Kemp done being underestimated, aims to steer GOP past Trump

Jan 8, 2023, 7:03 AM | Updated: 9:14 pm
FILE - Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at The Neighborhood Lot on July 29, 2022, in McDonough, Ga. H...

FILE - Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at The Neighborhood Lot on July 29, 2022, in McDonough, Ga. Having vanquished both a Donald Trump-backed Republican challenger and Democratic star Stacey Abrams to win reelection, Kemp is looking to expand his influence in his second term, free from the caricature of the gun-toting, pickup-driving, migrant-catching country boy that emerged during his first campaign for governor. (AP Photo/Megan Varner, File)

(AP Photo/Megan Varner, File)

              FILE - Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams face off in a televised debate, in Atlanta, Oct. 30, 2022. Having vanquished both a Donald Trump-backed Republican challenger and Abrams to win reelection, Kemp is looking to expand his influence in his second term, free from the caricature of the gun-toting, pickup-driving, migrant-catching country boy that emerged during his first campaign for governor. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)
            
              FILE - Former Sen. David Perdue, right, speaks during a gubernatorial republican primary debate toward Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, left, on May 1, 2022, in Atlanta. Having vanquished both a Donald Trump-backed Republican challenger and Democratic star Stacey Abrams to win reelection, Kemp is looking to expand his influence in his second term, free from the caricature of the gun-toting, pickup-driving, migrant-catching country boy that emerged during his first campaign for governor.(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, Pool, File)
            
              FILE - President Donald Trump greets Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife Marty as he arrives at Dobbins Air Reserve Base for a campaign event at the Cobb Galleria Centre, Sept. 25, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
            
              FILE - Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at The Neighborhood Lot on July 29, 2022, in McDonough, Ga. Having vanquished both a Donald Trump-backed Republican challenger and Democratic star Stacey Abrams to win reelection, Kemp is looking to expand his influence in his second term, free from the caricature of the gun-toting, pickup-driving, migrant-catching country boy that emerged during his first campaign for governor. (AP Photo/Megan Varner, File)

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is done being underestimated.

Having vanquished both a Donald Trump-backed Republican challenger and Democratic star Stacey Abrams to win reelection, Kemp is looking to expand his influence in his second term, free from the caricature of the gun-toting, pickup-driving, migrant-catching country boy that emerged during his first campaign for governor.

A new vision of Kemp steering his party toward a non-Trumpian conservatism made its debut in his November victory speech after it became clear that he had defeated Abrams by a much larger margin in their rematch than he had in their tight 2018 matchup.

“This election proves that when Republicans stay focused on real-world solutions that put hardworking people first we can win now, but also in the future, y’all,” Kemp said.

Kemp pledged that night to “stay in the fight” and followed with concrete steps: He kept his political operation running and lent it to the unsuccessful Senate runoff campaign of Herschel Walker, while forming a federal political action committee that lets the governor influence races for Congress and president. He hasn’t ruled out running for the U.S. Senate in 2026 or even seeking the White House.

Beyond his own advancement, Kemp’s victory could provide a blueprint for Republicans in competitive states after voters rejected many of the Trump-molded candidates in 2022. It’s a less showy approach, aimed at luring independents and moderates while still achieving conservative policy goals.

“If Republicans looking forward are focused on winning, I think a lot of folks will be calling Gov. Kemp and wanting his advice, but also trying to replicate the things he did here,” said Cody Hall, Kemp’s political adviser.

Kemp, now 59, was a real estate developer and state senator before Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed him secretary of state in 2010. Eight years later, Kemp was on his way to defeating an establishment candidate for the GOP nomination for governor when Trump’s endorsement supercharged his campaign, which focused on gun rights and opposition to illegal immigration.

After Kemp defeated Abrams in the 2018 general election by just 1.4 percentage points, she accused him of using the secretary of state’s office to improperly purge likely Democratic voters. A federal court later rejected legal claims questioning Kemp’s actions.

In his first term, Kemp logged some big conservative achievements, including signing stringent abortion limits in 2019. He also made a diverse slate of appointments and kept his promise of $5,000 raises for public school teachers, moves aimed at solidifying his appeal to the middle in an anticipated Abrams rematch.

