early and often

Brian Kemp for President Makes a Lot of Sense

Kemp was a world-beater in 2022. Photo: Dustin Chambers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There are two competing feelings you get from listening to Republican insiders talk about their presidential options for 2024. On the one hand, a lot of them really want Donald Trump to go away. They think he’s a loser who is divisive, dangerously erratic, and wildly narcissistic, and that they don’t need him in order to run a nasty backlash campaign based on culture-war grievances and economic dissatisfaction. They’ve learned what they can from the 45th president and are ready for him to turn the MAGA mantle over to someone younger and less repellent to voters outside the party base.

But at the same time, these would-be post-Trump Republicans remain terrified of him. That’s made evident by the reluctance of potential 2024 GOP rivals to actually run against Trump. Like a wounded animal or a dictator late in a losing war, he’s more dangerous now than ever. And so they keep looking for a champion willing to dispose of Trump while retaining the allegiance of his fans. RINOs like Liz Cheney and Larry Hogan don’t pass the laugh test. And while many Trump critics hope Ron DeSantis is the man for the messy but essential task of extricating them from their marriage of convenience to the ex-president, he’s an untested proposition outside his home state.

Inevitably some attention will be paid to the one Republican pol who as recently as last May took on Trump and handed his ass to him, and then soundly defeated one of the most heralded Democratic candidates in the country: Georgia’s second-term governor, Brian Kemp. And as Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter observes, the logic for considering him a 2024 dark horse is compelling:

The best place to be at this point is under the radar but also in the public eye. When the others wilt, wobble, or whiff, this person looks like an attractive alternative.

That’s why I’m watching Gov. Brian Kemp very closely these days. In a recent column about Kemp’s wooing of electric car battery manufacturing to the state, Politico’s Alex Burns writes that “[w]hile national Republicans are bereft of a positive vision — still reeling from the chaos of the Trump presidency and the misery of a disappointing midterm election — Kemp is a rare actor in his party trying something shrewd and new.” Burns argues, and I agree, that Kemp is “the most resilient conservative politician of the Trump era, with a gift for finding a solid spot on shifting ground and fixing himself there.”

As a longtime participant in and observer of politics in Georgia, it pains me to agree. Kemp has a smug, calculating, and just plain mean air about him that evokes a small-town banker cheerfully foreclosing your home or a smarmy, overgrown frat boy engaged in strip-mall development. But like him or not, the man’s political performance in 2022 was simply dazzling. Kemp painted a bull’s-eye on himself with various slights to Trump over the previous several years (ranging from rejecting his advice on filling a Senate seat, to ending COVID restrictions on businesses before Trump gave the high sign, to the supreme transgression of refusing to help Trump steal Georgia’s 2020 electoral votes). So naturally a lot of people thought Kemp was doomed to defeat once the former president recruited well-regarded former U.S. senator David Perdue to take him down. Instead, Kemp cleaned Perdue’s clock, as he and his Trump-defying sidekick and successor as secretary of state Brad Raffensperger routed Team Trump challengers without the inconvenience of a runoff.

And then, for dessert, Kemp significantly improved on his 2018 performance against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who in the intervening four years had become a global celebrity, a fundraising behemoth, and in the eyes of her many fans, a future president. Even as he covered his right flank with a harsh abortion law and an election bill hostile to voting rights, Kemp skillfully used a state-budget surplus to buy swing votes via tax cuts, education funding, a gasoline tax suspension, and even a narrow expansion of Medicaid coverage (paired with a work requirement), among other goodies. As Walter notes, Kemp is beginning his second term with more popularity than he’s ever commanded, with a recent poll giving him an approval rating of a “whopping 62 percent, including 34 percent approval from Democrats and 49 percent among independents.”

Is Kemp acceptable to the MAGA movement? With some minor adjustments in messaging, quite probably he is. His 2018 campaign (which attracted Trump’s endorsement, of course) was a savage exercise in culture-war excess; he called himself a “politically incorrect conservative” and promised to round up “criminal illegals” in his own pickup truck. He seems able to turn the hate on and off at will.

It’s unclear Kemp would really be interested in running for president. He cannot run for a third term in 2026. While some Republicans would love for him to run against Democratic freshman senator Jon Ossoff then, Kemp seems like a poor match for a federal legislative gig; he has an executive’s self-confidence, and even his critics will grudgingly admit he’s a competent administrator. He’s also next door to one early-primary state (South Carolina), and his own state might move up on the calendar as well.

Personally, I wouldn’t trust Kemp to row me across a river unharmed, but I would trust him to execute my will after drowning me. And he’s not even a lawyer. Given the unsavory choices Republicans have in 2024, they could do worse than to consider nominating a competent jerk with world-class political chops.

Brian Kemp for President Makes a Lot of Sense