Kemp poised for a big win Tuesday, but Trump’s shadow looms large

November 4, 2018 Macon - GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp and President Donald J. Trump shake hands during President Donald J. Trump's Make America Great Again Rally to support Brian Kemp at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in MaconSunday, November 4, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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November 4, 2018 Macon - GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp and President Donald J. Trump shake hands during President Donald J. Trump's Make America Great Again Rally to support Brian Kemp at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in MaconSunday, November 4, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

When Gov. Brian Kemp is asked how he handles Donald Trump’s unrelenting fury, he typically launches into the well-practiced answer he offered at a recent stop in Atlanta’s exurbs: “I’ve never said a bad word about their administration. And I don’t plan on doing that.”

But the constant questions about Trump’s obsession with defeating Kemp underscore a painful reality for a Republican on the cusp of a defining political victory.

Even as polls show Kemp is poised to rout former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in Tuesday’s primary, the governor must still face the wrath of the former president throughout what’s expected to be a bruising November matchup against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

And he has little margin for error against her well-financed campaign and energized Democrats determined to prove their 2020 success in Georgia was not a Trump-fueled fluke.

Kemp has so far navigated that balance delicately. He tells audiences he isn’t worried about what “other people say about me” without directly mentioning Trump. And he’s taken pains to avoid further antagonizing Trump by heaping compliments on his conservative policies.

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The governor’s race is bringing big names to Georgia as GOP candidates fight it out for nomination. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (left) is a supporter of Gov. Brian Kemp.

The governor’s race is bringing big names to Georgia as GOP candidates fight it out for nomination. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (left) is a supporter of Gov. Brian Kemp.

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The governor’s race is bringing big names to Georgia as GOP candidates fight it out for nomination. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (left) is a supporter of Gov. Brian Kemp.

“What you learn in politics is you can’t control what comes out of other peoples’ mouths. You can only control what comes out of yours,” said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Kemp ally who praised the Georgian for refusing to jab back at Trump’s frequent attacks.

“It would be real easy to take that bait,” Christie added. “And he has not done it.”

‘Matchbox car’

That balancing act will soon get trickier.

Even the governor’s loyalists acknowledge that Trump’s hatred of Kemp likely won’t abate if Perdue’s bid collapses. The former president blames Kemp more than perhaps any other politician for his 2020 defeat and has taken extraordinary steps to punish his one-time ally.

Trump blasted Kemp at four Georgia rallies in the last 18 months, directly intervened to help clear the primary field for Perdue, starred in ads attacking Kemp and spent $2.6 million from his PAC to promote the former U.S. senator’s campaign. He’s holding a final tele-rally for Perdue on Monday, the same day former Vice President Mike Pence will headline a Kemp event in Cobb County.

Georgia Republicans now wonder the lengths the former president will go to undermine Kemp in the general election — and whether that could hurt other Republicans on a ballot. Trump has already given a taste of how his ongoing hostility to Kemp could influence the November race.

At a September event in Perry, Trump said he’d rather see Abrams win than a second term for Kemp. And he predicted that U.S. Senate GOP hopeful Herschel Walker — who entered the race with Trump’s blessing — would lose with Kemp at the top of the ticket.

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Herschel Walker, front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, speaks as former President Donald Trump looks on during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Trump warns that Walker's campaign could be hurt if Gov. Brian Kemp becomes the GOP's choice to face Democrat Stacey Abrams again. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Herschel Walker, front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, speaks as former President Donald Trump looks on during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Trump warns that Walker's campaign could be hurt if Gov. Brian Kemp becomes the GOP's choice to face Democrat Stacey Abrams again. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Herschel Walker, front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, speaks as former President Donald Trump looks on during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Trump warns that Walker's campaign could be hurt if Gov. Brian Kemp becomes the GOP's choice to face Democrat Stacey Abrams again. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“I think Herschel Walker is going to be very seriously and negatively impacted because Republicans that happen to like Donald Trump — MAGA Republicans — are not going to go and vote for this guy Kemp,” Trump said on a call for Perdue this month.

That message served as a reminder that even Trump-endorsed candidates like Walker could be dogged by the former president’s feud with Kemp. The former football star’s expected matchup against U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock could decide control of the Senate.

The governor’s allies acknowledge he’ll continue to face pockets of dissension from within his own party even if he scores a runaway victory on Tuesday.

But they say his delicate approach to Trump offers a window into how he’ll handle the former president during the general election campaign — and perhaps a blueprint for other Republicans on Trump’s bad side.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, an outspoken critic of Trump, said that Georgia is prepared to prove that the former president’s endorsement is no longer a “golden ticket,” much like it was when it helped power Kemp to a runaway 2018 runoff win.

“Every day there’s more and more folks that have the confidence to walk out in front of what used to look like a freight train but now is just a matchbox car,” he said.

‘Time to unite?’

Kemp plans to mobilize the Trump First voters by invoking a conservative record that includes signing anti-abortion legislation, rolling back gun restrictions and a raft of new school policies designed to energize Republican voters.

The core of his case to wavering Republicans, however, is that he’s beaten Abrams before and he’s the only candidate who can defeat her again.

Bryan Walker, a Carrollton mechanic, is a diehard Trump supporter who said his endorsement makes him far likelier to support a candidate. But he’s willing to swallow his misgivings about Kemp and support the governor because he believes he’s more electable in November.

“I’d do anything to stop Abrams,” said Walker. “She’s such a bleeding-heart liberal and so socialist-leaning you can’t help but to hate her.”

Perdue’s campaign has scaled back its efforts. He hasn’t been on the air with his own TV ads in nearly a month and has refused to significantly self-finance his own campaign. His only chance at unseating Kemp is to keep him under 50% to force a runoff, though polls show the governor well above that mark.

While Kemp has avoided slamming Trump, many of his supporters have been forthright. Lumpkin County Commission chair Chris Dockery pointedly told a crowd of hundreds at a Dahlonega campaign stop that Trump’s hold on the state GOP had its limits.

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Gov. Brian Kemp campaigns with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and members of his family in Sandy Springs on May 14, 2022. Greg Bluestein/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp campaigns with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and members of his family in Sandy Springs on May 14, 2022. Greg Bluestein/AJC

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Gov. Brian Kemp campaigns with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and members of his family in Sandy Springs on May 14, 2022. Greg Bluestein/AJC

“I’m an independent thinker and I don’t need a politician who’s been defeated telling me who I need to vote for the next governor of the state of Georgia.”

Some Trump loyalists predict the former president’s most ardent followers won’t rally behind Kemp even if it means an Abrams victory. At a sparsely attended Perdue event in Gainesville, GOP activist Debbie Dooley said some will see him as a “betrayer of the base.”

“They think both Stacey and Brian are evil — and there is no lesser of two evils,” she said. “You’re rewarding betrayal.”

The governor is used to shrugging off those predictions. At a stop that drew hundreds to a brewery in Canton, he downplayed concerns about the longer-term fallout of Trump’s opposition.

“I know Republicans get into tough fights. I’ve been in those before,” he said. “But it will be time to unite after that to beat Stacey Abrams and that’s exactly what I think everyone will do.”