Those eyeing a potential 2024 confrontation with the former president may find wisdom in the Brian Kemp playbook, starting with page one: The best defense against Trump’s attacks is often to simply ignore them.
“It lays out this blueprint,” said Stephen Lawson, a Georgia-based Republican operative. “I think there’s going to be lessons here for other people the president has recently lashed out against. If you don’t take the bait, you’ve got a pretty good chance of winning.”
When Kemp refused to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia, Trump made the governor his No. 1 enemy, publicly railing against him throughout 2021 and recruiting a credible primary challenger. Throughout it all, Trump failed to draw Kemp into a fight, and the first-term governor overwhelmingly won his May primary and handily defeated his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, on Tuesday.
Republicans say Kemp’s strategy against the former president gave him an independent profile for the general election without sacrificing support from pro-Trump voters.
“Kemp didn’t need Trump, but he took care to make sure Trump partisans felt like they could be a part of the Kemp coalition,” said David Kochel, a Republican strategist and presidential campaign veteran. “It’s totally safe to ignore Trump. You don’t have to heap praise on him if you’re running that kind of campaign. Praise the policies, the results of the administration, just don’t personalize it, which is what Trump wants.”
Kemp’s approach has the attention of plenty of the party’s bigwigs, impressed by both his principled stand on the 2020 election result and his ability to survive as a target of Trump’s fury.
“I think it also accrued to his benefit financially. He was able to get a lot more resources from across the country,” said Marc Short, who served as chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence and also advised Kemp’s campaign this year.
Kemp told CNN he recognizes that he’s helped contribute to a model for Republicans to win the White House again.
“If we didn’t hold the governor’s race in the 2022 midterm, there’s no path for a Republican to win the presidency in ’24,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “And I think now we have that path.”
One person familiar with his thinking said it’s “unlikely” Kemp will run for president himself, and aides say Kemp’s sights are set on more institutional leadership, possibly a role at the Republican Governors Association.
“But he’s going to stay in the conversation because he cares about the direction of the country and the party,” this person said.
While the former president once made deposing Kemp a high priority, the governor now dismisses Trump’s threat to him as immaterial.
“I wasn’t worried about beating Donald Trump,” Kemp told CNN.
That’s only half true, as conversations with half a dozen Republican operatives around Georgia and Kemp’s campaign reveal. Publicly, Kemp approached his Trump problem – the relentless pressure on him to overturn the 2020 election result, the barrage of public attacks, the Trump-backed primary challenge from a former US senator – with a sort of cool detachment, appearing as if Trump’s anger didn’t faze him. Kemp’s mantra on Trump for the past two years, aides say, has been “He’s mad at me, I’m not mad at him.”
But behind the scenes, Kemp and his team worked early and furiously to neutralize the threat Trump posed, taking seriously both the former president and his power over the GOP faithful. Through the advantages of incumbency, fanatical message discipline and a few lucky breaks, Kemp triumphed not only over the effort to defeat him but over the damage many Republicans fear Trump has inflicted on the party’s brand in Georgia.
“Trump had issues with him, but Kemp did not let that affect his governing and leadership,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran GOP operative in Georgia. “I think that was smart, and it paid off, and I think people respect him for that.”
Delivering for the base
With Trump singling out Kemp and Georgia as early as November 2020, it became clear to the governor’s team almost immediately that Kemp could have a serious political problem on his hands.
“The governor has done nothing. He’s done absolutely nothing. I’m ashamed that I endorsed him,” Trump said on Fox News just days after Georgia certified Biden’s win there in 2020.
The calls came first from longtime donors, then voters, all with varying levels of false theories about the conduct of the election in Georgia. Kemp directed his political team to write up a scripted response he could text or email concerned donors. He also developed a response ready to deliver at meetings with local party organizations and activists.
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Allies say Kemp’s plan was to address these concerns head-on, with patience and knowledge of both the state’s election laws – he had served nine years as secretary of state, after all – while not backing down from his refusal of a request from Trump he could not fulfill.
“It’s always tougher to hate up close, so he put himself in the position of being right there and taking the heat,” said one person.
These were the roots of Kemp’s strategy for dealing with the anger from Trump supporters. He continued to point out that he had voted for Trump and wished he had won reelection. In March 2021, as Trump was publicly calling on Kemp to resign, the governor appeared on Fox News and said he would “absolutely” support Trump if he was the party’s nominee for president in 2024.
What looked to Trump’s opponents like obsequiousness was a deliberate attempt to deny the former president, out of office and without his Twitter feed, the punching bag he was looking for.