Kemp’s relationship with Trump began to deteriorate after the governor appointed Kelly Loeffler to the Senate instead of Trump’s preferred pick. Trump later took shots at Kemp over his decision to reopen businesses early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the president’s rage boiled over when Kemp refused to help Trump and his allies overturn Joe Biden’s narrow victory in Georgia in the 2020 election — efforts that are now the subject of investigations by state and federal prosecutors.

Trump vowed revenge against Kemp, but the governor pressed forward. In 2021, Kemp signed into law a sweeping Republican-sponsored overhaul of state elections inspired by Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 election. He also pushed through a bill loosening gun laws.

Trump endorsed former Sen. David Perdue as a primary challenger to the governor. Kemp, who never publicly challenged Trump or even responded directly to his tirades, ended up crushing Perdue in the primary. In the meantime, his distance from Trump provided Kemp with credibility among independents and even some Democrats.

“It’s just given him a gravitas you can’t buy,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican political consultant.

Even some Democrats acknowledge Kemp’s increasing political strength after his nearly 8 percentage-point victory over Abrams. State Rep. Al Williams, long close to Abrams, said Kemp is “at the height of his powers” going into a second term. His inauguration is Thursday.

Williams and other backers say that Kemp’s incumbency, plus the billions in federal COVID-19 aid that he alone decided how to spend under Georgia law, were factors in his win. “He spent it very effectively and spread the net wide,” Williams said.

As the Senate race turned to overtime, Kemp was called on to help Walker in his runoff against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. Kemp, who had secured GOP donors and built his own political organization independent from a state party run by Trump acolytes, turned over his voter data operation to allow the Walker campaign to tailor messages to different factions of Republican voters.

Still, Kemp largely maintained his distance from Walker, whose campaign was beset by accusations that he had paid for abortions, behaved violently toward women and lied about his education, work history and personal background. Shortly before the runoff, Kemp agreed to appear in a television ad endorsing Walker but made sure that it was his own political team that wrote the script.

Steven Law, who leads the political action committee aligned with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, said Kemp did what savvy political heavyweights do: He helped his party while establishing and protecting his own brand.

“We’ve had a party where Trump has had a decisive gravitational pull, and here’s a person in Brian Kemp who just stayed apart from that orbit, made his own calls, decided things his way — not in opposition to Trump, but at the same time not in obedience to him,” Law said, calling Kemp’s balancing act “remarkable.”

Kemp’s future political path remains unclear, but he has options.

In Georgia, he’s never been identified as having open national ambitions, either for the presidency or Senate, and Robinson noted that Kemp “has never spoken of Washington fondly.”

Law demurred when asked whether McConnell or his team has broached the possibility of Kemp running for the Senate in 2026, when Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff would face voters again.

There’s also the possibility of a vice presidential bid or a future Cabinet post. Perhaps most likely is a larger role in the Republican Governors Association: He’s now on the RGA’s executive committee and could become chair in 2025 or 2026.

Hall said Kemp wants to help other states elect conservatives who advocate “freedom and liberty and personal responsibility” while promoting education, a strong economy and good jobs. “Whatever he can do to help more folks like that get elected, I’m sure he will,” Hall said.

At home, Kemp is the paramount party leader and unchallenged boss of state government in a way that’s new for him. With a new House speaker and lieutenant governor leading the General Assembly, Kemp is unlikely to meet resistance from GOP majorities.

So far, though, he’s offered a minimalist second-term agenda: income tax and property tax rebates, some criminal justice measures and minor education changes. His biggest promise is continuity, adding four more years to 20 years of Republican rule in Georgia.

The governor could also take firmer control of GOP machinery if he backs an effort to push out Georgia Republican Chair David Shafer, a Trump ally.

“He is carrying around bags of political capital like the Monopoly man,” Robinson said, marveling at what he calls Kemp’s “clear and very empowering” mandates from the primary and general election. “Go ahead and put a monocle and top hat on him.”

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Kemp done being underestimated, aims to steer GOP past Trump