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Why Trump is struggling to take down Georgia’s Brian Kemp

The power of a Trump endorsement has limits against the incumbent Republican governor.

Gov. Brian Kemp greets attendees at a campaign event on May 17 in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp hopes to become the next prominent Republican to show that GOP candidates don’t necessarily need former President Donald Trump’s help to win their primaries.

Some Trump-backed candidates — including Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin in Idaho, and businessman Charles Herbster in Nebraska — have already suffered primary losses. Kemp’s strategy of limiting the impact national issues have on Georgia’s gubernatorial primary may see Trump’s pick in that race, former Sen. David Perdue, losing as well.

Thus far, the strategy seems to be working: Kemp has widened his polling lead to nearly 25 percentage points over Perdue, on average. Even Trump seems to have given up on Perdue: NBC reported that the former president is dissatisfied with Perdue’s performance and isn’t planning to make any more campaign appearances on his behalf.

Throughout the race, Kemp has focused on his record in office and refrained from mentioning Trump much, all while also seeking to placate the GOP base with red meat. Perdue, on the other hand, has attempted to put Trump’s lies about the 2020 election at the center of his campaign, accusing Kemp of failing to investigate false claims of widespread voter fraud. But Kemp, who became the target of Trump’s ire when he certified the results of the 2020 election, is a rare brand of Republican who hasn’t staked his candidacy on fealty to the former president.

Kemp’s success has been seen as an indicator of the limits of Trump’s power within the GOP. But it might also be a testament to his popularity in the purple state: Half of Georgia voters, including 76 percent of Republicans, think he’s done a good job, and he’s outperforming the Democrats’ gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in the polls. In that sense, he’s operating from a position of strength to fend off a Trumpian challenger, but because of that, his strategy might not be repeatable for every Republican incumbent facing a Trump-backed challenger in 2022.

Kemp is a popular governor and proven winner

Kemp has leaned on his record — and that’s been to his advantage given that most Georgians view him favorably. Even former Vice President Mike Pence endorsed Kemp over Perdue in direct defiance of Trump.

How Kemp handled the pandemic played no small part in that perception. Republicans have credited him with the state’s strong economy because he allowed businesses to reopen as early as April 2020, shortly after the pandemic was declared. As of April, Georgia’s unemployment rate was lower than many other states and its GDP growth was also well above the national average.

“I think the governor, as far as Republican voters go, has a very solid track record,” said Fred Hicks, a Georgia-based political consultant for both parties. “He led the state through the pandemic, the economy is roaring, people are back at work ... Perdue has really failed to articulate why Kemp should be fired and he should be hired for the position.”

Kemp also made overtures to the Republican base during the 2021 and 2022 sessions of the Georgia legislature, focusing on key GOP priorities in anticipation of a midterm challenge from his right.

Last year, he signed into law sweeping new restrictions on voting including limitations on mail-in voting, stricter ID requirements, a ban on providing food and water to voters standing in line, and measures that would transfer power from state and local election officials to legislators. In April, he signed a bill that allows Georgians to carry a concealed handgun in public without a license. He’s also supported legislation to ban the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 classrooms, to create what he has called a “parental bill of rights” to exert more control over curriculum, and to bar trans athletes from school sports. Bills on those topics have passed at least one chamber of the state legislature and are expected to eventually become law.

Kemp is also well-positioned to deliver on his promises to Republicans on abortion. A law Kemp signed in 2019 that bans abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected — typically around six weeks of pregnancy and before most people even know they are pregnant — was blocked by a federal appeals court, but could also soon go into effect if the US Supreme Court strikes down Roe v. Wade as it’s expected to.

“Brian Kemp understands that his audience is the entire Republican electorate. And I think that his strategy has been successful because he has not been stuck on one particular issue. He’s looking ahead,” said Julianne Thompson, a GOP strategist in Georgia.

Beyond his policy achievements, Kemp has emphasized that he’s a proven winner. Georgia Republicans are worried about a repeat of the last election cycle, when Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock both pulled off surprise victories, giving Democrats effective control of the Senate. Kemp has been reminding them that he already beat Abrams once and could do it again.

“If you nominate me, I will work every single day to make sure that Stacey Abrams is not your governor or your next president. I have the record to do that. We will save this state from Stacey Abrams,” Kemp said during an April 24 primary debate.

Kemp has intentionally avoided the subject of Trump

Perdue has sought to make the primary a test of loyalties to Trump. He has said that, unlike Kemp, he wouldn’t have certified the results of the 2020 election. He even filed a lawsuit calling for a “forensic inspection” of 2020 absentee ballots in Georgia, arguing that fraud cost him reelection and Trump the state. A Fulton County judge dismissed those claims as based on “conjecture and paranoia” earlier this month.

“The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen,” Perdue said during the April debate. “All the madness we see today ... all that started right here in Georgia when our governor caved and allowed radical Democrats to steal our elections.”

Kemp has largely refused to engage, towing a fine line to avoid offending the GOP’s core base of activists. He hasn’t outright criticized the former president or really talked about him much at all. He has urged the party not to look in the “rearview mirror” and relitigate the 2020 election all over again. When asked at the April debate what wing of the party he belonged to — the Trump wing or the establishment wing — Kemp said, “I belong to the wing of the voters.”

“Kemp never trashes Trump, no matter what the [former] president says about him,” said Jay Williams, a GOP strategist in Georgia. “His secret sauce is to just stay focused on your race and your accomplishments and don’t make it about Trump.”

Kemp’s success can only tell us so much about Trump as a kingmaker

The Georgia primaries have been framed as a highly anticipated test of Trump’s clout in the Republican party.

But it’s not clear just how much we can really learn about Trump’s influence from the outcome of Kemp’s matchup against Perdue. For one, it’s difficult to take down an incumbent, no matter who the challenger is. History has shown that governors in particular rarely lose reelection.

Trump’s endorsement might also be more effective in a crowded GOP primary: Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance, for instance, was at the bottom of the polls in his seven-way race in Ohio until Trump endorsed him, propelling him to win the GOP nomination for US Senate. In that case, the endorsement helped voters differentiate among a slate of little-known candidates.

But in places like Georgia, where it’s a two-way race in which one candidate is well-known and incredibly liked, Trump’s backing might not pack as much punch. Most Republican primary voters in Georgia say that a Trump endorsement either doesn’t make a difference in their decision of who to vote for or it makes them even less likely to vote for that candidate.

“Trump definitely has juice. It just matters where he decides to deploy it and who he deploys it against,” Williams said. “In my opinion, you can’t learn a lot from [what happens in Georgia.]”

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