Battleground: Ballot Box | Can Gov. Brian Kemp convince conservatives Trump is wrong?
On this week's episode, we follow Gov. Brian Kemp on the campaign trail as the Republican seeks to fend off a Trump-backed primary challenge while looking ahead to a tightly-contested general election against Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Primary election season is upon us, and for Republicans the stakes are high.
After losing the 2020 election - and continuing to falsely claim it was rigged - Donald Trump is also flexing his control over the GOP, endorsing a growing list of primary challengers seeking to unseat conservatives that didn’t overturn the election for him.
One of the states he remains most focused on is Georgia.
The former president has backed a number of candidates in an effort to remake the state in his image with a clean slate of elected officials, and Gov. Brian Kemp his primary target for defeat.
The intra-party GOP fight comes at a pivotal time - where Democrats are facing daunting odds in November but Georgia is quickly trending away from Republicans. And the country is closely divided on issues around race, education, voting and more.
This week, we follow Brian Kemp on the campaign trail in his quest to cement his conservative credentials in spite of Trump’s best efforts.
On a crowded Friday morning in February at a restaurant on the Gainesville square, coffee was on the menu, as well as a heaping helping of praise for Gov. Brian Kemp.
“Let me tell you a little bit about my governor," Rep. Emory Dunahoo (R-Gillsville) said. "Everything that he has promised, I've watched mature, I've watched come about.”
Dunahoo ticked through a veritable smorgasbord of Kemp’s accomplishments: a teacher pay raise, strict abortion legislation and a COVID-19 response that limited restrictions and focused on what the governor said is, “the lives and livelihoods of Georgians."
“And when he had to govern, that means he made decisions for the state of Georgia to not shut down the state," Dunahoo said. "I want to just tell you, I do appreciate that all the decisions that you make, there's always somebody shoveling something at you every time – and we'll say nice stuff like snow – but with that, you've done an outstanding job.”
Brian Kemp is in, shall we say, a 'unique' position.
He is Georgia’s first lifelong Republican to serve as governor since Reconstruction. He has outraged Democrats for his stances on things like voting rights, education, guns and health care – and championed conservative legislation on everything from abortion access to state spending. And he’s touted a never-ending stream of economic development announcements and a gangbusters economy.
But there’s still a chance he won’t be the Republican on the ballot in November.
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, with the encouragement of Trump, is running against Kemp and attacking him over his certification of the 2020 election results - which the governor was legally required to do. And now there’s a small, but vocal, segment of conservative voters in Georgia ready to replace the governor with someone else.
But on a campaign swing through northeast Georgia - one of the most conservative Congressional districts in the country - you’d never know the former president was leading a call to take Kemp down. Almost.
“You know, in this race, there's a lot of outside noise," Kemp said. "There are some people that are mad about some of the things that I've done, but they also should not be surprised because that's what I campaigned on, and that's what I will continue to do as your governor.”
If the governor is mad at Trump or Perdue, you would never know it, but there was a sense of defiant vindication in his voice as Kemp made these campaign stops where he addressed large crowds of enthusiastic supporters.
“There's a lot of supporters that are diehard Trump supporters that are diehard Kemp supporters, and those are the people we're talking to every day, the people that are upset about things," Kemp said. "You know, there's a lot of people that are running for governor that aren't answering questions. We're not scared of that. We embrace that. That's how people really learn about what the truth is and how hard I've been fighting for them.”
But the governor continues to face withering attacks from Trump and his right flank, and he’s also been a constant target of Democrats seeking to win control of a state that has become demographically diverse and politically purple in recent years.
But in places like Cleveland, Toccoa and Clayton, he was among friends with a parade of local officials and regular voters singing Kemp’s praises.
Over a boxed lunch in Cornelia, where former Gov. Nathan Deal made an appearance, Charles and Laura Rilling remarked they like the governor’s demeanor.
“In my mind Kemp is not really a good politician: he’s quiet and rather unassuming and not boastful, like a lot of the others are," Charles said. "And plus, like he said, he's stood the trial of fire."
