewide victories — will help activate Republicans.

“Georgia conservatives will have a chance in the spring to vote for the most conservative governor in Georgia history: Brian Kemp,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said. “That’s not my opinion. That’s a fact.”

‘Shoot both feet’

It’s strange territory for Kemp, a stalwart of Georgia’s conservative movement since his 2002 election to the state Senate. As the state’s first lifelong Republican to become governor, Kemp electrified the party’s base — and infuriated Democrats — by signing one of the nation’s strictest anti-abortion measures.

But Kemp’s selection of Kelly Loeffler for an open U.S. Senate seat strained ties between him and the president, and his refusal to illegally overturn the results of the presidential election pushed them beyond the breaking point.

Brian Kemp, left, became governor in 2018 with the help of an endorsement from President Donald Trump. Now, however, Trump has pledged to campaign against Kemp in 2022 because the governor did not overturn his loss in Georgia during the presidential election.

icon to expand image

The former president went from vociferously endorsing Kemp to saying he should step down. And while Kemp is careful not to antagonize the former president, Trump hasn’t relented, invoking Georgia dozens of times in emails sent through his Save America PAC.

Trump’s recent return to campaign-style rallies only offered another reminder that Georgia remains firmly in his sights. The former president said ruefully that maybe he shouldn’t have endorsed Kemp over Abrams, the voting rights advocate and national Democratic leader he narrowly defeated in 2018.

“We might have been better if she did win for governor of Georgia, if you want to know the truth,” he told a crowd in Ohio. “We might have had a better governor if she did win.”

Beyond the hard power of incumbency, Kemp has other advantages. He recently reported about $9 million on hand for his reelection campaign a year out before the primaries. And he’s slowly expanding a grassroots network.

Brandon Phillips, chair of the 2nd District GOP, faced a barrage of gripes from South Georgia activists in early June that Kemp is “taking the Republican base for granted.” Now, Phillips said, there’s been a noticeable “uptick” in outreach — and he’s run into Kemp staffers at three recent events.

“That’s the kind of effort Republicans down here have been wanting to see,” said Phillips, who headed Trump’s Georgia campaign for a stretch of the 2016 election.

It paves the way for a primary next year that will shape the direction of the party, said Chris Riley, a veteran Republican who served as the top aide to Nathan Deal during his eight years as governor.

Riley framed it as a choice between backing an incumbent with a conservative track record or trying to “shoot both feet with one bullet and possibly lose the Republican majority in the state Legislature.”