Kemp kicks off reelection campaign with focus on future - and not Trump

PERRY — Not far from the fairgrounds where Gov. Brian Kemp kicked off his reelection campaign this past weekend is the home of another key moment in the Republican’s history: a Middle Georgia regional airport where Donald Trump staged a rally for him three years ago.

The then-president’s late visit for Kemp in the 2018 campaign helped him eke out a narrow victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams. But much has changed since then for the governor, who is trying to rekindle the GOP coalition that elevated him to office while now navigating Trump’s pledge to defeat him next year.

Kemp’s formal campaign launch Saturday before a crowd of several hundred supporters reflected that high-wire act. He hardly mentioned Trump’s name, instead highlighting new voting restrictions and tough-on-crime laws that appeal to the former president’s supporters.

His voice echoing through an auditorium often used for farmers markets and livestock shows, Kemp mixed boasts of Georgia’s low jobless rate and teacher pay raises aimed at a broader audience with crowd-pleasing conservative red meat about the state’s new anti-abortion law and election overhaul.

And he took direct aim at Abrams, who is expected to mount a rematch against Kemp, describing her and other Democrats as too liberal for Georgia — and too eager to promote “cancel culture.”

“Make no mistake: They’re going to continue to cancel conservatives across the country,” he said, echoing the message he emphasized in a campaign ad played to warm up the crowd. “They are trying to go after anyone in the country that doesn’t share their values.”

Kemp’s approach echoes the strategy the governor followed to a 2018 victory, when he ran up huge margins in heavily conservative rural and exurban counties to offset surging Democratic gains in the once-reliably Republican metro Atlanta suburbs.

Except this cycle, he seems likely to walk an even narrower path than he did three years ago, when he defeated Abrams by just 55,000 votes out of nearly 4 million cast.

Republicans need no reminder of the double-whammy of Democratic victories in Georgia’s November presidential election and January sweep of the U.S. Senate runoffs.

Kemp and his allies know he must again stoke the party’s base to rebuild the fraying GOP coalition — or risk a repeat of the January runoffs, when sagging turnout in Republican areas contributed to the defeats of incumbent Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.

John Watson, the former Georgia GOP chair, said the message he sent was one of “strong accomplishments that demonstrate leadership in the hardest of times.” Pressed on whether the pro-Trump wing of the party could hobble Kemp, he expressed confidence Republicans would unite behind the governor.

“The rest will take care of itself.”

‘Brutal’

As 2021 dawned, Kemp’s political fortunes seemed dim. Public polling showed his favorability numbers on the decline, and Trump repeatedly vowed payback against Kemp for refusing to reverse his election defeat in Georgia.

But even the governor’s fiercest critics acknowledge his position has steadied since. He’s amassed a war chest of roughly $9 million and his approval rating among conservatives has solidified after he embraced an election overhaul that includes voting restrictions.

Still, he’s far from in the clear. Although he has so far avoided a formidable primary challenge, party-switching former legislator Vernon Jones is in the race and has raised about $650,000. Others could soon join the contest.

More distressingly for Kemp’s campaign, Trump has not relented his attacks and some of his supporters still view Kemp skeptically. He was booed at the state GOP convention and censured by a handful of county-level party organizations.

Even in Kemp-friendly territory he’s still facing backlash. At a Cobb GOP barbecue this month, where Kemp handily won a straw poll, the governor faced scattered jeers from activists who wore “Trump Won” shirts.

Weathering a GOP fight is only his first hurdle. Resurgent Democrats flipped the state for the first time in a presidential contest since 1992, and powered Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to victories in the January U.S. Senate runoffs.

Senior Democrats see Abrams, a key architect of the party’s comeback, as a shoo-in to face off against Kemp next year. And they hope each Kemp tack to the right winds up alienating moderate voters, particularly former Republicans who bolted the party during the Trump era.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, the state Democratic party’s chair, said the governor is “standing on thin ice from left to right.”

“Brian Kemp has done nothing but take Georgia backwards with divisive policies during his tenure as governor, and he has lost the trust of Georgians as a result.”

‘We cannot let that happen’

The very agenda initiatives that infuriate Democrats also help enliven Republicans.

Kemp has promoted a revolt against “critical race theory,” eagerly picked fights with the Biden administration and escalated an ongoing war with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat and key supporter of the president, over the city’s rising crime rate.

And most of all, he’s wielded the new voting law as renewed proof of his conservative credentials while distancing himself from criticism that he hasn’t done enough to help Trump.

The legislation imposes new ID requirements for mail-in voters, overhauls how local elections are run and limits ballot drop boxes. To Kemp and other Republican supporters, it promotes the “integrity” of an election system in need of a revamp.

caption arrowCaption
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, right, greets President Donald Trump as he visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on July 15, 2020. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, right, greets President Donald Trump as he visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on July 15, 2020. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

caption arrowCaption
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, right, greets President Donald Trump as he visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta on July 15, 2020. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

And though he’s avoided repeating Trump’s lies about widespread voting fraud in Georgia — falsehoods debunked by repeated tallies to the vote, court rulings and elections officials — Kemp has relished in the liberal backlash to the law.

He was showered with applause Saturday when he reminded the audience of what’s happened so far: Major League Baseball’s decision to yank the All-Star game from Atlanta and a legal challenge from the Justice Department, one of eight federal lawsuits seeking to overturn the law.

“I will make this commitment to you: I will not waver in that fight. I don’t care if it’s the Justice Department, Major League Baseball or anyone else,” he said. “And we’re going to continue to defend that. Because the truth is on our side.”

It’s tantamount to a bet that state Democrats bought in too eagerly to the national party’s leftward tilt — and that Georgia Republicans will return to Kemp’s banner even if Trump still has misgivings about him.

“Look, this campaign is about the future. That’s what I’m going to stay focused on,” Kemp said after his address, while supporters wolfed down barbecue on long white tables and a country band blasted covers.

“I’ve gotten a lot of questions about President Trump. I’ve reminded people I worked very hard for him, supported his legal efforts. But the campaign, to me, is reminding people of all the things we’ve done.”

Some of his allies were more direct. State Sen. Larry Walker III, who represents the area, framed the contest as a battle between a “true Republican, someone we know and trust” and an Abrams-led alliance that would irrevocably push Georgia to the left.

And U.S. Rep. Austin Scott spoke of Democrats as an existential threat to Georgia’s future if Republicans succumb to infighting. In Houston County alone, he said, roughly 5,000 Republican voters cast ballots in the November election only to skip the January runoffs.

“We cannot let that happen again.”

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