The Jolt: Trump adviser floats mystery challenger to Gov. Brian Kemp

News and analysis from the politics team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Is it wishful thinking for the pro-Donald Trump crowd or a sign of what’s to come?

Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager, hopped on The John Fredericks Show to tease the idea of a serious Republican contender entering the race against Gov. Brian Kemp. Said Lewandowski:

“I am not working for a candidate in the Georgia governor’s race, but I have talked to what I think is going to be a phenomenal candidate. And I think at the end of the day this person gets in …

“Brian Kemp is not a king. He doesn’t just get to decide that he’s going to be the governor and not have anyone challenge him. The person who I’ve been talking to, John, who is going to run for governor has held elective office in the state of Georgia.

“He’s a known commodity. He has a great story. He’s been elected in an area where traditionally Republicans don’t get elected. And he’s willing to take this fight directly to Brian Kemp. And it scares the hell out of the establishment.”

This takes some unpacking. Kemp has so far avoided a top-tier Republican challenger in the primary, drawing only renegade Democrat Vernon Jones.

And despite his pleas for Trump’s support, the former president has yet to back Jones -- and we’re told he’s unlikely to ever do so.

That’s not surprising, given Jones’ history of misconduct and, perhaps more importantly, long record of voting against GOP priorities, such as the anti-abortion law that Kemp spearheaded in 2019.

That’s also why pro-Trump forces are still casting about for a credible Kemp alternative in next year’s primary. And they obviously hope Trump -- who repeatedly promised to campaign against Kemp -- will hear them out.

Lewandowksi has remained in the Trump orbit despite being fired as Trump’s campaign manager half way through the 2016 campaign after months of clashes with GOP leaders, reporters and fellow staffers.

We’re not sure who Lewandowski is floating against Kemp now, but a little sleuthing offers a hint. A few days ago, a wealthy local businessman named Ames Barnett posted a picture of himself and his wife, grinning ear-to-ear beside Lewandowski. (He later deleted the tweet, which we screen-shotted below.)

A deleted tweet from Ames Barnett
Caption
A deleted tweet from Ames Barnett

Barnett is the owner of a local construction firm and a well-connected member of the Department of Economic Development’s board. He also just wrapped up two terms as mayor of Washington, Ga., a tiny majority-Black town in east Georgia.

Hmmm….

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Gov. Brian Kemp is about to end the state’s first-ever use of a public health emergency declaration that granted him sweeping powers. It might be the last time a Georgia governor has such unbridled authority.

When lawmakers overwhelmingly ratified Kemp’s emergency declaration in mid-March of 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic was reaching a first, terrifying crescendo.

During that all-day special legislative session, dozens of lawmakers, staffers and reporters were exposed to the disease by an infected state senator and the entire legislative branch was urged to quarantine.

Even amid that fraught backdrop, lawmakers took hours to hash out the terms of Kemp’s emergency declaration, wary of granting a governor the extraordinary powers laid out in the statute.

It allowed him to suspend state laws, take “direct” control of civil staffers, commandeer private property, close schools, restrict travel and limit public gatherings. It made no exception for religious functions or private businesses.

That has irked some lawmakers, who earlier this year sought to limit how broadly Kemp and future state leaders can wield the far-reaching authority during another crisis.

Proposals circulated to curtail the government’s ability to shutter religious institutions and impose limits on closing certain businesses that followed safety guidelines.

Some wanted to require the General Assembly to approve any extension of the powers rather than allow Kemp or his successors to unilaterally do so. None of the proposals advanced in the last legislative session, but they remain viable next year.

Democratic state Rep. Josh McLaurin is among the lawmakers who had second thoughts. He told us he supported the initial vote because certain rules needed to be suspended to help the healthcare system grapple with the surge in coronavirus cases.

“But then the governor refused to implement a mask mandate and even went as far as invoking emergency powers to block mask mandates by local governments,” said McLaurin, a Sandy Springs attorney.

“Given the way he was using -- and not using -- the powers, once the surge in cases subsided and vaccines became generally available, it was clear that these powers could do no further good.”

It’s not a partisan issue. We’ve heard a number of Republicans express concern about potential overreach in future crises. And even Kemp backed a proposal that would ban governors from restricting religious institutions’ ability to congregate during a time of statewide emergency.

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No surprises here. U.S. Senate Republicans banded against moving forward on a sweeping federal election bill. With no GOP members willing to support the For the People Act, the measure fell short of the 60-vote threshold needed to avoid a filibuster.

Democrats vow they won’t give up, but the path forward is unclear. Stacey Abrams, through the Fair Fight voting rights group she founded, encouraged lawmakers to work on a compromise that Republicans can get behind.

“Americans across party lines support the For the People Act, and our leaders in the U.S. Senate must continue to work together to reach a compromise,” she said.

“We applaud the Democratic members of the Senate for taking this critical step today as they move towards a bill to improve and protect Americans’ freedom to vote.”

That route won’t be easy. It relies on rallying enough bipartisan support behind a pared-down measure from Sen. Joe Manchin of West -- and there’s no indication that his proposal can win over the 60 votes needed, either.

Democrats are also trying a different tack -- taking their case directly to voters. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of the champions of the bill, announced that she will host a series of hearings on elections legislation across the country, including in Georgia.

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In the pushback to the For the People Act, the National Senatorial Campaign Committee released a series of ads hitting Democratic senators for voting for the bill.

But it was the ad against U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock that raised some eyebrows, since it framed Warnock’s support for the elections bill as “welfare for politicians.” A portion of the proposal would provide significant federal matching funds for candidates.

