OPINION: With a final session before election, Kemp says, ‘It’s a damn good record’

If Gov. Brian Kemp is worried about the heavy political winds he’s facing — between the GOP primary from former senator David Perdue and the Democratic challenge from Stacey Abrams — he wasn’t acting like it Thursday afternoon.

I spoke to Kemp in his Capitol office just after he delivered his annual State of the State address to the Georgia Legislature. Wearing a grey suit and black cowboy boots, and sitting between his wife, two daughters and a handful of staff, a relaxed Kemp said his goal for his speech was the same as his agenda-- a final push to do what he said he would do.

“We’ve been able to do just about everything that I set out to do in the first term,” he said. “For me, it’s promises made, promises kept. You can at least say he’s the guy that told us what he’s gonna do when he got in office.”

The unquestionably conservative governor has frequently drawn the ire of Democrats during his single term and occasionally the fury of former president Donald Trump, but never more than the day he certified Georgia’s 16 electoral votes for the legally elected winner in Georgia, Joe Biden.

Trump eventually recruited Perdue to exact his revenge and oust Kemp from office. But Kemp has made it clear in the months since he’s not going anywhere without a fight.

Nothing better demonstrates Kemp’s answer to the squeeze he’s facing politically than the State of the State address he delivered Thursday morning at Capitol.

The speech was to-the-point, mostly conservative, and without a lot of poetry or grand gestures. It also had the added weight of charting his final course before he faces the double-barrel election challenge.

Some points of the speech rang so many GOP base-bells you could almost hear the attempt to keep Perdue off of Fox Business Network calling Kemp a “RINO.”

That included Kemp’s proposal to let Georgians carry guns without the permit that’s now required, something he has long supported, but rolled out as a top priority to kick off the election year.

He also vowed to keep obscene books out of school libraries, ensure “fairness in sports,” and “protect our students from divisive ideologies — like critical race theory — that pit kids against each other.”

But in his interview, he rejected the idea that he is using those proposals as election-year red meat.

“On Critical Race Theory, I’m the one that wrote the state board a letter long before anybody thought about getting into primary,” he said. “If anything, these are all the people that are coming up and using election-year politics, not me.”

Georgia school administrators say critical race theory is not taught in Georgia schools.

At Wednesday’s annual Eggs & Issues breakfast, the governor also called for $250 tax refunds for every taxpayer and ending the state income tax on veterans’ retirement benefits.

Perdue has already called for an end to the state income tax, a pie-in-the-sky proposal that would cut the state’s income in half. But Kemp can’t go into the GOP primary without something in the tax cut bucket to answer Perdue’s challenge.

The governor said it’s only his administration’s decision to open earlier than most states during COVID, along with good budgeting, that makes a tax cut possible. And he’d be open to eliminating the income tax if he saw numbers to prove it wouldn’t blow a hole in the state’s existing priorities.

“Ask these candidates that are proposing this, ‘Show us your numbers.’ Because that’s something that’s very easy to say.”

But Perdue isn’t Kemp’s only challenger, of course.

With Stacey Abrams running unopposed until November, Kemp’s speech also included broadly popular ideas that are sure to be welcome, even among people who never voted Republican and possibly never will.

He called for a $5,000 salary boost for all state employees; a pay raise for teachers, and bonuses for bus drivers and school nurses. He talked about teachers’ “heroic efforts day in and day out,” during the pandemic and called on the General Assembly to completely restore the cuts to education he pushed for during the pandemic.

But notably missing from Kemp’s plan for the General Assembly were any proposals that could have really shaken up the race against Abrams.

Put Medicaid expansion at the top of that list. Kemp blamed the Biden administration for rejecting his efforts to cover Georgians who can’t afford Obamacare premiums, which would have addressed a fraction of uninsured Georgians.

But without Perdue in the race, could Kemp have used the $1.6 billion cost of the tax cut refunds to put toward covering the hundreds of thousands of Georgians who can’t afford Obamacare premiums?

Another omission from his speech — more election law restrictions that the most far-right GOP voters still seem hungry for.

But Kemp told me later he’s confident that law he signed last year, Senate Bill 202, will ensure the kind of election-year changes that GOP voters wanted to see.

“In terms of election mechanics, Election Day activities, early voting activities, counting activities and things of that nature? Yes,” he said.

Why David Perdue has decided to challenge this governor in the first place is the subject of open, and occasionally hostile GOP chatter around the Capitol.

But the result is clear — an election-year governor with three jobs: Winning in May, winning in November, and keeping the state operational in the meantime.

But Kemp seemed satisfied Thursday that once the current session of the General Assembly is over, he will have done all he can to win over voters in 2022 — and he said he’s met some who didn’t vote for him the last time around, who said they will support him in 2022.

“I’ve got that record that I’m proud of. I mean, this is a damn good record and we’ve done exactly what we said we were going to do.”