Kemp, Warnock rise as national political stars in battleground Georgia

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock have seen their profiles grow dramatically after hard-fought election victories in the South’s premier battleground state, elevating them into potential national candidates.

Both won reelection over name-brand rivals in forbidding environments by claiming the center of Georgia’s electorate.

And both share support from a pivotal bloc of swing voters who bucked political norms to split their ticket this cycle, providing the decisive votes to propel each to nationally watched wins that have heightened their reputations.

ExploreAnalysis: How Raphael Warnock defeated Herschel Walker

Kemp had to overcome the vehement opposition of former President Donald Trump and then defeat Stacey Abrams, one of the nation’s most prominent Democrats. Warnock prevailed over Herschel Walker, an iconic athlete, even as every other statewide Democratic candidate lost by hefty margins.

“Georgia hasn’t produced many national leaders, other than Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich in the last half century,” said Republican strategist Brian Robinson. “Now we have the chance to take center stage in politics like we have in college football.”

‘This guy is special’

Both enter the new year with growing clout — Kemp as a governor wielding a mandate he couldn’t claim in 2018 after his razor-thin win, and Warnock after his fifth straight ballot-topping vote since joining the race to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson in 2020.

And their influence may only grow as President Joe Biden presses to move Georgia earlier in the primary schedule. The potential reshuffling would give the state’s voters a greater say in the 2024 presidential nominees — and the two leaders a direct opportunity to shape the field.

But their rising stature also brings new challenges. Kemp must navigate a legislative session stocked with new GOP leaders under a more intense microscope, with every policy proposal and executive order drawing outsized attention.

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Nathan Price, a University of North Georgia political scientist, said the governor’s appeal as a “conservative reformer who is not weighed down by the Trump baggage” also comes with drawbacks.

“This will attract considerable scrutiny to Kemp for this next legislative session as national pundits and strategists will look to his record for clues about how he might position himself for a 2024 run,” said Price.

With Abrams sidelined by a second consecutive defeat, Warnock and his ally U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff are now the party’s two biggest names. Warnock, too, must forge a path in a closely divided Senate where every misstep is amplified.

How Warnock chooses his next steps will be closely watched. Before polls closed on Tuesday, he told reporters at his final campaign stop he could renew a push for federal voting rights measures. He also wants to pursue a bipartisan deal on an insulin cap that would extend beyond Medicare recipients.

And with no election for six more years, Warnock can tap his extensive donor list to help other Democrats — earning him loyalty down the road.

“He’s a unique man who has a great future,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said after Warnock’s win. “The minute I met him, I finally met him, I said ‘this guy is special.’”

‘Poked the bear’

Kemp had a far different path to a second term. He was constantly maligned by Trump, who blamed him for his election defeat in 2020 and recruited former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to challenge him.

Once regularly booed at GOP gatherings, Kemp revived his political fortunes with shrewd maneuvering and a sweep of legislative successes. He walloped Perdue in the primary and then thrashed Abrams in the midterm. By November, even Trump swallowed his pride and endorsed him.

Rick Tyler, a former top campaign aide to the presidential campaigns of Gingrich and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, said that Kemp stands out because “he poked the bear and didn’t get his head taken off.”

Tyler said the governor’s star could rise higher as the GOP seems to be ready to move on from the former president.

“In many ways the party is looking for courageous leaders, not a follower or a sycophant,” Tyler said. “And Kemp certainly is in that mold.”

He doesn’t fit another sort of mold, though, as a flashy governor prone to winning cable TV fans by stirring up constant controversy.

Kevin Madden, a former adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential bids, noted that Kemp has a “much lower profile in the media, choosing his moments more carefully.”

Still, he added, “Kemp proved that when a candidate and their party centers their governing and political philosophy on big issues that matter to families and their future, and when you do that with an optimistic vision and a focus on competence, you win.”

Kemp won’t reveal much about his 2024 ambitions, often telling reporters he’s trying to “decompress” after a four-year odyssey.

But he recently established a federal PAC that gives him leverage to influence races in other states, and he’s taken other steps to use a state committee that can tap unlimited contributions to bolster his political network.

‘Identity politics’

The two politicians, who had a brief and cordial conversation by phone this week after Warnock’s win, also may have upended Georgia politics by finding ways to capture independent voters rather than playing relentlessly to the base.

About 200,000 voters backed Kemp but not Walker in the midterm. Warnock won his tight runoff on Tuesday over the Republican by keeping many of those middle-of-the-road voters in his camp.

“It shows our electorate is changing. We aren’t surprised about this split-ticket,” said Democratic state Rep. Derrick Jackson, who ran for lieutenant governor. He said both Kemp and Warnock delivered “key wins for Georgia” to woo swing voters.

“We have to stop playing identity politics,” Jackson said. “Georgians are looking for leaders who are compassionate, have character and are competent. They want someone who is authentic and genuine.”

Jason Carter, the Democratic nominee for governor eight years ago, said Kemp and Warnock don’t just share a bloc of voters. They also shared a mutual disdain for Trump, whose divisive politics triggered a political shift in the suburbs.

Warnock has worked across the aisle, and Brian Kemp has that potential,” said Carter. “They can be super effective if they can continue to do so.”