OPINION: How Brian Kemp cracked the Trump code for Republicans and won

Former Vice President Mike Pence headlines the get-out-the-vote rally with Governor Brian Kemp on the eve of Georgia’s primary at the Cobb County International Airport on Monday, May 23, 2022, in Kennesaw.    (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

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Former Vice President Mike Pence headlines the get-out-the-vote rally with Governor Brian Kemp on the eve of Georgia’s primary at the Cobb County International Airport on Monday, May 23, 2022, in Kennesaw. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

Pay attention, Republican elected officials, both local and national. And open your ears, GOP voters wondering where your party has been since 2016. Also, right-of-center family members with that crazy uncle who keeps coming to Thanksgiving, this one’s for you.

You need to get out your pencil to diagram the feat Brian Kemp engineered in Georgia when he quickly dispensed with the David Perdue challenge early on election night and looked to keep the Republican party intact on his way to November.

Perdue conceded early and graciously Tuesday night.

“I just called the governor and I congratulated him,” Perdue said. “I am fully supporting Brian Kemp.”

After being the subject of the most intense, sustained hellfire former president Donald Trump has to deliver — Kemp still found a way to appeal to enough Donald Trump supporters to breeze to a primary win in a state where he needs them all.

Through a combination of substance, strategy, and self-control, Kemp may have hacked open a path that others can follow.

Let’s take the last piece of Kemp’s playbook first, self-control, because no matter what Trump said about the governor after Kemp refused to help overturn the 2020 Georgia election results, Kemp never fired back at Trump.

Could you sit on your hands when someone called you a “loser,” in front of tens of thousands of people, as Trump said about Kemp? Or a “disaster,” a “RINO,” weak, and the worst governor in America?

How about when Trump tried to entice Doug Collins, and later appealed to Perdue, to run a primary against Kemp? Or said Stacey Abrams would make a better governor than he does?

In Republican circles, those are low blows. But in response, all the former president got was crickets from Kemp-world, which only made him more furious.

But there was a strategy behind Kemp’s silence. By never saying a sideways word about Trump, he also never insulted Trump voters. They would have taken any insult against him as an insult to them all. But Kemp never gave them one.

The second leg of the stool for Kemp, beyond the self-control where Trump is concerned, has been a heavy dose of substance.

Kemp used the levers of the power at the state Capitol to dole out goodies to voters across the political spectrum, most especially in this election year.

The first basket went to the conservative Trump base — an election overhaul so broad that Major League Baseball packed up the All-Star game and sent it to Colorado.

And for the gun crowd, a bill to save them the hassle, and background check, that used to be required every five years to carry a gun. A license to carry is no longer required in Georgia.

And for the Right-To-Lifers, Kemp signed the state’s 6-week abortion ban.

With a record so conservative, there really was nowhere for Perdue to take his campaign past election conspiracies.

The final ingredient for Kemp has been a two-steps ahead strategy. While they pushed a message conservative enough to keep Ralph Reed coming back for more, Kemp and his team have always been looking to November, too.

Along with the still-bleeding red meat, Kemp also signed an across-the-board tax cut that GOP leadership pushed, but the governor will get credit for anyway.

He also promised a $5,000 raise for every teacher in the state and delivered it, along with a pay hike for every state employee, including lots of Democrats, and a gas tax holiday that lasts just until after Primary Day.

With another election possibly on his horizon, talks are already underway to extend the gas tax suspension even longer.

For the 40 days after the Legislature wrapped up for the year, Kemp had bill-signing ceremonies stacked on his schedule like planes on a runway around the state.

The test for Kemp now resets entirely with Stacey Abrams and Democrats waiting for him in November.

Not only did this group of Democrats seed the state for the party’s wins in Georgia over the last two years, they’ve embraced a progressive message as the state has grown larger and even more diverse. Georgia has added 400,000 residents since Abrams lost in 2018 by 55,000 votes —with many of them the young, diverse voters most likely to be receptive to a progressive agenda this time around.

Add to that the wildcard of abortion rights, suddenly on the table for the first time in the lives of an entire generation of Georgia women, and gun safety after the latest tragic school shooting, and you’ve got a state where political control truly feels like it’s up for grabs.

One question we won’t be able to answer until November is whether the hard-core Trump voters, the Stop-the-Stealers who are still so furious with Kemp they voted against him Tuesday, would come back out in November.

Th news was good enough at a “Bikers for Trump” event last week where Perdue took the stage after Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

These were not Kemp’s people. But would they vote for him in November? Every person I asked gave me the same answer.

“I’ll vote for anyone against Stacey Abrams.”

But it was a different story Tuesday night after Perdue conceded, but some of his supporters were not nearly so ready to give up the fight.

”Let’s just say I don’t think this was a fair election,” said Rich Thompson. “We’ve been down this road before.”

Deborah Liev, a Cobb County Trump supporter, predicted Kemp’s victory will now ensure a Democratic victory in November.

”I’ll tell you right now, the Trumpsters, the hard core Trumpsters, will not vote for Kemp.”

Kemp clearly has work left to do before November. But the fact that he made it to play for the jump ball against Abrams after being targeted by Trump is its own kind of story — and it’s one Republicans around the country should, and will, pay attention to.

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