ATLANTA - As Republicans smarting from Herschel Walker's defeat in Georgia continue the process of assigning blame, one man seems to be conspicuously above reproach: Gov. Brian P. Kemp.
The state's Republican governor - once derided as an unhinged far-right disrupter following a series of wildly provocative 2018 campaign ads - has emerged in the aftermath of Tuesday's Senate runoff as one of his party's savvier political operators.
On Nov. 8, Kemp won reelection by a resounding eight-point margin - a remarkable transformation for a politician who went from being booed by conservatives at his own events in the May primary to defeating a national Democratic star, Stacey Abrams. His ability to deftly walk a fine line of providing just enough support to Walker without being damaged by his defeat was proof of Kemp's formidable political instincts, Republicans inside and outside the state said.
He has survived and even thrived in the face of Donald Trump's mercurial opposition. Kemp started out earning Trump's endorsement, then became the former president's political enemy, overcoming a primary challenge that Trump had orchestrated. Just before last month's general election, Trump suddenly switched gears and encouraged his followers to support the Georgia governor.
Kemp has helped create a template for Republicans, showing them how to use Trump's attacks to strengthen an independent political brand and not sacrifice support from the former president's loyal base. His navigation of the Republican Party's crosscurrents, along with an election performance that saw him outperform Trump in crucial suburban swing districts, has raised his national profile and heightened speculation about his future ambitions and a potential run for president in 2024.
"The ceiling is extremely high for Brian Kemp right now," said Stephen Lawson, a Georgia-based Republican strategist who ran a pro-Walker super PAC. "Whether that for him is the U.S. Senate in four years, whether that's potentially looking at '24 stuff or whether that's just being a really good governor and a voice for your party, he is going to have a huge platform moving forward."
Kemp, a former homebuilder from Athens, Georgia, has built his two-decade political career on a mix of luck, skill and occasional provocations - in one 2018 TV ad, he pointed a shotgun at an actor playing a suitor to one of his daughters. He speaks with a slow, deep Southern drawl that he sometimes plays up for the cameras, and as an alumnus of the University of Georgia, he has positioned himself as the fan-in-chief of its football team, which Walker helped lead to a national championship in 1980.
The governor's Democratic critics say that Kemp's allegiance to far-right orthodoxy has harmed the state. He signed a restrictive 2019 abortion law that effectively bans the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy and refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a decision that has caused the state to forgo billions of dollars in federal health care money.
Yet even his critics acknowledge his knack for presenting himself as an aw-shucks Georgian and making his case in small rural communities, handshake to handshake. In the eight years that he served as secretary of state, he built relationships with many of the local shot-callers - coroners, tax assessors, sheriffs - in Georgia's 159 counties. Those ties likely helped insulate him from Trump's attacks after the 2020 election among local Republican officials.
"His success now really is a result of all these touches over the years - that 'How's your mama? How's your daddy?' kind of thing," said state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat and vocal Kemp critic. Such a face-to-face style might work locally and statewide, Jordan said, but would not translate beyond that. "Is that something you can do at the national level, like running for president?" she added.
In a recent interview, Kemp touted his political style, saying it was exactly that kind of outreach and willingness to campaign, even among those who do not support him, that helped him win reelection. He offered his own analysis of the midterm contests, saying that candidates who offered proposals for the future were more successful than those who focused on Trump's obsession with the 2020 presidential campaign.
"People that were looking in the rearview mirror and the '20 cycle did not have a good night," Kemp said. "People that were looking forward and giving people a reason to vote for them, we had a good night."
Republicans "want to support somebody that can win," he said.
In Georgia's Senate race, Walker was a scandal-plagued and gaffe-prone candidate who had the blessing of Trump, who once vowed to pry Kemp from office because the governor had declined to help overturn Trump's 2020 defeat in the state.
But Walker, arguably the most revered football star in Georgia history, had also ignited Georgia's Trumpist grassroots, a constituency that overlaps with Kemp's. In the end, Kemp found a way to help Walker just enough to show he was a team player, but not so much for anyone to blame him for Walker's loss.
Kemp turned over elements of his campaign machine, including more than 200 paid staffers, to the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee aligned with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell that put them to work for Walker. During the runoff, Kemp cut one TV ad for the Senate Leadership Fund and appeared at one pro-Walker rally and one fundraiser.
The ad did not vouch for the character of Walker, who faced accusations of paying for ex-girlfriends' abortions and lying about key elements of his background. Rather, Kemp argued that a vote for Walker was a necessary strategic move. "Herschel Walker will vote for Georgia, not be another rubber stamp for Joe Biden," Kemp said in the Senate Leadership Fund ad.
The effort was enough to please powerful Georgia Republicans.
"Herschel Walker is this football hero we have that we have a great respect for, and I'm glad Brian made every effort to get Herschel elected," said Alec Poitevint, a longtime force in state politics and a former treasurer of the Republican National Committee.
Kemp was considered an underdog in the 2018 Republican primary for governor. His fortunes changed when recordings emerged of the front-runner, Casey Cagle, speaking about Republican primary voters in a way that Kemp claimed likened them to "a basket of deplorables," a phrase Hillary Clinton used in 2016 to describe half of Trump's supporters. In the general election that year, Kemp defeated Abrams, despite her fundraising prowess and emergence as a national celebrity.
His first four years in office were rife with challenges, including the racist murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, in south Georgia, which Kemp strongly condemned. Amid the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020, Kemp made Georgia one of the first states to reopen some businesses, a move that even Trump said was "too soon," but that Kemp defended on economic grounds.
After losing the 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden, Trump called the governor, asking him to convene a special session of Georgia's legislature to send pro-Trump electors to the Electoral College in place of the legitimate ones earned by Biden. Trump lost by just under 12,000 votes in the state. Kemp declined Trump's request.
Trump eventually endorsed a Republican primary challenger, David Perdue, to try to drive Kemp out of office. Kemp beat Perdue in a landslide, after a campaign in which Kemp sought to avoid talking about Trump and focused instead on his record.
In a high-profile rematch this year in November, Kemp again defeated Abrams, who struggled to convince enough voters that Kemp's anti-abortion and pro-gun policies were out of step in Georgia. Some Republicans believe that Trump's attacks on Kemp helped rehabilitate his image among moderate voters who may have been turned off by his 2018 run, when, in one ad, he said he might use his truck to round up and deport "criminal illegals."
At a meeting of Republican governors last month in Florida, Kemp was frequently mentioned as a potential presidential primary challenger to Trump, along with fellow governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, among others. Unlike DeSantis, who won reelection in a state that has become reliably Republican recently, Kemp notched a victory in an emerging swing state that attracted $1.4 billion in campaign spending on just four races over the past two years.
Last month, Kemp established a federal PAC that would allow him to influence races across the country and potentially set up his own federal run.
When asked whether he harbors 2024 ambitions, Kemp demurred: "I'm not focused on that right now. I'm trying to decompress from really quite a four-year fight."
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