OPINION: The power, and price, of running as an incumbent Georgia governor

My children’s favorite books for a period of time were the Who Would Win? series, which pitted two predators against each other. Think Who Would Win? Wolverine vs. Tasmanian Devil. Or Who Would Win? Rattlesnake vs. Secretary Bird.

The entrance of former U.S. Sen. David Perdue into the Georgia governor’s race has the previously predictable GOP primary suddenly feeling like a Who Would Win book: Incumbent governor v. Donald Trump edition.

In the aggressively personal, deeply contentious GOP primary between Perdue and Gov. Brian Kemp, each man brings his own assets to the fight.

For Perdue, it’s the endorsement of Trump. The former president’s stamp of approval is so meaningful that multiple polls show that Perdue performs at least 10 percentage points better against Kemp once voters know that Trump is supporting Perdue in the primary. That’s the difference, in some polls, between losing to Kemp without Trump and beating the governor with Trump voters on his side.

But as the incumbent governor of Georgia, Kemp will have more discreet, but powerful tools at his disposal than most voters will ever know.

Between the power to appoint hundreds, and eventually thousands of nominees, raise unlimited funds through a new leadership PAC, set the agenda as the leader of the state, and reap the press coverage for all of it, Kemp may just have enough tools to match a Trump endorsement, and maybe even beat it.

“Knowledge is power. That’s Political Science 101,” Bobby Kahn told me. Kahn was the chief of staff for former Gov. Roy Barnes during his single term in office. He described the role of incumbency as a way to affect significant change, above and beyond a campaign.

“If you know what has been done and what could be done, you can work your way through state government in a very effective way.”

In a campaign context, being a sitting governor has few equals when it comes to visibility and the ability to set the agenda, day after day.

“Georgia’s governor is constitutionally one of the most powerful in the country,” said Brian Robinson, an adviser to former Gov. Nathan Deal. “In South Carolina, the president pro tem of the state Senate is more powerful than the governor. The Lieutenant Governor has more power for the governor in Texas. This is a strong Governor system. ”

The governor of Georgia decides how much money state government can spend and recommends budget priorities that typically pass the General Assembly, such as teacher and trooper pay raises and economic development initiatives.

Among the nominations Kemp has the power to make are judicial appointments to vacancies on state courts, including three members of the Supreme Court of Georgia so far.

Kemp also holds the keys to some of the most prized government jobs in the state, including membership on the state Board of Regents, the Georgia Ports Authority, and the state Boards of Transportation, Education and Public Safety.

Of course, some appointments can backfire. Kemp’s most famous may have been appointing Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate over Trump’s objections, which seemed to plant the seeds of the former president’s obsession with getting rid of the governor.

In most cases, though, appointments are a way for a governor to shape policy while also rewarding allies. During a campaign, it’s also a way to know that anyone who wants to stay on or join a state board is highly unlikely to come out against the governor to support Perdue instead.

Even more important than making appointments is the governor’s ability to execute on policy while he’s doing his job. During the legislative session, that means sponsoring and signing bills that strengthen his campaign argument. For every accusation of “Bad Conservative” that Perdue makes against Kemp, the governor can seek and sign bills on elections, guns, abortion, Buckhead City, or any other topic conservatives want to see progress on.

From his desk in the Capitol, Kemp can also sue the Biden administration, which he has, book a trip to the Southern border to spotlight illegal immigration, which he’s done twice, or call a press conference on jobs, teachers, broadband, or some other agenda item he wants to push.

The governor’s office also comes with a level of visibility that challengers simply don’t have. When Kemp announces the new Rivian factory and its eventual 8,000 jobs, as he is expected to do, the press will be there to cover it.

One more perk of the job came earlier this year through legislation that Kemp signed himself, as governor of course, that lets him raise unlimited campaign funds for his leadership PAC, Georgia First. For as dull as it sounds, the leadership PAC, in reality, is a negative advertising machine built to attack all foes. For now, that’s Perdue. If if all goes according to plan, it would move on to Stacey Abrams next.

“The fireworks on New Year’s Eve will pale in comparison to what’s about to happen” to Perdue, a Kemp ally said of the campaign that Georgia First has planned against the former senator.

But along with all of the powers of incumbency, Kemp also has to pay its price.

That means getting the blame for everything that happens in the state during his watch, from COVID shutdowns and re-openings to a former president’s reelection defeat. Of all of the powers that are concentrated in the governor’s office, overturning an election is one of the few things Kemp cannot legally do.

The Trump base GOP voters may not know or care what Kemp could have legally done in 2020. If Trump is with Perdue in the 2022 governor’s race, Trump’s voters may be with Perdue, too.

But that comes with the territory of being Brian Kemp.

“A governor has got to make decisions with winners and losers,” Brian Robinson said. “You’ve got to make enemies sometimes and make friends wherever you can.”