Warnock, who is Georgia’s first Black senator, grew up in public housing in Savannah and was the only senator to be tagged by the GOP with the “welfare” pejorative.

A spot focused on Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, for example, billed the legislation as a “Washington waste plan,” while another hitting Sen. Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, used the phrase “this isn’t rocket science.”

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More GOP pushback against U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock accused the senator of “flip flopping” on the use of voter ID when he signaled his openness to a compromise floated by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin that included a voter identification requirement.

Warnock told NBC News he thought Manchin’s overall compromise was “significant.”

Asked specifically about the voter ID requirement in Manchin’s framework, Warnock said:

“I have never been opposed to voter ID. And in fact, I don’t know anybody who is — who believes people shouldn’t have to prove that they are who they say they are. But what has happened over the years is people have played with common sense identification and put into place restrictive measures intended not to preserve the integrity of the outcome, but to select, certain group.”

We include his entire quote because GOP operatives have circulated only the, “I have never been opposed to voter ID,” portion to accuse Warnock of lying about his past opposition to voter ID requirements.

Among the instances offered by Republicans as examples of a flip flop are Warnock’s sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2012, when he referred to requiring a state identification card to vote as a version of “a poll tax.”

State ID cards typically come with filing fees, including Georgia in 2012, although negotiations during SB 202 this year made state voter identification cards free of charge.

An analysis this month by the AJC’s Mark Niesse found that of the people in the state who lack photo identification, more than half are Black. Any law requiring a photo ID would have an outsized impact on Black and Latino voters in Georgia.

Warnock’s statement to NBC News is consistent with his statement in 2012, since the state ID’s he referred to then would have impacted a certain group, in this case, Black voters.

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Gov. Brian Kemp is among 15 Republican governors pressing the Biden administration to release redistricting data as soon as possible “so that states may begin to perform important redistricting tasks on behalf of our constituents.”

Preliminary data from the Census Bureau is expected August 16, but final numbers won’t come in until September 30 at the earliest.

That leaves lawmakers precious little time to draw maps, meet with members, and get final approved legislation together before a Nov. 8 cut off date. That’s the day after which members will be required to run in the districts they’re currently living in, rather than in a district that could be easier to win once the lines are finalized.

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110320 Atlanta: Karen Handel, 6th congressional district candidate, hugs supporter Linda Schutter at the Georgia Republican Party Election Night Celebration in the Intercontinental Buckhead Atlanta hotel on Tuesday, Nov 3, 2020 in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
110320 Atlanta: Karen Handel, 6th congressional district candidate, hugs supporter Linda Schutter at the Georgia Republican Party Election Night Celebration in the Intercontinental Buckhead Atlanta hotel on Tuesday, Nov 3, 2020 in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel has been selected to serve as the president and chief executive of the Carroll Tomorrow economic development organization.

The Republican, a former 6th Congressional District U.S. Representative, secretary of state and Fulton County commission leader, will also serve as the leader of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.

In the announcement, Handel said she will soon move from her home in the Atlanta suburbs to Carroll County.

Handel beat Democrat Jon Ossoff to win the epic 2017 special U.S. House election in Atlanta’s northern ‘burbs, but was defeated twice by Democrat Lucy McBath in 2018 and 2020.

The move likely signals that Handel, who has also run for U.S. Senate and governor, is closing the books on her life in politics. (And, before you ask, her new home isn’t in Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district.)

***

Georgia U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams has been named co-chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus. The other co-chairs are Democratic Reps. Terri Sewell of Alabama, Bobby Scott of Virginia and Marc Veasey of Texas.

The caucus was created by Veasey in 2016 to expand voting rights and most recently has lobbied in support of the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

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Devin Pandy, the Democratic nominee in last year’s contest for the 9th Congressional District, has announced a run for mayor in the city of Gainesville, according to the Gainesville Times.

Pandy lost to Republican Andrew Clyde in the general election, which he was never favored to win since the northeast Georgia district is so deeply red.

Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan is not running for re-election. The other announced candidate for the 2022 mayor’s race is City Councilman Sam Couvillon, a Republican.

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Tuesday’s Jolt included an item about a Henry County judge hearing arguments on whether to throw out the lawsuit calling for another review of Fulton County absentee ballots.

But a curious Jolt reader asks, why is a Henry County judge hearing a case about Fulton County ballots?

Great question! Since your Insiders are here to serve, we have procured the answer from our voting experts, Mark Niesse and David Wickert, who report:

“There’s still an ongoing dispute over whether this case qualifies as an election challenge or not. But because it was considered an election challenge after it was filed, the case was assigned to a different judicial circuit as called for by state law.”

We’ll keep you posted if that changes.

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A fundraising email from Arizona Republican state Sen. Wendy Rogers caught our eyes this week.

The note to potential donors tied the ongoing GOP-led ballot review in Maricopa County to movements to challenge the 2020 election results in other states, including Georgia.

“I’m thrilled to see movements for audits in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and other places,” she wrote. “They can use the procedures we developed for the Arizona audit!”

She also calls the media “worthless,” but that’s for another Jolt.

Keep in mind that earlier this month State Sens. Brandon Beach and Burt Jones, along with state GOP chair David Shafer, all went to Arizona to participate in a walk-through of the ballot inspection stations there.

Experts and even some longtime Arizona Republicans have called the months-long review “political theater” and “a sham.”

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As always, Jolt readers are some of our favorite tipsters (and inquisitors). Send your best scoop, gossip and insider info to patricia.murphy@ajc.com, tia.mitchell@ajc.com and greg.bluestein@ajc.com.