For all of former President Donald Trump’s efforts to defeat Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp during the primary, the Republican governor is loath to criticize his party’s most influential figure ahead of next week’s general election.
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Asked by CNN’s Kaitlan Collins why he thinks Trump has steered clear of the state since the primary, Kemp – who’s facing a rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams – was characteristically diplomatic.
“I don’t know, you’d have to ask him that question. Look, I’m focusing on getting our vote out,” Kemp told “CNN This Morning” in an interview broadcast Tuesday.
“I appreciate what President Trump did for the state of Georgia. His administration was incredible to work with,” he added.
“They did a lot of things to help us during the (Covid-19) pandemic and many other issues that we dealt with. We also did a lot of things to help them, to help the federal administration during” the early stages of the pandemic, Kemp continued.
But if Trump had his way, Kemp would not be on the ballot for reelection this fall. The former President recruited and campaigned for Kemp’s primary challenger as he sought retribution for the governor’s refusal to back his efforts to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 win in the state.
But Kemp, unlike so many other Republicans around the country, proved to be politically invulnerable to Trump’s wrath, soundly defeating former Sen. David Perdue for the GOP nomination – and is now favored to win a second term leading Georgia as he faces Abrams in a rematch of their 2018 matchup.
If Kemp prevails – powered by a coalition of Trump voters, Republican Trump doubters and conservative-leaning swing voters – he will provide a blueprint for GOP candidates rooted in the fundamentals of Trumpism, but otherwise unwilling to submit to the former President’s personal whims. For those in the GOP upset that it has tied itself so tightly to Trump, Kemp represents both the path not taken and, should he succeed, a potential road map for a potential post-Trump era.
Still, Kemp was cautious when pressed on whether his potentially winning a second term next week provides proof-of-concept for Republicans trying to appeal to Trump voters without Trump himself in their corner.
“There’s a lot of outside noise all over all these campaigns and I just haven’t been focused on that,” he said. “I’ve been focused on what Georgians want, on what Georgians need, whether they voted for me or not.”
Lessons from the GOP’s Georgia losses
But the governor, who served two terms as Georgia secretary of state before winning the top job in 2018 – when he narrowly defeated Abrams in one of that year’s closest statewide races, did have a message to his party about their failure in 2020. Trump lost Georgia to Biden and both of the state’s incumbent GOP senators were unseated by Democrats.
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“We know the contrast with the other side,” Kemp said of Democrats and Abrams. “But we also have to have it be a party that’s for something. And I don’t think in 2020 we did a good job, in some of our races, of letting people know what we’re for, what our record is. Even when you disagree with people, if you stand for something, they have great appreciation for that.”
If Trump’s great power is grabbing headlines, Kemp’s might be in avoiding them – both when it comes to the former President and, more recently, the man who could be the next Republican senator from Georgia: Herschel Walker.
Walker, who was encouraged to run and endorsed by Trump, is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in one of the tightest and most consequential Senate races of the year. In a body that is currently divided 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote, Georgia’s choice could swing the balance of power back to Republicans less than two years after they lost it here in a pair of runoff elections.
Kemp has all but stiff-armed the former football great on the campaign trail, mostly staying mum about Walker’s race and, though he’s endorsed and plans to vote for him, been sparing with any kind words.
Describing the Senate contest to CNN, Kemp focused as much on pitching Walker as assailing Warnock and the Biden administration.
“In that race, you’re going to vote for a guy, our current senator, that’s voted with Joe Biden 96% of the time, or you’re going to vote for somebody that’s going to go up there (to Capitol Hill) and try to do something about 40-year high inflation, terrible domestic energy policy that’s led to high gas prices, literally a disaster at the border,” Kemp said.
Kemp similarly pivoted on the issue of the recent allegations from two women that Walker, who’s said in the past that he supports a full federal abortion ban with no exceptions, encouraged them to get the procedure. Walker has repeatedly denied those accusations.
“I would just tell you to talk to Herschel Walker about his policies on abortion,” Kemp said, before steering the question toward Abrams and Warnock and, eventually, talking about his own record. “The thing is, Georgians know where I’ve been. I’ve been consistent. Not all Georgians may … like all the policies that I’ve fought for and got done in the legislature, but at least they know where I’ve stood and I’ve been transparent with them.”
Kemp opposes abortion rights and the state, in 2019, passed a bill that bans the procedure as early as six weeks, with some exceptions. That’s before most women even know they’re pregnant. Asked on the debate stage with Abrams on Sunday night whether he would sign further restrictions if the GOP-controlled state legislature delivered them to his desk, Kemp said, “It’s not my desire to go back, to go move the needle any further,” but stopped short of pledging a veto.
Focusing on the economy
As he’s done on the campaign trail, Kemp, during two debates with Abrams and in speaking to CNN, tried to keep the focus on what he says he hears most from voters across the state: the economy and crime. Whether touting Georgia’s successes or blaming the White House for the state and country’s inflation troubles, Kemp argued that no other issue is more prevalent in the minds of voters.
This is a “pocketbook election,” Kemp told Collins in Folkston, Georgia, before turning his focus to national Democrats.
“Joe Biden’s 40-year high inflation; egg (prices) up 30%; milk, chicken up, 15, 17%; gas prices because of bad domestic energy policy. That’s the number one issue. Sixty percent of Americans right now are living paycheck to paycheck, and thankfully they have a state government and a governor that’s been fighting to help ‘em fight through that.”
Abrams has pushed back against that message, arguing that Kemp has governed with the interests of the wealthy front of mind and effectively left behind working class Georgians. Before and during Kemp’s administration, Georgia has refused federal Medicaid expansion funds under the Affordable Care Act, and the state’s maternal mortality rate is among the worst in the country.
But with early voting underway and ballots being cast in record numbers for the state, Kemp says he is confident that voters are confident in him – and that they want more of what he’s promising.
“We’re going to do a property tax relief grant. We’re going to continue to be in the fight with our men and women in law enforcement. We’re going to keep working on rural broadband,” Kemp said. “We’re going to keep fighting for that if you send us back.”
The process for deciding whether voters return Kemp to office for another term, though, has been fraught with controversy. Georgia’s new elections law passed last year, known as SB 202, has been derided by Democrats and voting rights advocates for its new voting restrictions. Abrams has led the charge, but Biden offered some of the harshest criticism, describing the slate of laws as making “Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”
Kemp and his Republican allies have pushed back on that rhetoric, usually by pointing to increases in turnout. Early voting in this general election has provided them more fodder, with the state frequently reporting new turnout records.
“For them to call it suppressive, the numbers just don’t play that fact out,” Kemp said, touting days added to the early voting schedule and downplaying rules making it more difficult to cast an absentee ballot. “We had a record vote in the primary and we’re seeing it right now in the general election.”
No matter how his reelection bid breaks, Kemp knows of at least one thing he is sure to be doing after November 8. The governor’s effort to avoid appearing before a special grand jury in Atlanta investigating Trump’s attempts to undermine the 2020 election in Georgia failed and he’s slated to testify.
“I can tell you,” Kemp said of his forthcoming testimony, “that I will tell people, as I’ve always done, I’ll tell ‘em the truth and I’ll tell ‘em that I followed the laws and the Constitution of this state.”