Standing with his wife and three daughters, Kemp powered through his address, highlighting his support for anti-abortion legislation, his approval of a measure that imposed new voting restrictions and his aggressive reopening of the state’s economy during the pandemic.
And yet he avoided more significant pushback, such as a formal rebuke or “censure” from the thousands of delegates and alternates. And he got facetime with influential activists as he circled the convention center before and after the remarks, taking selfies and answering questions from attendees in between events.
Still, it was a far cry from the hero’s welcome that Kemp, the state’s first lifelong Republican governor since Reconstruction, received at the last GOP meeting two years ago. At that gathering in Savannah, Kemp mocked “C-List celebrities” who threatened to boycott Georgia over the anti-abortion law, as an adoring crowd peppered him with ovations.
Nor was it an ideal reaction for a Republican seeking a unified base of support ahead of an expected rematch against Stacey Abrams, the Democrat he narrowly defeated in 2018. In a sign of the fractiousness within the party, many of the Kemp critics held signs supporting Vernon Jones, a recent GOP convert now trying to rebrand himself as a far-right conservative.
“We passed heartbeat legislation,” Kemp said of the abortion law, which was blocked by the courts.
“Boo! What about the voting machines?” a man in the back of the room shouted in response.
The uneasy environment at a GOP convention is nothing new for elected Republican officials.
Then-Gov. Nathan Deal was scolded for vetoing a “religious liberty” measure and objecting to campus gun legislation; he wound up skipping the 2016 convention. Before that, then-U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss was booed for his stance on immigration. Others have seen their fortunes rise or recede in front of the activists.
Trump’s enduring grip on the state GOP even in defeat, though, has only heightened the backlash against Kemp and other GOP elected officials. The former president blamed Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for his loss, and vowed to unseat them both after they refused his demands to overturn the results.
Raffensperger and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, another Trump critic, didn’t even attend the convention because they said they weren’t invited. And Attorney General Chris Carr, whose office defended the state’s election results in court, also drew some boo-birds.
In an attempt to show GOP unity, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue -- who was one of Trump’s most loyal allies in the Senate -- introduced the governor. He called on Republicans to unite and pointed to nearly two decades of GOP leadership in the state dating to his first-cousin Sonny Perdue’s 2002 victory.
“I (warn) you to focus right now on what we have to do to win in November 2022,” Perdue said.
No speaker got a more raucous reception than Jones, who received several outbursts of applause as he delivered a series of base-pleasing lines. Some attendees, though, could be seen rolling their eyes, shaking their heads. A few stray “boos” were heard as he spoke.
The former state legislator compared President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to the cowardly lion, the tin man and the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“And Dorothy isn’t leading them from Kansas, they’re being led by that Wicked Witch from the South, Stacey Abrams,” he said.
Mindful of the pro-Trump backlash, Kemp has raced to shore up the GOP base’s support with a series of headline-grabbing moves. Beyond signing the election rewrite into law, he’s condemned “critical race theory,” banned “vaccine passports,” lifted most remaining coronavirus restrictions and toured a section of the U.S. border with Mexico.
And at the convention on Saturday, Kemp also reminded GOP voters of his track record at the ballot box against the state GOP’s arch-nemesis.
“There is only one person who’s beaten Stacey Abrams,” he told the crowd, “and you’re looking at him.”
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