Brian Kemp Cast His Lot With Trump, and Has Now Paid the Price

Buttons supporting President Donald Trump and then Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp in Athens, Ga., Nov. 7, 2018. (Audra Melton/The New York Times)
Buttons supporting President Donald Trump and then Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp in Athens, Ga., Nov. 7, 2018. (Audra Melton/The New York Times)

ATLANTA — Few politicians have been both elevated and diminished by the vicissitudes of President Donald Trump like Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican governor.

Kemp rocketed from hard-right underdog candidate to the governor’s mansion two years ago on the strength of a surprise endorsement from Trump, and an argument that the president was right about a lot of issues facing the country.

But these days Kemp is facing daily reminders of the perils of deciding that Trump is actually wrong.

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In recent weeks, Kemp has infuriated the president for resisting his demands to help overturn the election results in Georgia, a state Trump lost by roughly 12,000 votes. The president’s outrage has spread to many of his supporters in Georgia as he persists in his extraordinary intervention into the nation’s electoral process.

At a news conference in the state Capitol on Tuesday to discuss the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, Kemp was confronted by Trump loyalists asking why he had refused to call a special session of the legislature, as the president has requested, so that lawmakers can reallocate the state’s 16 electoral votes to Trump. The question crowded the screen of a Facebook live feed of the event. As he departed the event, Kemp was stopped by a small group who presented a bag that they said was filled with 2,000 petitions making the same plea.

“If he doesn’t call a special session, he’s definitely a one-term governor, no doubt about it,” said one of the activists, Erik Christensen, CEO of a moving company, who said he voted for Kemp in 2018.

Kemp is now the most vivid example of the battle-scarred and even shellshocked conservative Republicans who once basked in Trump’s glow but now find themselves derided for enforcing their state election rules and laws. Republican governors like Kemp and Doug Ducey of Arizona, and lower-level state officials like Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, have emerged as a new kind of institutionalist in the face of the Trump attacks on the election system: They are refusing to bend procedures to the will of Trump, and potentially paying a political price for it.

As Trump continues to grope for a way to undo his electoral loss to President-elect Joe Biden, he is also engaged in a furious effort to torpedo Kemp’s political future.

Trump has called Kemp “hapless,” mocked him for a supposed dip in popularity, and suggested, at a recent rally, that U.S. Rep. Doug Collins should challenge Kemp in the primary when he seeks a second term in 2022.

“I’m ashamed that I endorsed him,” Trump said in a Fox News interview.

The president’s willingness to threaten the governor’s fervently pro-Trump voter base demonstrates how challenging it may be for Republicans to navigate a post-presidency in which the mercurial Trump could choose to play kingmaker, de facto party head and potential 2024 candidate.

Republican politicians, strategists and party officials are anxiously watching the turmoil in Georgia, fearing that the civil war the president started among Georgia’s Republicans could spread throughout the country. That would complicate the political dynamics for incumbents like Kemp, who plans to run for reelection two years from now.

In November’s election, Trump expanded the party base, driving up margins in rural areas, winning a larger share of Latino voters and capturing a record number of Republican votes. Whether those new voters will transform into loyal Republicans when Trump is not on the ticket remains one of the biggest uncertainties facing the party. And much may depend on what Trump tells Republicans to do.

“Any operative is wondering right now whether this is what the future looks like,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican committeeman from Mississippi and an influential voice in the party. “We don’t know, but the party has a tremendous opportunity going forward to build on what the president has accomplished.”

Kemp, 57, has not been the only target of Trump’s wrath. Republican politicians and officials across the country who have defended the integrity of the election — and resisted bending to the will of the president — have faced a backlash from their own party.

In Arizona, Trump has criticized Ducey for certifying Biden’s win in that state, and suggested he would also pay a political price for it. (“Republicans will long remember!” he wrote in a recent tweet.) While term limits prevent Ducey from seeking another term, he is among those mentioned as a potential presidential contender in 2024.

On the day that Ducey was selected to head the Republican Governors Association, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona said in a column on a conservative news site that Ducey had “harmed the common cause of the Republican Party.”

“The Duceys and the Kemps of the world, they may have some difficulty if they want to seek elective office within the Republican Party,” said Michael Burke, chairman of the Republican Party in Pinal County in Arizona. “People will remember what happened here,” added Burke, who worked at Trump’s properties before becoming involved with politics.

