Kemp enters second term with growing political clout

Gov. Brian Kemp listens to his alma mater UGA’s fight song during a press conference at Google Atlanta on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp listens to his alma mater UGA’s fight song during a press conference at Google Atlanta on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Four years ago, Gov. Brian Kemp pledged to “put people ahead of divisive politics” as he took his oath office after an exceedingly bitter campaign that ended with some Democrats claiming his narrow victory would always cloud his tenure.

The Republican enters his inauguration Thursday in a dramatically strengthened position.

Now one of his party’s top national figures, he soundly defeated Stacey Abrams in a rematch in November and throttled a Donald Trump-backed challenger in the GOP primary.

He’s the unquestioned head of state Republicans, with enormous political capital to burn, a proven ability to win over swing voters and a successful history of pushing priorities through the Republican-controlled Legislature.

And in a sign of his growing clout, Kemp accepted an invitation next week to speak to an elite conference of billionaire executives and global political leaders at a Swiss resort.

As he approaches another term, the governor aims to balance his rising political profile with the challenge of leading one of the nation’s most politically competitive states. He’s backed by a largely cooperative state Legislature and a robust balance sheet.

In fact, he’ll devote much of the 40-day session negotiating with lawmakers how to spend a surplus that tops $6.6 billion.

Among his priorities is a pledge to pass $2 billion in income and property tax rebates, along with a proposal for another round of pay raises for more than 200,000 teachers, education staffers and state employees.

Beyond modest public safety and education proposals, however, Kemp has disclosed few other specifics about his second-term agenda.

Nor has he staked out a defining “legacy” agenda along the lines of some of his predecessors, such as Nathan Deal, who embarked on an eight-year overhaul of the criminal justice system, or Zell Miller, who implemented the lottery-funded Hope scholarship that has financed college tuition for generations of students.

And he’s steered clear of endorsing the passage of new abortion limits, gun expansions or other social issues.

Instead, Kemp has sought to strike a more consensus-driven tone as he navigates a far different political landscape than he faced during his first term.

Georgia voted for a Democratic presidential contender in 2020 for the first time in nearly three decades, and state voters spurned GOP senators three times in a two-year span.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks with Chamber of Commerce President Chris Clark at the chamber’s annual Eggs and Issues breakfast in Atlanta on Wednesday, January 11, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Still, Kemp found a way to expand his coalition blending his support for conservative wish-list items, such as gun expansions and abortion restrictions, with economic and education policies geared toward middle-of-the-road voters.

And though Georgia has emerged as one of the nation’s most important political battlegrounds, Kemp’s victory serves as a reminder of GOP dominance in state offices. His inauguration will mark the state’s sixth consecutive Republican administration dating back to 2003.

To Kemp, the formula for victory hinged on a focus on “kitchen-table issues” -- namely, the economy and public safety. He told business and political leaders on Wednesday that he will stick to that strategy in his second term.

“There’s a lot of people in the media writing about things that we need to do and things that are their priority,” Kemp said. “But just know that we’re going to keep our priorities that we heard on the campaign trail from our people.”

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