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ATLANTA—Gov. Brian Kemp may have just charted the course for his Republican Party to move beyond the Trump era. The key, it turns out, may not be repudiating the former president, or even trying to emulate him, but simply framing him as a figure of the past for the party, one whose future is more focused on chasing policies that puts more cash in the pockets of all residents.
In a primary season that has seen Trump barrel his chosen candidates across the finish line with surprising efficiency, Georgia’s governor’s race has emerged as the most high-profile test, one he appears likely to fail. The former president may still yet prevail in some other races here, potentially unseating Georgia’s current election chief and effectively clearing the field for his pick in a Senate race that could hobble Mitch McConnell’s dreams of regaining the Majority Leader title.
But Kemp appears poised to dominate the gubernatorial primary on Tuesday over David Perdue, who garnered Trump’s backing largely by embracing the ex-president’s false statements about the 2020 election, which Kemp refused to do during those pivotal weeks after Election Day. In fact, Kemp—whom no one can credibly mistake for a RINO—is probably best known on the national stage for two things he has rejected as governor: Obamacare and the Big Lie.
“I understand why he’s frustrated,” Kemp said earlier this year of Trump, in an interview with my former AP colleague Greg Bluestein, who now writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and has forgotten more about Georgia politics than most will ever learn. “He’s a fighter. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to follow the laws of the constitution of this state and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Trump endorsed Kemp during his 2018 runoff and has privately fumed to his aides that had Trump kept his mouth shut, Kemp would be nothing. Kemp, however, isn’t one to cave to political pressure. He didn’t last year when Major League Baseball pulled its All-Star game in protest over a measure that curtailed voting rights in the state. Nor did he blink when corporate leaders joined the protest, or when Hollywood objected to a state law that would have banned abortion after six weeks had it not been ruled unconstitutional. Even his political critics will acknowledge Kemp’s resolve, particularly when he finds himself in the hot seat.
“We are in the fight for the soul of our state,” Kemp told supporters Monday night in a Cobb County airport hangar. It had more than echo of Joe Biden’s early campaign theme that vanquished Trump: “A battle for the soul of the nation.” Using the very construct that made Trump a one-term President is a Southern political shiv on par with “Bless your heart.”
In December, Fox 5 Atlanta’s polling showed a tied race between Kemp and Perdue, the Trump loyalist who lost a runoff last year to now-Sen. Jon Ossoff. The same survey last week found Kemp up 14 percentage points. Real Clear Politics’ polling average has him up 22 points.
“Look, I don’t believe any poll right now,” Kemp told reporters Monday morning during a virtual news conference organized by his campaign ahead of his rally. Later, Kemp warned against complacency at a rally in the north Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw with former Vice President Mike Pence.
That’s no small thing. Pence, who served four tortured years as Trump’s understudy, very publicly bucked his former boss by throwing his clout behind Kemp. So did other potential future presidential contenders Chris Christie, Doug Ducey, and Pete Ricketts, who all visited the state to align with Kemp—and maybe demonstrate that Trump’s dominance in the party may be a Potemkin village. Pence’s orbit is working with Kemp in open defiance of the man who sent a mob to Capitol Hill to pressure Pence to overturn their shared 2020 loss.
That’s not to say Kemp is ready to cede ground to the MAGAverse. When asked about Trump’s counter-endorsement Monday morning, he pivoted to reminding reporters that Trump and Pence had been allies for the state when Trump was in power. But implicit in the message was power held in the past, not in the present, and perhaps not in the future. “I’m very excited about where we’re going. We got the lowest unemployment rate in the history of the state, the most people ever working in the history of the state, and we’ve done a lot to help Georgians fight the 40-year-high Biden inflation that we’re seeing right now,” Kemp said, noting $1 billion in new tax refunds and a two-month suspension of the gas tax.
Voters have noticed Perdue flagging, and Kemp’s team aren’t shivering in this Southern state. “There’s no momentum. The funds have stopped. It’s just not happening,” says Joe Sanchez, a 58-year-old retired firefighter from Baldwin, Ga., who stood for more than two hours on primary eve to see Kemp and Pence in Kennesaw.
Kemp still needs to clear a 50% threshold to avoid a runoff, a feat Bob Heurich, a 73-year-old resident of Kennesaw, expects to happen on Tuesday. “Things are not going well for Perdue. Perdue didn’t think what would happen to him if he lost. His reputation is now shot,” he says. “He had one issue: 2020. It’s wasting his time to run. It’s in the past, it’s history.”
Whether he’s right will determine the road ahead for the Republican Party. Is it an organization defined by its continuing to litigate the 2020 election? Or does it find a way to move forward—not necessarily with a fresh cast of contenders but with a roster that at least is willing to chart a path beyond Trump’s perceived wrongs?
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