Squeezed from both sides, Kemp tests 2022 reelection appeal

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at a press conference Tuesday at the state Capitol. The governor's messaging has recently grown more combative in an apparent appeal to the state's Republican base as he approaches next year's reelection campaign. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at a press conference Tuesday at the state Capitol. The governor's messaging has recently grown more combative in an apparent appeal to the state's Republican base as he approaches next year's reelection campaign. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The other day, Gov. Brian Kemp took to Fox News to tout the state’s conservative pandemic response, assail the Democratic-backed push for a $1.9 trillion relief package and declare he “absolutely” would back former President Donald Trump’s comeback bid.

As he prepares for a brutal 2022 reelection bid, the Republican governor is testing new lines of attack that could make or break his campaign for a second term.

On the airwaves, Kemp now blasts the “blue state bailout” embedded in legislation he claims overcompensates liberal states, such as California and New York, at Georgia’s expense.

At the Capitol, he demands that the few remaining school districts still conducting virtual-only instruction quickly reopen their doors while citing his reverence for local control. And he vows to tighten emergency rules to prevent a governor from closing houses of worship during the next pandemiclike crisis.

On social media, he mixes updates on vaccine rollouts with indictments of “cancel culture.” And behind the scenes, he’s working to smooth the passage of new restrictions on ballot access that grassroots GOP activists demand in response to Democratic victories in November and January.

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It’s the red meat you’d normally expect during an election year — not the immediate aftermath of humbling Republican defeats. And it’s part of Kemp’s strategy to navigate the precarious political squeeze he now faces.

Trump and his allies have vowed to exact revenge on Kemp for refusing to illegally overturn the results of November’s election in Georgia, the first time a Republican presidential candidate has lost the state since 1992. On Thursday, he issued another statement singling out Kemp for blame for his election defeat.

At the same time, Kemp and his aides have been gearing up for an expected grueling rematch against Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the 2018 race and has only elevated her profile with a mammoth national voting rights platform that’s raised roughly $100 million in the two years since her defeat.

Kemp and his inner circle are not blind to the reality that, not three years after becoming the first lifelong Republican elected governor of Georgia since Reconstruction, he’s now in the middle of a desperate scramble to shore up his base.

The conciliatory tone he struck in the weeks after the Jan. 5 runoffs, when he largely skirted controversial issues in favor of bipartisan solutions, has been replaced in recent weeks by bracing rhetoric fit for the campaign trail as he looks to head off a far-right challenger.

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Former President Donald Trump, right, and his allies have vowed to exact revenge on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for refusing to illegally overturn the results of November’s election in Georgia. Trump recently told Newsmax that his endorsement of Kemp in the 2018 governor's race “hurt” the GOP and that he “certainly was not very effective for the Republican Party, to put it nicely.” Kemp, however, recently told Fox News that he would support Trump's comeback bid in 2024. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Former President Donald Trump, right, and his allies have vowed to exact revenge on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for refusing to illegally overturn the results of November’s election in Georgia. Trump recently told Newsmax that his endorsement of Kemp in the 2018 governor's race “hurt” the GOP and that he “certainly was not very effective for the Republican Party, to put it nicely.” Kemp, however, recently told Fox News that he would support Trump's comeback bid in 2024. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“Kemp is in trouble — very much so. People don’t trust him, and they blame him,” said Kay Godwin, a veteran conservative activist from rural Pierce County. “They’re not going to get over it quickly. They think this election was stolen.”

It seems like every time she leaves the house, she said, she gets an earful from her neighbors upset Kemp didn’t do more to help Trump. At a clinic the other day, the lady sitting next to Godwin turned to her and sighed: “I don’t understand — why did the governor turn on me?”

The governor hopes time is on his side. He’s amassed $6.3 million for his campaign account, and no serious GOP challenger has emerged, though several are kicking the tires. They include former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who came in third place in last year’s Senate race, and state Sen. Burt Jones.

And Kemp’s supporters say the bond he’s developed with conservatives — along with the powers of incumbency — will inoculate him from Trump’s venom.

“I don’t know if President Trump can drive a wedge in that relationship,” Gwinnett County GOP Chair Edward Muldrow said. “He still has the support of a broad spectrum of conservatives. If nothing else, Republicans better learn a lesson from this last election: If we’re divided in any way, we’re in trouble.”

