OPINION: Ignoring Trump, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston endorses Gov. Brian Kemp

Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (left) and Gov. Brian Kemp have put aside their past differences to form a tighter bond. On Thursday, their closer relationship was on full display when Ralston endorsed Kemp's reelection. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

caption arrowCaption
Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston (left) and Gov. Brian Kemp have put aside their past differences to form a tighter bond. On Thursday, their closer relationship was on full display when Ralston endorsed Kemp's reelection. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Donald Trump may be dividing Republicans across America. But Republicans inside the state Capitol have almost completely united behind Gov. Brian Kemp’s reelection bid, despite the former president’s relentless attempts to unseat the governor since losing his own 2020 election in Georgia.

The biggest prize under the Gold Dome for Kemp came Thursday, beneath sunny skies in Blue Ridge, when House Speaker David Ralston stood alongside Kemp as he signed the state’s $30.2 billion budget and, moments later, ignored Trump’s vendetta against the governor by endorsing Kemp for reelection.

In an interview ahead of the signing ceremony, Ralston told me he’d grown impressed by Kemp as a leader over his three-plus years in office.

“His leadership style is not one that’s self-centered. He’s a humble guy, but firm,” Ralston said. “And I truly think, having been with him all over the state, that he has a heart for all of Georgia and truly wants to do the best thing for the state.”

An endorsement from a Republican House speaker for a sitting Republican governor may not strike most as earth-shattering news. But to understand the significance of the moment for both men, you have to know where they were before this.

The handshakes and smiles in Blue Ridge on Thursday would have seemed impossible two years ago, when Jim Galloway described the “visceral” feud between the speaker and the governor that ran “two issues deep.”

The first issue was personal — Kemp’s decision to replace the ailing U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson in the Senate with a relatively unknown Kelly Loeffler. He finally made his decision after a bizarre three-month public application process, picking Loeffler over a Ralston and Trump loyalist, then-U.S. Rep. Doug Collins.

On the day Kemp announced the appointment in his ceremonial Capitol office, Ralston was photographed standing behind Loeffler looking so glum you’d think his dog had just died.

caption arrowCaption
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, center, wasn't smiling in December 2019 when Gov. Brian Kemp, left, appointed Kelly Loeffler to fill the seat of an ailing U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, center, wasn't smiling in December 2019 when Gov. Brian Kemp, left, appointed Kelly Loeffler to fill the seat of an ailing U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

caption arrowCaption
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, center, wasn't smiling in December 2019 when Gov. Brian Kemp, left, appointed Kelly Loeffler to fill the seat of an ailing U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

The second, and larger, battle between Kemp and Ralston came over the 2020 state budget, which the governor had abruptly announced in late 2019 would need to see deep — Democrats called them “draconian” — cuts.

The governor made the decision without the input of the speaker, and the cuts were so deep that neither an income tax cut sought by Ralston nor a $5,000 teacher pay raise wanted by Kemp would survive the ax.

Staff infighting, including a statement from a Kemp spokeswoman that the governor didn’t “need lessons in conservativism” from the speaker, made the situation worse and the rivalry seemed cemented.

But then COVID-19 came to Georgia. And just as Kemp’s moves during the pandemic seemed to further enrage Donald Trump, the crisis led to a détente between the governor and speaker that has lasted.

The 2021 and 2022 legislative sessions were marked by cooperation between the two, and by Thursday in the North Georgia mountains, the rivalry was history and the alliance complete.

Ralston told me he’s not sure endorsements sway voters much anymore, but he wanted to publicly get behind Kemp to send a message about the primary challenge to the governor from David Perdue, conceived and executed from Florida as an act of revenge by Trump.

“The time for the divisive attacks and rhetoric is way over,” Ralston said.

“This governor has taken punches relentlessly, unfair punches,” he said. “We’re not electing someone to settle scores or to move us backward or be focused on their own agenda.”

Although Trump has been the driving force behind the challenge to Kemp, Ralston never mentioned the former president’s name in the interview, including when I asked him about the many pro-Trump lawmakers who have come out for the governor despite Trump’s almost maniacal focus on defeating him.

There was a time in Georgia when Republicans were too scared of Trump’s retribution to do anything that might anger him. In the race for governor, at least, those days are over.

On Wednesday, Trump put out a statement, one of dozens over the past two years, slamming Kemp as a “RINO,” a Republican in name only, and calling Kemp “the worst ‘election integrity’ governor in history.”

“I don’t think that the former president’s position is having very much influence on the thinking of members,” Ralston said.

Without naming Perdue either, he said there is a perception that “others in the race” are beholden to people outside the state, rather than the voters themselves.

“(Lawmakers) want someone who they may not always agree with, but someone they can trust and by and large gets it right,” Ralston said.

The Kemp-Ralston feud wasn’t the only thing that came to an end Thursday.

So, too, did the days of austerity cuts that had originally roiled Ralston and his GOP members, not to mention the Democrats at the Capitol.

The budget that Kemp signed Thursday followed a year with state coffers so flush it could absorb both the income tax cuts that Ralston originally pushed for and didn’t get in 2020, as well as the final installment of the teacher pay raise Kemp had promised educators in his 2018 campaign for governor.

Also included is $180 million for mental health measures, a tenfold increase over previous years and a top Ralston priority, and, last but not least, an additional $14 million to expand the University of North Georgia’s campus in Blue Ridge where the governor went to sign the budget itself, handing the pens he used to onlookers and supporters one by one. The speaker got the first pen.

Ralston can see the UNG campus from his Blue Ridge office, where on Thursday, he and Kemp finally saw eye to eye.

About the Author

Editors' Picks