Kemp wields raw power of gov’s office to cater to conservatives

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, left, has made several moves that show, as one political strategist put it, that he is “leveraging the power of incumbency to maximum effect" to strengthen his hand heading into the GOP primary. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, left, has made several moves that show, as one political strategist put it, that he is “leveraging the power of incumbency to maximum effect" to strengthen his hand heading into the GOP primary. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Under attack by a Republican challenger, Gov. Brian Kemp is using the broad authorities of his office to strengthen his conservative credentials.

The governor’s yearlong effort to secure former Gov. Sonny Perdue as the leader of the state’s higher education system is only the latest example of Kemp’s aggressive use of the executive branch’s power in an election year.

In the past week alone, Kemp bypassed the conventional judicial vetting process to pick a 35-year-old former clerk of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for an open seat on the state’s highest bench.

And he quickly corralled GOP lawmakers behind legislation to end mask requirements at public schools — an obvious political counterstrike against Stacey Abrams after the Democrat was forced to apologize for taking maskless photos surrounded by students in a Decatur classroom.

“Gov. Kemp is leveraging the power of incumbency to maximum effect by advancing policy that promises to ingratiate him to critical constituencies,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican strategist and former top aide to Perdue when he was governor.

That’s one way of saying his moves are geared toward rallying GOP primary voters ahead of a May 24 showdown against Sonny Perdue’s cousin, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. State law bestows immense authority on the governor, and Kemp is using it to the fullest in an election year.

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The yearlong effort by Gov. Brian Kemp, left, to place former Gov. Sonny Perdue atop the state's higher education system should endear him with conservatives as his bid for reelection faces a challenge in the GOP primary from Perdue's cousin, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The yearlong effort by Gov. Brian Kemp, left, to place former Gov. Sonny Perdue atop the state's higher education system should endear him with conservatives as his bid for reelection faces a challenge in the GOP primary from Perdue's cousin, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
The yearlong effort by Gov. Brian Kemp, left, to place former Gov. Sonny Perdue atop the state's higher education system should endear him with conservatives as his bid for reelection faces a challenge in the GOP primary from Perdue's cousin, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Though the legislative branch will continue to shape the fate of Kemp’s policy agenda, the governor is also enjoying widespread support from the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

There’s been no movement among state legislators to defect to David Perdue, who is challenging Kemp with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement but lags behind the governor in both public polls and fundraising.

Republican lawmakers are rapidly moving forward with key items on Kemp’s priority list, including a calculated effort to control how race and gender are taught in public school classrooms.

And Kemp has avoided the sort of public feuding with powerful legislative leaders that dogged his administration during the pre-pandemic era.

What’s more, a Kemp-backed spending plan that includes teacher pay hikes, salary increases for public employees and tax refunds is moving forward largely intact.

Hedging their bets?

Kemp’s flex is playing out across all reaches of state government.

He overhauled the Board of Regents to clear the way for Sonny Perdue to become the chancellor of the higher education system. His allies hope the former two-term governor will excite conservatives who feel aggrieved by their treatment in academia.

And he elevated Appeals Court Judge Andrew Pinson to the Georgia Supreme Court, winning applause from some GOP activists even though the speedy decision alienated critics upset Kemp short-circuited the traditional vetting process.

The moves are designed to turn up the pressure on David Perdue, whose campaign hinges on his argument that only he can unite the conservative base.

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Gov. Brian Kemp, left, has maintained a lead against his challenger in the GOP primary, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, both in public polls and fundraising.

Credit: AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, has maintained a lead against his challenger in the GOP primary, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, both in public polls and fundraising.

Credit: AJC

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Gov. Brian Kemp, left, has maintained a lead against his challenger in the GOP primary, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, both in public polls and fundraising.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

“I’ve looked eyeball to eyeball with more than 1,000 people last week. And I’ll do it this week, and I’ll do it next week, and I’ll do it all the way to May,” Perdue said. “If they think they’re going to bully me out of this race, they don’t know how to spell my last name.”

The machinations also have another purpose, one that Kemp and other Republicans are loath to brag about. They amount to a longer-term hedge against Democratic control.

The hundreds of appointments Kemp has made to state boards and authorities over the past year will give the governor’s allies sway even if Abrams wins.

It would likely take another restructuring of the higher education system to oust Sonny Perdue after he won unanimous approval from once-skeptical members of the Board of Regents.

And stocking appellate benches with young judges such as Pinson means the state’s highest courts will continue their conservative tilt for the next decade.

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By appointing young judges, such as Andrew Pinson, to the state's appellate courts, Gov. Brian Kemp has ensured that his allies will continue to have sway in the state's government even if Democrat Stacey Abrams beats him in November.

By appointing young judges, such as Andrew Pinson, to the state's appellate courts, Gov. Brian Kemp has ensured that his allies will continue to have sway in the state's government even if Democrat Stacey Abrams beats him in November.

Combined ShapeCaption
By appointing young judges, such as Andrew Pinson, to the state's appellate courts, Gov. Brian Kemp has ensured that his allies will continue to have sway in the state's government even if Democrat Stacey Abrams beats him in November.

Ensuring the future or pandering?

Kemp’s allies aren’t shy about his aggressive use of executive powers; they say it’s par for the course. Kemp also directed his office to roll back economic restrictions during the earliest months of the pandemic and tried to block “rogue” local governments from enforcing mask mandates.

Likewise, he signed a measure to ban local officials from substantially cutting law enforcement budgets and he’s expected to endorse GOP-backed county political maps in Democratic-controlled counties despite fierce opposition.

“Just like he has for the last three years, the governor is leading the fight to keep our state the best place to live, work and raise a family,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said.

His opponents accuse Kemp of misusing his powers. Abrams pans what he calls a “state of inaction” under Kemp’s watch while Perdue dismisses the governor’s agenda as election-year pandering.

The governor in the future will only step up his plans to wield the power of incumbency to further his reelection. He’s certain to travel the state in April and May to sign proposals into law, promote the state’s record budget and dole out federal coronavirus relief funding.

“No matter what anyone else says or does,” Tanenblatt said, “Kemp has the advantage because the office demands attention.”

OUR REPORTING

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