OPINION: Despite Trump’s threats, big-name challenger to Kemp nowhere to be found

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp greets President Donald Trump as he visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at the UPS Hapeville hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday July 15, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp greets President Donald Trump as he visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at the UPS Hapeville hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday July 15, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Who’s afraid of Donald Trump? Not Gov. Brian Kemp, apparently. And why would he be?

Despite Trump’s threats to oust Kemp from office, Trump has failed so far to recruit any Georgia Republican other than recent Democrat Vernon Jones to run against his nemesis in the 2022 GOP primary.

Like his failure so far to also get his picks to run against U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, it’s not for Trump’s lack of trying.

The former president has made his disdain for Kemp known, publicly and privately, for more than a year as Kemp has chosen time and again to make his own decisions inside the state lines.

First up was Kemp’s choice of Kelly Loeffler for Senate to replace the ailing Sen. Johnny Isakson, without first asking Trump who he wanted for the job (short answer: someone else).

Kemp then moved to re-open Georgia out of its COVID lockdown in April of 2020, ahead of Trump’s public timeline. “I’m not happy with Brian Kemp, I can tell you that,” Trump said at a press conference at the time.

But the real betrayal, in Trump’s mind, came when Kemp refused to intervene in his Georgia loss for president in 2020.

With his Twitter feed set to “napalm,” Trump called Kemp a “fool” and a “clown.” He suggested the governor, along with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, would soon be going to jail. He exclaimed that he wished he’d never endorsed Kemp in the first place.

Worst of all, and the fate most feared by Republicans, Trump warned that he would actively recruit a primary challenger against Kemp and did so on live television at a December rally in Valdosta.

“Doug, you want to run for governor in two years?” Trump asked then-Rep. Doug Collins, to the crowd’s roar. “He’d be a good-looking governor.”

But six months later, the crowds are gone, Trump is out of office, and while the former president is still embraced by conservative voters in Georgia, Brian Kemp is looking at the distinct possibility that Jones may be the best Trump can do against him.

How in the world did he get here?

Republicans in the state point to a combination of factors that make running against Kemp an unattractive option for any Republican serious about their own future — regardless of who tries to persuade them to do it.

First and foremost is Kemp’s status as a sitting Republican governor.

“There’s no greater challenge in electoral politics than to primary an incumbent governor,” said Chip Lake.

Lake knows what he’s talking about as the top adviser to Doug Collins when Collins tried to unseat Sen. Kelly Loeffler in 2020. He pointed to incumbent governors’ huge name recognition, ongoing power base, and ability to raise enormous amounts of money.

Lake’s old boss, Doug Collins, is one of several high-profile Republicans who have taken a pass on challenging Kemp. In Collins’ case, he was said to be exhausted from the run against Loeffler.

A fresher face in the mix was Sen. Burt Jones, wealthy, ambitious and ready to move up. But he too seems ready to announce he’s running for lieutenant governor instead of the top job, even after indicating earlier that the LG job was not in his sites.

A roadblock for anyone looking to get into the race against the governor is Kemp’s surprisingly durable poll numbers. According to a recent internal poll, 73% of GOP primary voters view him favorably, compared to 19% who don’t.

That’s less beloved than Trump, but higher than anyone else in the state and the same data any Republican hopeful would see as they decide whether to challenge Kemp.

How has the governor managed to stay on the good side of three-fourths of GOP voters, even after all the abuse Trump has heaped on him?

“I think that Brian Kemp did what Donald Trump is unable to do, and that is, even though he’s being attacked, he rose above it, and he didn’t get down in the gutter,” Martha Zoller, the longtime conservative radio host, told me.

To Zoller’s point, Kemp never stopped supporting Trump, even after Trump stopped supporting him.

Asked by Fox News host Neil Cavuto in March if he’d support the president if he were the 2024 nominee, Kemp said “absolutely.”

“We’re not always going to get along, but I think the president deserves a lot of credit and he’s not going away,” he said.

While Kemp was clearly in hot water with Republicans after the 2020 elections, and Zoller said he’s still got work to do to win them over, passing Senate Bill 202 and scrapping with everyone from Coca-Cola to Major League Baseball in the aftermath have been a shot in the arm for his chances to win them back.

“All of these things happened and really made Brian Kemp look like a conservative leader, someone who was standing up on election integrity,” said Brian Robinson. “They gave him his best defense against the number one attack on him from inside his own party.”

The GOP strategist added, “I think the most revealing aspect of this is there’s no name attached to the idea of a serious primary challenge to Kemp right now. The only name attached is President Trump.”

Not surprisingly, Vernon Jones’ camp disagrees with these assessments and argues that the lack of another name in the race isn’t a sign that Trump can’t get anybody better, but that Jones is the man for the job.

“It’s very clear, based on the fact that no one has entered this race, that Vernon has really shown that he is the candidate to really carry on the Trump mantle in this state,” said his spokesman C.J. Pearson, adding that a Democrat-turned-Republican managed to win the White House in 2016, so why couldn’t it happen in Georgia in 2022?

A lot can and will change before this race is set — others can get in, Trump could endorse Jones, anything goes these days, it seems. And running against any Democrat in the fall will have its own set of hurdles.

But one fact is clear: Much of Donald Trump’s power is based on threats and what-if’s, especially among GOP leaders.

What if he gets mad? What if he attacks you on Twitter? What if, worst of all, he decides to run a primary opponent against you, or try to at least?

Kemp seems to be turning “What if?” to “So what?”

Maybe there’s no reason to be afraid of Donald Trump after all.

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