After Being Attacked by Trump, Georgia’s Republican Governor Tries Balancing Act

Brian Kemp, the bane of #MAGA Republicans, uses his big, state-of-the-state speech to find a way forward.

For all three of his State of the State addresses, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has opened with the same Biblical allegory about a wise man who builds his house on a strong foundation to weather epic storms. He uses it as a parable for his legislative work as the Republican leader of the 8th most populous state

But after the tumult of this year, Kemp’s foundation has been ripped up and blown away–first by a pandemic and then by the unprecedented attacks from President Trump who called for his defeat in 2022 and labeled him “corrupt” for not fighting the state’s certification of Joe Biden’s Georgia win. Kemp’s governorship and standing within the GOP has been profoundly shaken. Democrats’ victories in Georgia’s presidential balloting and Senate races bode ill for the 57-year-old’s re-election hopes in 2022. With the animus of so many Trump conservatives who’ve turned against him, he may even face a stiff primary challenge.

It’s a long way from 2018 when Kemp, then Georgia’s Secretary of State, won the GOP nomination for governor by running to the right and securing President Trump’s endorsement during the primary. His most famous campaign ad featured him with a chainsaw ready to buzz through government regulations along with his pickup, which he said stood ready to round up illegal immigrants. Aside from the theatrics, Democrats charged that Kemp won unfairly against their nominee, Stacey Abrams, by using his power as Secretary of State to purge African-American voters from the rolls. Former President Jimmy Carter, perhaps the most famous Georgian, was among the Democrats demanding that Kemp resign as Secretary of State while running for governor. Kemp refused. In office, he’s been solidly conservative. For instance, he signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.

Kemp’s State of the State address back in 2020 reflected the pre-pandemic economic optimism that many governors, Republican and Democrat, had touted. (The national unemployment rate was just 3.6 percent a year ago and 3.1 percent in Georgia.) 

“When I travel across this great state, I always say to everyone it’s a great time to be in Georgia, wouldn’t you agree?” Kemp said a year ago, “We have the lowest unemployment rate in the state’s history and have added 64,000 new private-sector jobs. Our state is the number one state for business.” 

This year, Kemp largely dedicated his speech, which he gave on Thursday, to applauding Georgia’s medical professionals and frontline workers. 

“Our frontline healthcare workers have faced hell on earth. They’ve been working multiple shifts under brutal conditions for months now,” Kemp said. “It’s never been clearer how important their jobs are and how vital they are to keeping our state healthy and prosperous.” 

Kemp made no mention of Trump or the now-infamous leaked phone call Trump made to Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, asking him to find enough votes to overturn the state’s election. The closest Kemp came to addressing the elephant in the room was condemning  the “harmful conspiracy theories and lawlessness.” Yet notably, he didn’t assign any partisan blame to the amplifying of those conspiracies. He eschewed voting issues like Raffensperger’s push to end no-excuse absentee balloting, a move opposed by Democrats, and received frostily by the powerful GOP House Speaker, David Ralston.

Instead, Kemp stuck to ridiculing the coastal elites in “California and New York” for criticizing his controversial move back in April to end the state shutdown even as COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing. He lauded the struggling small businesses and farmers hampered by new pandemic rules or “regulations,” as Kemp deemed them. 

After the mob violence at the U.S. Capitol this month, which was followed by another Trump impeachment last week, many Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell, have distanced themselves from the President. Kemp’s speech was a far less forceful condemnation and largely stuck to local in-state issues, avoiding national politics altogether. His State of the State can be seen as a pivot back to the most potent weapon in the GOP’s arsenal: rural America’s resentment of cities. 

Kemp touted the job creation he’s brought to rural areas and touted an economic recovery in Georgia powered, he said, by broadband access to rural communities. He highlighted the need for economic growth outside of Atlanta and made several jabs at the urban professional class whose livelihoods aren’t threatened by shutdowns and can more easily work from home.  

In a notable departure from his 2018 right-wing campaign against Abrams, Kemp waxed moderate–lauding the peaceful protests this past summer that erupted nationwide over police violence. Kemp, a 2nd Amendment champion, also promised to reform the state’s citizen arrest statute that was implicated in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, although he followed this up with a call to “always back the blue.” 

Kemp’s calculation seems to be that his re-election effort will be best served by distancing but not out-right disavowing the outgoing President despite Trump’s attacks on democracy–and even himself.

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Luke Goldstein

Luke Goldstein is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly and a recent graduate from Wesleyan University.