Kemp seeks boost from Georgia’s Rivian win in 2022 governor race

Gov. Brian Kemp. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Gov. Brian Kemp. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Big plant, growing economy could help governor fend off Perdue, Abrams

Every economic development announcement gets more political fanfare in the heat of an election campaign. But the rollout of a $5 billion new electric vehicle plant is sure to get supersized treatment from Gov. Brian Kemp ahead of the 2022 vote.

The first-term Republican already frames nearly every jobs announcement, big or small, as a measure of Georgia’s economic climate and a testament to his aggressive approach lifting restrictions during the earliest weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Rivian factory that he’s set to announce at the state Capitol on Thursday will give Kemp the biggest victory yet in the state’s ongoing crusade to entice companies to expand or relocate to Georgia. He is expected to present the win, loudly and often, as the most important validation yet of his business philosophy.

The multibillion-dollar factory set to be built an hour’s drive east of Atlanta is expected to employ at least 7,500 staffers and would be the first automotive assembly facility in Georgia since Kia Motors announced in 2006 it would build a plant in West Point.

It also will help burnish the state’s growing reputation as a hub for green technology, adding to an ecosystem that also includes the expansive SK Innovation battery plant for electric vehicles that is under construction in Commerce.

It’s a welcome change-of-subject for Kemp, who is facing a tightening political squeeze from formidable foes on both sides of the aisle in his reelection bid. Democrat Stacey Abrams and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican, announced challenges to Kemp within days of each other.

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Experts, voters say Georgia's governor race will be intense

Experts, voters say Georgia's governor race will be intense

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Experts, voters say Georgia's governor race will be intense

The governor will certainly add Rivian to his reelection message, which also focuses on the state’s low unemployment rates and other high-dollar economic investments.

“It’s politics 101. When the economy is good and things are going well financially, it tends to go well for the incumbent,” said Chris Riley, who was former Gov. Nathan Deal’s top aide. “And that’s what Kemp has going for him.”

Democrats will take credit, too, pointing out that the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package that was adopted without any Georgia Republican support laid the groundwork for a robust expansion of electric vehicle technology that Rivian will rely upon.

Rhyan Lake, of the Georgia Democratic Party, said that President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package is “already paving the way for thousands of new, good-paying jobs right here in the Peach State.”

“Rivian’s announcement is an exciting new economic development for Georgia,” she added, “fortified by the investments in the electric vehicle industry in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

An economic jolt

Kemp plans a celebratory unveiling of the plant on Thursday, though his office has only referred to the project in vague terms as a “special economic development” announcement. Rivian officials have declined comment. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported the project was finalized last week.

The company has been seeking a second U.S. manufacturing site to build vans, SUVs and trucks. The plant would rank as one of Georgia’s largest-ever economic development projects. Rivian’s existing plant is in Ilinois.

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A map of the area where the Rivian plant could be located.

A map of the area where the Rivian plant could be located.

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A map of the area where the Rivian plant could be located.

There are also potential hazards linked to the deal, which alienated some residents who fear the sprawling plant would transform the sleepy rural community and strain its transportation, healthcare and education infrastructure.

“Our governor is supposed to fight for us, and all they’re doing is eating up farm country,” said Chris Peters, who leases a tract of land for cattle in the area between Social Circle and Rutledge. “I can’t believe what they’re doing. And I don’t care how many jobs they’re creating.”

Backlash could come in other forms, too. It’s not immediately known what state and local incentives were used to entice Rivian, but the final figure is likely to be staggering.

Officials in Fort Worth approved a $440 million tax incentive package earlier this year to try to lure the plant to North Texas, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Georgia’s bounty of perks is expected to be one of the most lucrative ever offered by the state — and perhaps one of the most inventive. That could mean promises of legislative changes to clear the way for more electric vehicle sales, new state-funded training programs and infrastructure improvements.

That will draw critics who cast the generous package as a handout to an immensely valuable company that doesn’t need the help. Wall Street now pegs California-based Rivian at roughly $100 billion, exceeding both Ford and General Motors.

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Rivian Automotive's all-electric pickup truck: The R1T. (Rivian Automotive Inc./TNS)

Credit: TNS

Rivian Automotive's all-electric pickup truck: The R1T. (Rivian Automotive Inc./TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Rivian Automotive's all-electric pickup truck: The R1T. (Rivian Automotive Inc./TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Economic officials have noted that politicians from both parties have long embraced such incentives. And an internal poll recently released by Kemp’s campaign showed why he’s likely to put a greater emphasis on an economic message.

It found that his strongest approval ratings among fellow Republicans involved his handling of the economy, with 87% of likely GOP primary votes giving him favorable reviews.

Riley, the former Deal aide, wouldn’t be surprised by that strategy. He encouraged his former boss to attend as many ribbon-cuttings as he could to focus attention on Georgia’s economy. During Deal’s eight-year term in office, some 800,000 private-sector jobs were created.

“And Governor Kemp is on track to surpass that,” he said. “That’s a campaign message in 2022. We are in unprecedented times.”

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