2022 midterms

Brian Kemp May Be Outfoxing Donald Trump

Brian Kemp has saluted Trump just enough to neutralize purge threats, so far at least. Photo: Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock

There are two very evident dimensions of the 45th president’s 2020 vengeance crusade. First, he has been impressively successful in getting a solid majority of Republican elected officials and rank-and-file activists alike to buy into, or at least refuse to contradict, his big-ass lie about having actually won — nay swept — the 2020 presidential election. Second, he and his bravos really want to draw blood from the Republican elected officials he blames for undermining his efforts to reverse the results before they were confirmed by Congress on January 6. Chief among them were Georgia secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who certified Biden’s victory in the Peach State, and Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who ratified this certification.

At this point, Raffensperger’s hash looks pretty much settled. The defiant election administrator was recently censured by a state GOP convention for his sins against Trump. Before that, he suffered the ignominy of having some of his powers rescinded in the GOP voter-suppression legislation he otherwise supported. And most importantly, Trump succeeded in convincing Jody Hice to give up a safe seat in the U.S. House to take on Raffensperger in a 2022 primary. The incumbent also faces a challenge from the candidate he narrowly defeated in the 2018 Republican primary. And he cannot win with a plurality by splitting the MAGA vote thanks to Georgia’s majority-vote requirements for both primaries and general elections; odds now are that Raffensperger won’t even make the runoff if there is one.

Brian Kemp, though, is another matter entirely.

You have to appreciate that Trump’s beef with Kemp didn’t start in late 2020. The Georgian managed to annoy his president by failing to follow his erratic lead on reopening businesses in April of 2020. Before that, in late 2019, Kemp refused to take Trump’s advice on an appointee to an open U.S. Senate seat. Clearly Trump considered these acts of ingratitude, certain as he was that his endorsement of Kemp before a 2018 Republican gubernatorial runoff was the only reason the governor was the governor.

But Trump is struggling to get someone formidable to run against Kemp in the 2022 Republican primary. Yes, the suddenly Trump-y former Democrat Vernon Jones is in the race, with the former president’s blessing (if not his endorsement, so far). But putting aside the issues with Trump, Kemp is a whole lot closer to the Georgia GOP’s idea of a governor than a Black ex-Democrat who was pro-choice not long ago and has quite a bit of baggage (including a rape allegation he refuted by claiming a consensus three-way sexual encounter). The incumbent made a lot of MAGA hay signing and then defending the recent voter suppression law, and generally returning to the “owning the libs” demeanor he displayed when running as a “politically incorrect conservative” in 2018. At the same state GOP convention that censured Raffensperger, Kemp was met by some boos, but some cheers, too, and no one even proposed any sanction of him for letting down Trump in the election.

With time running down before the 2022 cycle gets fully underway, Trump has to be frustrated with the potentially strong challengers to Kemp who have failed to take up his offer of support He was promoting former congressman Doug Collins as a Kemp-beater back in December. But Collins, reportedly exhausted from his unsuccessful 2020 Senate race (he finished third in the special election field to finish Johnny Isakson’s term, behind Loeffler and the eventual winner Raphael Warnock), chose to announce he wouldn’t be running for any office in 2022.

Now CNN reports another misfire by Trump in Georgia:

In early May at Mar-a-Lago, Trump met with Georgia state Sen. Burt Jones and Jones’ father, a wealthy pro-Trump donor, and said he wanted the younger Jones to run for governor against Brian Kemp in the Republican primary. With the former President’s backing, Jones could knock off the first-term governor, one of Trump’s top political targets.

But by the end of the meeting, Jones made it known to Trump he was unsure about taking on Kemp and that he preferred to run for lieutenant governor, according to four people familiar with the meeting.

Jones’s logic is impeccable. He would instantly be the front-runner for the open Republican lieutenant-governor nomination (incumbent Geoff Duncan, another GOP elected official who refused to accept Trump’s 2020 big lie, isn’t even bothering to run for reelection), and then, assuming he won the general election, would be in the catbird seat for 2026, when Kemp, if he survives, would be term-limited. And even with Trump’s backing, taking on an incumbent governor in a primary would be tough sledding at best. But what does Donald Trump care about Jones’s long-term career strategy? He wants Brian Kemp punished now.

Nor are Trump’s 2022 stumbles in Georgia limited to the governorship. He very publicly encouraged University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker (a friend of Trump’s dating back to Walker’s days playing for a pro football franchise owned by the mogul) to run against Raphael Warnock when the Democrat pursues a full Senate term next year. Trump’s move all but froze the field as other Republicans waited to see what “Herschel,” as he is universally known in Georgia, would do. But Walker, who currently lives in Texas, is taking his time as Warnock happily raises money, and Republicans could have to scramble for a candidate if the former Heisman Trophy winner ultimately gives the race a pass.

For all his power within the GOP, Trump does not have a perfect record as a kingmaker. In deep-red and very Trump-y Alabama in 2017 in the special election created when Jeff Sessions (briefly) became attorney general, the president endorsed the appointed senator Luther Strange in the GOP primary and a runoff, and then endorsed the wild man who beat Strange, Judge Roy Moore, in the general election. He went zero-for-three.

As for Kemp, even if he outfoxes Trump and avoids a serious primary challenge, he will still have a tough general election ahead of him, probably against the woman he barely defeated (after purging quite a few of her voters from the rolls), Stacey Abrams. All the steps he takes, moreover, to convince MAGA voters that he is as savagely reactionary as ever will probably eliminate any credit swing voters might otherwise give him for independence from Trump. But I’m sure Kemp is living one day at a time politically, and so far he’s surviving.

Brian Kemp May Be Outfoxing Donald Trump