OPINION: Brian Kemp takes the lead for Republicans trying to get past Trump

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

You wouldn’t think that stating the obvious would look so much like a profile in courage, or at least a profile in candor. But that’s exactly what it is for today’s Republican Party, which is facing a third presidential election with Donald Trump at the top of the pile and very few GOP leaders willing to say what they believe-- that Trump cannot win the White House in 2024 — until now.

There, at the head of Team “Tell It Like It Is” last weekend, was Georgia’s own governor, Brian Kemp, delivering the message to a GOP donor retreat in Nashville: It’s time to move on.

“Not a single swing voter in a single swing state will vote for our nominee if they choose to talk about the 2020 election being stolen,” he told the group of high-level donors and operatives. The 2020 election “is ancient history, he said, and voters “couldn’t care less about someone’s sour grapes.”

The sour grapes belong to Trump, of course, who pushed Kemp and Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to overturn Georgia’s election results after Joe Biden won. Both men refused.

With the speech to the RNC delivered Saturday, Kemp’s team reached out to CNN’s Jake Tapper, who had been asking for an interview with Kemp for more than a year. They accepted the invitation for the governor to say publicly Sunday what he had told GOP donors privately the day before: the next nominee can’t be obsessed with 2020 as Trump is.

“If you look in the rearview mirror too long while you’re driving, you’re going to look up and you’re going to be running into somebody and that’s not going to be good,” Kemp said.

It wasn’t exactly the Gettysburg address, but Kemp was making a point that he learned himself — that a majority of Republican voters, in both a primary and a general election, are ready to live Trump-free if they are given a good alternative.

Cody Hall, a longtime Kemp advisor, said it’s the same thing Kemp has been saying privately for months. “If Republicans want to win Georgia — and therefore the White House — they should listen to the guy who just did it by over seven points,” he said.

The decision to take Trump on in front of the RNC, along with going on CNN to amplify the message, represents a huge change in the governor’s strategy when it comes to the former president.

Although the governor made decisions during his first term without considering Trump’s reaction — including when he picked Kelly Loeffler for Senate — he publicly avoided the topic of Trump like a landmine in a field.

In that moment, and in many more conflicts with Trump, Kemp never spoke out about the former president and rarely answered questions when asked.

But now, Kemp has decided to make Trump his business, telling Republicans how to get past him in 2024.

Whether or not Kemp can convince them is an open question.

A recent UGA poll showed that Trump is still the clear favorite of Georgia Republican voters for the 2024 GOP primary, with 51% saying he’s their top choice and 80% giving him a favorable approval rating.

And Trump is gobbling up endorsements from fellow Republicans and members of Congress, including both of Tennessee’s U.S. senators.

But Kemp is convinced Republicans will never win if their message today is focused on Trump in 2020. Asked on Tuesday what he’s looking for in a 2024 candidate for president, Kemp said plainly, “I’m looking for someone who can win. You can’t govern if you don’t win.”

All of this comes with a real risk for Kemp. Although he can’t run for another term as governor, at 59, he’s young enough to run for another office in the future, such as U.S. Senate in 2026 or for president.

He could either be digging his own political grave with GOP voters, or paving the road to the future. The fact that there’s no way to tell the difference right now means there is, in fact, courage involved here.

Kemp’s willingness to defy Trump now and over the years has some national journalists assuming that he is a moderate, which of course he is not. They’re likely to be disappointed when they figure out that the governor personally pushed for the bill to end permitless carry for guns in Georgia, along with a bill to ban transgender girls from girls’ sports. He also signed the state’s 6-week abortion ban and the 2021 election law overhaul, which was predicated on preventing “another stolen election”— when there was never a stolen election in the first place.

But all of those decisions put Kemp on rock-solid footing with conservatives, while the state’s economic strength and those Trump fights powered him to a decisive win in his rematch against Stacey Abrams in 2022.

While many Georgia voters didn’t like the most conservative parts of his record, his handling of the economy and willingness to go up against Trump won the day. And the election.

All of this seems to set up a collision course between Kemp, who won in 2022, and Trump, who hasn’t won in Georgia since 2018.

Whether Republicans win or lose in 2024 depends on whether they decide to follow Trump on his U-turn campaign to relitigate the election he lost, or whether they’ll take Kemp’s advice to focus on voters’ concerns and the road ahead.

I’m no GOP donor, but I know which path I would follow.