Brian Kemp aims to flip the script on Democrats with 2022 reelection strategy

Gov. Brian Kemp said he will campaign for reelection based on his record of aggressively reopening the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, his approval of an anti-abortion law, his support for tax cuts and being a “true conservative that hasn’t wavered.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gov. Brian Kemp said he will campaign for reelection based on his record of aggressively reopening the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, his approval of an anti-abortion law, his support for tax cuts and being a “true conservative that hasn’t wavered.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

An AJC interview as Kemp kicks off campaign for a second term

Republican Brian Kemp narrowly won the closest Georgia gubernatorial election in decades in 2018 after a contest against energized Democrats who defined him to a giant chunk of the electorate before he could do so himself.

Now he’s gearing up for a reelection squeezed between two opposing political forces: Former President Donald Trump continues to berate Kemp for refusing to overturn his defeat, while Stacey Abrams is widely expected to mount a rematch fresh off historic Democratic upsets.

In an interview Tuesday, Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’ll wage a 2022 campaign that emphasizes his record of aggressively reopening the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, his approval of an anti-abortion law, his support for tax cuts and being a “true conservative that hasn’t wavered.”

But he also said he planned to harness some of the same forces that helped Democrats win the state in November’s presidential election and sweep two U.S. Senate runoffs in January.

“The Democrats are really good at nationalizing races over the last several cycles, but that table will be turned on them in this race,” Kemp said. “Especially if President Biden keeps getting pulled to the left.”

Part of that also means forcefully setting the stakes for a second term before his opponents can.

“One of the things that happened in ’18 was I got defined as someone I wasn’t, and the way I was defined turned out to be false,” he said. “That’s not going to happen this time because people know where I stand.”

“The Democrats are really good at nationalizing races over the last several cycles, but that table will be turned on them in this race,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in discussing his campaign plans for 2022. “Especially if President Biden keeps getting pulled to the left.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
“The Democrats are really good at nationalizing races over the last several cycles, but that table will be turned on them in this race,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in discussing his campaign plans for 2022. “Especially if President Biden keeps getting pulled to the left.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The governor added: “Voters are smart. You can’t play them. They’re going to figure out who you are, what you believe in, what you stand for. And I’m going to remind them of my record, an agenda that’s been really good for a lot of people. I think that’s a message that can build the party in Georgia.”

High stakes

Kemp entered the year in a precarious political position, with Trump vowing to back a Republican challenger and some senior GOP officials wondering whether he would even stand for a second term.

But he’s worked to steady his standing with conservatives, in part thanks to his signing of a rewrite of Georgia’s election law that includes new restrictions on voting. He’s also avoided a serious GOP opponent, with Trump favorite Doug Collins passing on a campaign.

Still, the governor faces continued backlash from a base still under Trump’s sway. More than a dozen county GOP groups voted to “censure” Kemp in April, though the movement mostly petered out at larger meetings over the past weekend.

And Democrats promise stiff resistance to a governor they accuse of embracing policies that are far out of step with the rest of the state.

“With members of his own party rebuking him and his approval ratings among voters shaky at best, Brian Kemp is standing on thin ice from left to right,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“While Kemp spends his reelection campaign trying to defend his awful record,” she said, “Georgia Democrats will be reminding voters just how much he has failed our state.”

Kemp said he plans to step up his efforts to assuage the concerns of the party’s base.

He spoke at a pair of GOP district meetings over the weekend, and he plans to present himself as a fierce ally of Trump who was upholding the law by certifying Georgia’s election results and refusing to call a special session to reverse his defeat.

Gov. Brian Kemp still faces opposition from former President Donald Trump after refusing to overturn his defeat in Georgia. But the governor continues to portray himself as a supporter of the former president's policies. “A lot of people think the governor can do a lot of things that the governor doesn’t necessarily have control over because of the Constitution,” he said. “And nobody really understands that better than I do.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gov. Brian Kemp still faces opposition from former President Donald Trump after refusing to overturn his defeat in Georgia. But the governor continues to portray himself as a supporter of the former president's policies. “A lot of people think the governor can do a lot of things that the governor doesn’t necessarily have control over because of the Constitution,” he said. “And nobody really understands that better than I do.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“A lot of people think the governor can do a lot of things that the governor doesn’t necessarily have control over because of the Constitution,” he said. “And nobody really understands that better than I do.”

Even as Kemp spoke at his campaign office, Trump offered a reminder of the governor’s challenges ahead. The former president fired off an email that slammed both Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who this week announced he won’t seek a second term in 2022.

While Duncan has repeatedly roasted Trump, Kemp has stuck to a different strategy: He has said nary a harsh word about Trump, focusing instead on his support for the former president’s policies and his own political agenda.

“I can only control what I can control. I learned that a long time ago in politics. And you’ve got to pick the right battles to be successful,” Kemp said.

“I’m going to keep doing the things I told people I’d do,” the governor said. “And I’ll keep reminding Georgians of what I promised them, what I’ve delivered and what we want to do next.”

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