OPINION: Welcome to Brian Kemp 2.0

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

If you want to know what a victory lap looks like, cast your eyes on the Georgia Capitol, where Brian Kemp 2.0 is forming before our eyes.

Kemp was sworn into his second term as governor Thursday, and he laid out his vision for the next four years, including a legislative agenda calling for pay raises for all state employees, along with an across-the-board income tax refund and one-time property tax relief.

“We are putting you and your families first because that’s your money, not the government’s,” he said.

That’s exactly what you’d expect from Kemp, a lifelong Republican who has been remarkably unchanged over the last four years.

But look at his schedule for next week, and you’ll see something far less expected — a trip to Davos, Switzerland, where the governor is scheduled to join a panel on the “modern American political environment” at the World Economic Forum.

The annual confab of CEOs and heads of state is so Swiss-Alps chic that the unofficial dress code calls for “refined European business semi-casual.” The left-of-center crowd inevitably includes liberal icons like Al Gore and John Kerry, along with only-in-Davos sightings of men and women in full-length fur coats and as many private jets as public taxis.

And this year, the plain-spoken, cowboy-boot-wearing Kemp. What is a keep-choppin’ governor like Kemp doing going to a place like that?

Before you measure Kemp for his mink coat, it’s important to know that he was invited by the World Economic Forum, and not the other way around.

Outside of the state, the unapologetically conservative Kemp is perceived as a post-Trump, second-generation Republican, one whom CEO’s and Democrats can talk to rationally and do business with internationally. Kemp’s panel will include centrist senators, Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin, along with Delaware Democrat Chris Coons.

Most importantly for Kemp’s purposes, he’ll also be on the ground with international trade delegations, including from South Korea, the corporate home of Hyundai, QCells, and SK Innovation.

All three have all announced massive Georgia manufacturing expansions since Kemp came into office and are a main part of the reason why Kemp promised his inauguration audience Thursday that he will make Georgia the “electric mobility capital of the country.”

Kemp is also going to Davos because he can. This is not the trip a man takes who is worried about Donald Trump, the Freedom Caucus, a primary from the right, or a general election on the horizon. He is coming off a reelection so decisive, he can now do what he wants when he wants.

And that is the formula for Kemp 2.0 — the same man with the same priorities, but freed from a looming reelection and emboldened by knowing that this version of Republicanism, Kemp’s version, is the one that succeeded for the GOP in an otherwise disappointing 2022.

The governor alluded to those massive Korean investments in his inaugural speech Thursday, when he also talked about bringing more private investment to the state, and spending more on education and public safety.

Kemp faced a totally different political and economic landscape four years ago when he took the oath of office in 2019.

Behind him then sat House Speaker David Ralston and former First Lady Sandra Deal, seated together. Both passed away in 2022. Also in the audience in 2019 was UGA Coach Vince Dooley, who has passed away as well. On Thursday, Kemp wore a necktie that belonged to Dooley to take his oath and honor him.

In his 2019 inaugural speech, Kemp listed the famous Georgians whom he said had built the state up before him, including Herschel Walker. He never could have known that four years later he’d share a ticket with Walker, only to see Walker refuse to campaign with him for months and eventually go down in flames.

The four years between Kemp’s last inauguration and Thursday’s events were dominated by disasters — the COVID pandemic, government shutdowns, a personal family tragedy, and a public and protracted battle against former President Donald Trump as the former president pushed Kemp to help him overturn the state’s election results.

Kemp, along with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, refused. On Thursday, Kemp administered the oath of office to the secretary of state for a second time.

In the end, Brian Kemp 2.0 may also be the embodiment of the GOP 2.0 that Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan has written about in his book by the same name, but didn’t take to the polls.

The vision Duncan laid out for the party was of a respectful, respectable, solutions-focused Republican Party. But unlike Duncan, who also faced Trump’s wrath after the 2020 elections and decided to leave office, Kemp faced Trump’s ire and survived.

Kemp’s national profile has already risen because of his wins in 2022. As of next week, his international profile will rise, too. What the next four years hold for the state and for Kemp is anyone’s guess, something he alluded to as he closed his speech on Thursday.

“There may be another pandemic, another contentious election, or another national disaster,” he said. “But my promise to you today remains the same that it was then. If tomorrow morning God sends us a struggle, I will roll up my sleeves and go to work.”

That’s a promise Georgians will hold him to, whether he runs for election again or not.