‘Unlevel playing field’

The governor is particularly intent on criticizing President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief package, railing against what he calls the “unlevel playing field” of the complex formula that guides how roughly $340 billion in direct aid is allocated to state and local governments.

Along with other GOP governors, Kemp said the formula puts too much emphasis on state unemployment figures — which in Georgia hovered around 5% — and not enough on other metrics embedded in the 2020 relief package. Under that calculus, he said, Georgia would receive nearly $1.3 billion more in aid.

Georgia Democrats see that argument as a jaded attack by Republicans who have already vowed to vote in lockstep against the package, regardless of whether Georgia gets more direct aid. Some $4.6 billion would go to the state’s coffers, along with $3.5 billion for cities and counties.

“This robust relief is what Georgians have long needed but wasn’t possible before,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who faces a 2022 election for a full six-year term.

“And now the Senate needs to get it over the finish line so we can finally get these federal investments out the door and into the hands of Georgians who’ve waited too long for help.”

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Stacey Abrams, shown campaigning with U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, is expected to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp in a repeat of 2018's narrow race.
Stacey Abrams, shown campaigning with U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock, left, and Jon Ossoff, is expected to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp in a repeat of 2018's narrow race.

The governor has also seized on other arguments to satisfy a restless GOP base. He’s pushed to roll back his sweeping emergency powers to ensure they can’t be used to shutter religious services — something he agonized over as the pandemic worsened last year before ultimately deciding not to restrict them.

And he’s warred with school officials who haven’t yet resumed face-to-face instruction, even as he refuses to use his state powers to force them to do so. As he announced plans to vaccinate teachers, Kemp leveled a broadside at the handful of holdout districts: “We can’t keep finding excuses not to do something.”

His balance will only get trickier if Trump lives up to his promises to intervene in the race. Though the former president didn’t put Kemp’s name on a Nixonesque enemies list during his fiery speech last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Kemp remains top of his mind.

The same day as the CPAC speech, Trump told Newsmax that his 2018 endorsement of Kemp “hurt” the GOP and that he “certainly was not very effective for the Republican Party, to put it nicely.” For Trump, that was nice: He’s said much worse, including calling for Kemp to resign.

Democrats, expected to unify behind Abrams and Warnock at the top of the ticket, are more than happy to cheer on the internal GOP feud.

“Confrontation, combativeness and cynicism are not what Georgia needs right now,” said Joel Alvarado, a veteran Democratic strategist.

“We need elected officials who understand the Georgia of today and tomorrow is diverse, progressive and unapologetic about both. We are now the loud majority, and ignoring this reality will not change that fact.”

‘Cheated’

Kemp’s delicate dance with the GOP base will only get more complicated as new measures to roll back voting rights move forward, as he balances satisfying the Republican base with adopting far-ranging restrictions that could damage his general election chances.

After strongly endorsing new ID requirements for absentee ballots, the governor has ducked questions about recent measures to limit weekend early voting days, curb the use of ballot drop boxes and curtail no-excuse mail-in voting.

Though he’s privately raised concerns about ending automatic voter registration and adding new restrictions on who can vote by mail, he’s said little publicly beyond the desire to make it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.”

Some local activists pleaded for patience. Seanie Zappendorf, chair of the Dawson County GOP, said she’s cautioning local conservatives to give Kemp space to do his job.

While Gov. Brian Kemp faces a backlash from supporters of former President Donald Trump, some observers say his ties to the state's conservatives are still strong. “I don’t know if President Trump can drive a wedge in that relationship,” Gwinnett County GOP Chair Edward Muldrow said. “He still has the support of a broad spectrum of conservatives.” (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
While Gov. Brian Kemp faces a backlash from supporters of former President Donald Trump, some observers say his ties to the state's conservatives are still strong. “I don’t know if President Trump can drive a wedge in that relationship,” Gwinnett County GOP Chair Edward Muldrow said. “He still has the support of a broad spectrum of conservatives.” (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“Many may feel disappointed or even cheated, but we need to work together more than ever,” Zappendorf said. “If the Democrats gave up every time they lost, we wouldn’t be here today. We need to do better and not get outplayed again.”

Godwin, the co-founder of Georgia Conservatives in Action, said she’s bewildered that Kemp hasn’t taken a more forceful public role with the election legislation. And she sighed as she lumped him together with other statewide Republicans who have incurred Trump’s wrath.

“How they think they’re going to win in 2022 is beyond me.”

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