New auto plant could recenter Kemp’s 2022 economic pitch

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a gubernatorial Republican primary debate, Sunday, May 1, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, Pool)

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Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a gubernatorial Republican primary debate, Sunday, May 1, 2022, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, Pool)

When Georgia landed the Rivian electric vehicle plant and the 7,500 jobs it promised, Gov. Brian Kemp’s allies expected it to become the focus of his economic argument for another term: A record jobs deal for a long-sought industry in an overlooked rural area.

Instead, a grassroots movement opposing the $5 billion east Georgia project and bruising 2022 politics at least temporarily turned the biggest economic development deal in modern state history into campaign grist for Kemp’s critics.

Several candidates running for office in the region, about an hour east of Atlanta, quickly opposed the plant or stayed conspicuously silent. And former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, an ex-corporate executive challenging Kemp, bashed the $1.5 billion incentive package that sealed the deal.

The news that the parent company of Kia Motor Corp. plans to build a second plant in Georgia, however, offers Kemp a new narrative. Unlike Rivian, a startup company with a limited profile in Georgia, Kia has been a standard in the state since it announced a West Point plant in 2006.

And Kia’s latest project could eclipse the Rivian development. The South Korean-based Hyundai Motor Corp. is considering hiring 8,500 employees at a state “mega-site” located in Bryan County near the ports of Savannah and Brunswick.

The governor is sure to leverage the development at a crucial time for his campaign. Far ahead in the polls and in fundraising, Kemp wants to extinguish any chance for Perdue to land in a costly June runoff. To do that, he needs to ensure he finishes with more than 50% of the vote.

Kemp has flooded the airwaves with ads while soaking up attention for a spate of bill signings and executive actions. He’s approved a rollback of gun restrictions and inked an income tax cut — in Perdue’s hometown — to run up the tally.

His economic message has largely focused on his decision to aggressively reopen Georgia’s economy early in the pandemic, despite criticism from then-President Donald Trump and others who said he was risking lives. If the Hyundai project is cemented before the May 24 primary, as some officials expect, expect it to become a part of his closing pitch.

Perdue, on the other hand, can’t attack the project as readily as he targeted Rivian.

After all, it was his first-cousin Sonny Perdue who landed the first Kia auto plant during his 2006 campaign for another term as governor. As news of the second auto project circulated, Perdue focused on his anti-abortion stance and steered clear of Hyundai talk.

Kemp, meanwhile, fell back on a favorite line used by another predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal.

“When you are the number one state in the country for business,” he said at his ceremonial Capitol office, “you have a lot of great companies looking here.”

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