Allies of the president have begun issuing veiled threats toward Kemp, warning that what they see as his insufficient loyalty to the president could carry a political price.

“If you’re not fighting for Trump now when he needs you the most as a Republican leader in Georgia, people are not going to fight for you when you ask them to get reelected,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in an appearance on Fox News.

Democrats are trying to exploit these divisions. MeidasTouch, a progressive national political committee, announced plans this week to put up billboards in Georgia emblazoned with a Trump tweet that reads, “Why bother voting for Republicans if what you get is Ducey and Kemp?” Biden plans to travel to the state next week to campaign for the two Democratic candidates, who would give his party control of the Senate if they won runoffs against Republican incumbents on Jan. 5.

Kemp’s descent from Trump’s circle of approval is particularly striking. Throughout his career, he has taken pains to demonstrate his conservative credentials: In one particularly unsubtle ad that ran during his 2018 run for governor, titled “So Conservative,” he demonstrated his desire to “blow up government spending” with actual explosives, and “cut regulations” with a real chain saw.

It was Trump’s positive tweet just days before the Republican primary runoff that helped Kemp gain the nomination. Then in the general election, Kemp became one of the Trump era’s most enduring villains in the eyes of the left after his narrow victory over Stacey Abrams, who was vying to become the nation’s first Black woman governor.

Abrams and her allies argued that Kemp, then the secretary of state, engineered a “stolen” election by supporting policies that Democrats said amounted to voter suppression and in some cases targeted minorities.

Since then, much of Kemp’s political personality had been borrowed directly from Trump. Billing himself as a “politically incorrect conservative,” Kemp has echoed Trump’s hyperbolic message about the violent threats immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally pose to American citizens.

Despite his rhetoric, Kemp has not played the role of radical disrupter the way doctrinaire former Republican governors like Sam Brownback of Kansas or Bobby Jindal of Louisiana did. But he has delivered for his conservative base by supporting and signing an anti-abortion “heartbeat” law, which was permanently enjoined by the courts.

Other policy actions, including a raise for public schoolteachers, and a slew of appointments reflecting the state’s burgeoning diversity, suggest some movement on Kemp’s part toward a practical center. But much of that has been overshadowed by criticism of his reopening of the state in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic and his conflicts with the Democratic mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, including over her efforts to implement a mask mandate.

Still, this generally conservative track record has not stemmed the torrent of criticism that is engulfing the governor from the right. Nor have Kemp’s delicate — or perhaps awkward — efforts to praise Trump while steadfastly declining to give him the overturned election results he wants. At the news conference on Tuesday, for instance, Kemp talked about how “grateful” he was for the Trump administration’s “unprecedented and incredible achievement” of making the vaccine available.

A Republican consultant in Georgia familiar with Kemp’s thinking said that while the governor agrees with many of Trump’s policies, the president’s request that he work to overturn the election — a request Trump made in a phone call with the governor last weekend — crossed a line.

Kemp’s office declined to make him available for an interview.

Kemp’s relationship with the president began to seriously deteriorate late last year when he defied Trump’s wishes and appointed Kelly Loeffler, a wealthy Atlanta businesswoman, to an open Senate seat. Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue are the Republican candidates in the Georgia runoffs in January.

Kemp will have to run on a ticket in 2022 with whoever wins the Senate seat. By choosing Loeffler, he was most likely trying to craft the image of the state Republican Party in a way that he thought would reflect Georgia’s evolving politics: a female candidate who he believed could win back more moderate voters in Atlanta’s populous northern suburbs. He also considered Loeffler, a political novice, a good fit for his brand, which he considers to be pro-business, outside the establishment and conservative.

Trump preferred that the Senate seat go to Collins, the conservative Georgia Republican who had passionately defended Trump against impeachment. Collins subsequently jumped into this year’s race, losing in the first round of voting but pushing Loeffler far to the right to prove her conservative bona fides.

A similar dynamic could emerge if Trump backs a primary challenger in the 2022 governor’s race. That could lead Kemp to lurch rightward after he has made some effort to move to the center. Such a shift might help Abrams, who may challenge Kemp in a rematch.

But all of these projections are clouded with questions about the president himself. Will he get involved in 35 local and statewide races, or concentrate on two or three? Will he settle old scores? Kemp’s political future may depend on the answer.

“I’m 100% Donald Trump. I’m 100% Brian Kemp,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a Trump ally. “I believe it’s just something that we’ve got to get through.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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