Targeted by Trump, these top Georgia Republicans aren’t ‘Never Trumpers’

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

ATHENS — Shortly after Mike Collins fended off a challenge from a Donald Trump-backed rival, the Republican’s campaign tapped out a tweet with clown faces on the images of members of the former president’s inner circle who supported his opponent.

Missing from the picture, of course, was Trump himself. Throughout the campaign, Collins lavished praise on Trump but said he was misled into endorsing the former Democrat who was running against him to represent a slice of northeast Georgia in Congress.

The tweet reflects a strategy that will take on more importance as the November midterm election approaches and the former president flirts with a political comeback that could put his brand of politics into even sharper focus.

Although Trump treated some of Georgia’s top Republicans as traitors and unsuccessfully fought to unseat them in the May primary, the venom was almost entirely one-sided.

The four GOP incumbents who drew Trump-backed opponents each avoided swiping back at the former president even as they were branded as phony Republicans — or, in some cases, more derisive labels.

They continue to support Trump’s policies and receptive to accepting his blessing in November’s election.

In short, even though they incurred the ex-president’s wrath, the leading Republican contenders on Georgia’s midterm ballot are not members of the “Never Trump” camp.

Of Hunter Biden and CRT

Gov. Brian Kemp is at the center of this tightrope act. The first-term Republican swept to victory in 2018 with Trump’s support but became a target of the former president after refusing to reverse the outcome of the 2020 election.

But as Kemp is quick to say when pressed, he’ll never utter a “bad word” about Trump. That extends to a favorite campaign trail story involving how he reopened segments of the economy in the first weeks of the coronavirus despite pushback from Democrats and the “national media” — strategically omitting the fact that one of the loudest critics of that decision was Trump.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who became a household name for refusing Trump’s demand that he “find” the exact number of votes to overturn the election, has said the former president authored his own defeat by focusing on lies about election fraud.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

With the vote nearing, Raffensperger is now more likely to tout economic development figures and the state’s new election rewrite — while saying he’s working to “set the record straight” on the 2020 election without directly blasting Trump.

And two other down-ticket candidates opposed by Trump in the primary have avoided attacks by focusing on their races — and adhering to buzzy GOP talking points that have energized the former president’s base.

Attorney General Chris Carr has issued fundraising appeals targeting “Hunter Biden’s emails” — a favorite Trump topic — while Insurance Commissioner John King recently accused Democrats of supporting the teaching of “anti-American propaganda” in schools, even though their offices have nothing to do with either matter.

They have little political reason to change course. The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed nearly all Republicans support Kemp for a second term, while more than three-quarters of likely GOP voters back Raffensperger.

“They wisely took the high road and avoided criticizing former President Trump while remaining supportive of his policies,” said Jeff Hood, a veteran political observer who comments on local elections for The Oconee Enterprise.

In doing so, Hood added, they avoided antagonizing Trump’s most loyal supporters and provoking a back-and-forth with the ex-president while abiding by what was once a GOP commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

‘Moderate and MAGA?’

Democrats say their rivals can’t have it both ways by clinging to Trump’s policies and refusing to criticize his actions while also soaking up praise for defying his attempt to invalidate millions of Georgia votes.

Asked at an event in Smyrna what’s the most surprising aspect of her rematch against Kemp, Stacey Abrams was blunt: “That people give him credit for not committing treason.”

It’s a theme she’s returned to since Kemp has tried to delay his testimony before a Fulton County special grand jury investigating Trump’s 2020 actions.

“Brian Kemp is a dangerous extremist who has tried to hide himself behind one good action,” Abrams added in a recent CNN interview. “He’s trying to play both moderate and MAGA, but he is just extreme.”

State Sen. Jen Jordan, who faces Carr in November, pillories the Republican over his ties to Trump. And state Rep. Bee Nguyen, the Democratic nominee for secretary of state, likes to tell voters that “Brad is not your friend.”

“I would have not sat on that phone call,” Nguyen said at a recent campaign stop of Raffensperger’s recorded conversation with Trump. “I would have reported that right away.”

‘Velvet glove’

While Democrats are wrestling over how tightly to embrace Joe Biden — Abrams is among those who have closely aligned herself with the president — Trump’s possible 2024 run has injected new uncertainty into Georgia campaigns.

With the help of intermediaries, Kemp appears to have reached a de facto truce with Trump’s camp since his dominating primary win over former U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

The former president raised eyebrows when he recently told Fox News he hasn’t ruled out endorsing Kemp, saying “we’ll be looking at everything.” Kemp, too, remains open to accepting Trump’s support, saying that he wants “everybody’s endorsement” ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

“The governor has consistently praised the accomplishments of the Trump-Pence administration and is appreciative of everything the former president and his team did for Georgia during very challenging times in our state and nation,” said spokesman Tate Mitchell.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

As to whether Kemp would support a Trump comeback bid, Mitchell said: “Of course, the governor will support the Republican nominee in 2024 but is solely focused on making sure Stacey Abrams is never our governor — or the next president.”

Raffensperger, who has said he was a “proud” Trump voter, also didn’t reject the former president or the prospect of his comeback bid.

“I have built a broad-based support and I believe the best endorsement is an endorsement of the people of Georgia, and that is what I’m focused on this November,” he said.

Some Democrats fear that Kemp and his allies will be able to leverage their stands against Trump to position themselves to swing voters as moderates in November despite their conservative records.

“Brian Kemp is Donald Trump with a velvet glove. He’s enacted a far more conservative agenda than Trump ever could,” said David Brand, a veteran Democratic strategist.

“He and the other statewide Republicans are not Never Trumpers,” Brand said. “But they are also far more effective than Trump ever was in the White House.”