Laura added: “What I've noticed is he is not afraid to make the hard decision, and once he has made the hard decision, he will stand by it, whether it's popular or not.”
Kemp has made a lot of decisions recently, some more popular than others.
He signed a sweeping 98-page election law that’s being challenged in court and tightens absentee voting rules. He’s also made numerous and sometimes controversial appointments, like Andrew Pinson named to succeed Justice David Nahmias just days after Nahmias announced he would step down in July from the State Supreme Court and Board of Regents members that paved the way for former Governor Sonny Perdue to become Chancellor of Georgia’s public university system.
He’s backed expanded gun rights, decried so-called “critical race theory” in classrooms (even though it’s not taught in Georgia) and fought the Biden administration’s rules to deal with the pandemic particularly when it comes to mandatory vaccines and masking.
If you look closely, you can see a governor flexing the strength of his office – either to decisively remind primary voters of his influence or, perhaps, to enshrine conservative power that a Democratic victory in November could not easily undo.
Throughout the nine-hour, five county day, time and time again, Republican voters said Kemp’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the strongest reasons he has their support.
At Junior’s Bar and Grill in Toccoa, which opened right before the pandemic, owner Steve Black said Kemp's leadership made it possible for him to succeed.
“Being in the restaurant industry, I watched all the other states shut down and he got us back open as quick as possible," he said. "A lot of restaurants didn't survive in other states and and because of his efforts here, it really made me where I could be successful.”
Frank Lastra in Clayton had similar thoughts.
“I liked that he kept the schools open, I liked that he was able to open up the state as quickly as possible after COVID," he said. "I like that he just stands for traditional values for Georgia and that he's been supporting a lot of the rural communities. You know, small towns need the assistance.”
The governor has made investing in rural Georgia a priority, something Lastra and others said does not go unnoticed when he takes the time to visit places outside of Atlanta.
And if David Perdue really wants to be governor, John Ford in Cleveland says he can wait his turn.
“For me, it's very simple: We have a governor, he's the incumbent," Ford said. "He is overseeing still the number one state in the nation for business. He's led us through the pandemic, making tough choices. I believe that he is a conservative as far as I am, and he has steadied the ship and for me, it's very simple. Perdue had a race. He ran his race. He lost his race. And David Perdue is out of his lane. He needs to wait four years.”
As for the Trump endorsement of Perdue? Most voters I spoke with at the campaign stops said the former president was misguided or misinformed.
“While I voted for President Trump twice, I do not feel he is keeping the best interest of Georgians at heart," Ford said.
Brian Kemp hasn’t always been the favored candidate, stretching back to his first run for state Senate when he narrowly beat a Democratic incumbent. Now, even though he’s the most powerful politician in Georgia, some are still counting him out.
At the end of that night, I asked the governor if he felt some Republicans in Georgia weren’t giving him enough credit for the conservative policies he’s championed in a state that could in theory go to Democrats soon.
“I think the people understand what kind of job I've done," he said. "I'm running like an underdog, but I don't feel like one. We've got tremendous support around the state, the first campaign of any of them out there to be organized and all 159 counties.”
That type of local support matters when you’re running a campaign, even when facing a primary opponent backed by the ostensible leader of the party.
"It matters when you have people that are teaching in our classrooms and small business owners like the restaurant owner that are here because they remember me opening the state back up and fighting for them," Kemp added. "And now they're going to be fighting for me."
So between now and the May primary, expect to see Brian Kemp the campaigner dialed up to 11 to show conservative voters he’s still the boss.
But every action to win the GOP primary now could make a rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams a little bit tougher, and it remains to be seen if Kemp’s visibility and efforts will be enough to convince a majority of voters in this battleground state that he should keep his job.
Battleground: Ballot Box from Georgia Public Broadcasting is produced by Stephen Fowler with Jess Mador, our editor is Josephine Bennett. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger, who also wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.