Kemp also benefited from what his team considers a major turning point in his reelection bid: a fight with Major League Baseball.
In late March 2021, Kemp signed a new elections law that drew sharp criticism from Democrats, led by Abrams, and scrutiny from the news media, including charges that the overhaul would suppress minority voters in Georgia and was a sop to those who denied the 2020 election results.
Protests and boycotts reached a fever pitch when the MLB announced in April that it would remove the summer’s All-Star Game from Atlanta’s Truist Park. The MLB’s decision, which Kemp called “ridiculous,” gave the Georgia governor a prime opportunity to play the hero, not the villain, for the Republican base.
“The All-Star game enabled Brian to find his voice and to object to Stacey in a fashion that galvanized supporters around him. It gave him a foil,” said John Watson, a former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.
Trump, meanwhile, looked out of step with conservatives when he criticized Kemp and the new law as “far too weak and soft.” One person close to the governor said Kemp’s biggest online fundraising haul came on the day of the MLB’s announcement. In the spring of 2021, he conducted more than 100 interviews defending the law, with conservative media casting Kemp as a fighter against the “woke mob.”
“You cannot underestimate the political gift of (the elections law) and the MLB All-Star Game,” said the person close to him. “It gave the Republican voters a bogeyman who was not the governor.”
Solidifying early support
Despite bolstering his credibility with conservatives on elections, Kemp still had to deal with a potential challenger in the Republican primary in 2022: David Perdue, the former US senator who had lost one of the two Senate runoff elections in January 2021.
Perdue had been close with Trump during his presidency, and it was a poorly kept secret throughout the state that Trump was recruiting him to take on Kemp.
Kemp’s operation quickly recognized the threat from Perdue and sought to coax important figures close to the former senator into his camp, including enlisting former Perdue aides and making early outreach to the state’s GOP donor network.
Trump’s aggression toward Kemp and courting of Perdue continued throughout the summer and fall of 2021. But even though the former president remained popular with Republicans in Georgia, Trump kept showing signs he did not have his finger on the pulse of his party.
At a September 2021 rally in Perry, near Perdue’s hometown, Trump remarked to a baffled audience he might have preferred Abrams to Kemp as governor.
“Trump going the Abrams route helped Kemp … solidify established elected GOP support,” a Kemp aide told CNN earlier this year. “It rang untrue that Stacey Abrams would be a better governor than Kemp.”
When Perdue got in the race last December, the governor was ready.
The months of work shoring up financial and institutional support for Kemp meant his campaign dwarfed Perdue’s in fundraising and allowed the governor to own the airwaves. He even used the Trump endorsement against Perdue, in one ad contrasting Perdue’s work as a corporate CEO (“sending jobs to China”) with video of Trump denouncing offshoring.
Trump’s own effort to boost Perdue was lackluster, with his outside group Save America transferring just a few million dollars to an anti-Kemp PAC. And after holding a rally in March for Perdue and other candidates on the “MAGA slate,” Trump avoided the state before the May 24 primary.
The result was unequivocal. Kemp won the primary with 74% of the vote. Despite the former president’s chosen Senate candidate, Herschel Walker, cruising to victory in his own primary, the Kemp win gave Trump his most humiliating primary defeat of the cycle by far, all without taking any shots at the man himself.
While the general election environment in 2022 looked favorable to the GOP in Georgia, Kemp still had the task of winning as a conservative Republican in a narrowly divided state. He ran on his record of economic development as well as his status as the first governor in the country to lift a stay-at-home order during the early days of the pandemic. But his stand against Trump also earned Kemp some credibility with swing voters and independents – hindering Abrams’ ability to cast him as out of the mainstream in Georgia.
“I think at the end of the day, even a lot of nontraditional Republican voters appreciated that I was standing up for them, even when it wasn’t politically the easiest thing to do,” Kemp told CNN.
In the end, the rematch against Abrams was hardly close. As of Thursday evening, Kemp was leading with 53%, and he had received more than 2 million votes – the first gubernatorial candidate in Georgia to do so. Meanwhile, the Trump-backed Walker ran several points behind Kemp and has been forced into a runoff against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. (Kemp’s campaign is teaming up with a super PAC aligned with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to help turn out the vote for Walker in the December 6 runoff.)
Kemp’s apparent resistance to the normal politics around Trump will likely make him a high-prized oracle for 2024 GOP hopefuls looking to take on the former president if he runs.
As one aide to a possible presidential candidate put it: “When Georgia has grown in the manner that it has and will probably have pretty outsized influence, I think that people are going to seek out Kemp.”