Donald Trump is escalating his fight against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, and state Republicans fear it will give Democrats a stronger foothold in the key swing state as next year’s midterm elections loom.
The former President’s criticism of Kemp now includes hyping Democrat Stacey Abrams as a preferable alternative to the GOP governor, whose crime against Trump was staying out of his attempt to overturn the Georgia 2020 election returns.
“Having her, I think, might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know what I think,” Trump said Saturday at his rally in Perry, adding later, “Stacey, would you like to take his place? It’s OK with me.”
Party leaders worry a divided Georgia GOP next year could hand Democrats the governor’s mansion and help them keep a Senate seat in a year when Republicans should do well. And the former President’s quasi-endorsement of Abrams reveals the diffidence among party leaders about how to proceed.
“I think the most notable part is the quiet of everyone in the GOP in Georgia,” said Erick Erickson, an Atlanta-based talk radio host. “No one agrees with him. No one is endorsing it. But no one is vocally pushing back, either.”
At the same time, the battle in Georgia reveals the larger war for the party’s future and what role Trump occupies in it.
The former President is doing his part to try to shape this future in his own image in Georgia. He has endorsed a slate of Republican candidates for statewide office in competitive primaries. Several of these attended his rally in Perry last weekend, including Herschel Walker for US Senate, Burt Jones for lieutenant governor and Jody Hice for secretary of state.
“I do not see how the governor can unite the party without reconciling with the former President,” said one longtime Georgia Republican operative. “This is not a question of fairness. It is a question of reality. Kemp needs the party united in 2022.”
But other Republicans in Georgia say demanding total loyalty is a risky proposition for a decidedly purple state that Trump lost in 2020. And the stakes for the GOP are high, with the US Senate race in Georgia potentially determining which party holds the majority after next fall’s midterms.
“Trump could prevent Republicans in Georgia from riding a massive anti-Biden wave that could put them almost where they were pre-Trump,” said a second Republican operative from Georgia.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican and vocal critic of Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, wrote in a CNN op-ed last week that Trump threatens to “hijack our great state for his own selfish agenda.”
“It might make for good theater, but it is setting back the conservative movement. If we keep it up, we are looking at another four years of President Biden calling the shots,” Duncan wrote.
But despite Trump’s loss in Georgia last year, he remains a popular figure among the Republican base in the state. Candidates get nowhere with their own voters by taking Trump on directly.
“What they don’t put up with is you attacking him, because then it is Trump and them against you. They see themselves as Trump’s people, Trump’s followers, Trump’s defenders,” said a senior GOP official who is loyal to Kemp. “As long as you don’t make him the victim … that’s the only needle to thread.”
So far, neither Kemp nor his campaign has responded publicly to Trump’s taunts. His office declined to comment for this story.
‘He will not back down’
Kemp’s troubles with Trump began when he told state lawmakers last December that he had no power to change the slate of electors from Georgia, and he has consistently kept to that message in public since then.
For taking that position, Kemp has been lambasted by Trump, who on Saturday called him a “RINO” and a “complete and total disaster on election integrity.”
But Georgia Republicans say the 57-year-old governor is not likely to acquiesce to Trump’s false claim that he won the 2020 election.
“Kemp is a lot of things, but he’s no wuss,” said one Georgia Republican strategist who does not work for the governor or his campaign. “And he will not back down. And I think Trump has only seen that a handful of times during his presidency. This is just alpha-on-alpha.”
Trump’s aversion to Kemp is a stunning reversal of their relationship. Until the 2020 election, the first-term Republican governor was a model Trump Republican.
In 2018, amid a divided primary in the governor’s race, Trump threw his support to Kemp, then Georgia’s secretary of state. By running to the right, Kemp won the primary runoff against the more establishment-friendly then-lieutenant governor, Casey Cagle.
Kemp’s approach in the general election looked remarkably like Trump’s: maximizing turnout of rural White voters to add to the traditional Republican coalition. In the closing days of the race, Kemp appeared at a Trump rally in Macon, where the then-President urged Georgians to vote for Kemp in order to “make America great again.”
But the 2018 result was one of the closest gubernatorial races in Georgia in decades, with Kemp edging out Abrams by fewer than 55,000 votes – a worrying sign for Republicans that their decade-and-a-half of dominance in the state was in danger.
A Black former state legislator, Abrams improved on the previous Democratic nominee in metro Atlanta. Her wins in the populous suburban counties of Cobb and Gwinnett were the first signs that the new swing voters were souring on Trump and the GOP. Two years later, Joe Biden would win those onetime Republican strongholds by even wider margins.
It’s the GOP’s precarious position that has some wondering if Trump has overplayed his hand by all but endorsing the previous Democratic nominee.
“It caused a pretty big credibility problem,” said a second Republican strategist in Georgia. “It just makes it look like Trump puts Trump well ahead of Georgia.”
Although Abrams has not said if she will run for governor again in 2022, Republicans say it’s hard to see how their voters will be swayed to vote for her because of Trump’s enmity toward Kemp.
“It’s not a good thing, but I think the base will largely ignore it,” said Erickson. “They don’t want Stacey.”