Bookman: Brian Kemp’s brand of Republican no longer plays on national stage

Mike Pence and Brian Kemp onstage “I can honestly say I was for Brian Kemp before it was cool,” former Vice President Mike Pence said during a campaign stop in Cumming – a reference to his support for Kemp back in the 2018 primary election. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

by Jay Bookman, Georgia Recorder [This opinion article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
November 3, 2022

Time and again on the campaign trail, Gov. Brian Kemp has made it clear that he sees his mission as two-fold, “to make sure Stacey Abrams ain’t gonna be our governor — or the next president.”

It’s an effective bit of rhetoric, testament to the Republicans’ strategy of treating Abrams not as another state-level politician but as someone to be feared on the national level, someone who embodies all the anxieties, suspicions and resentments that animate the GOP base. Kemp is warning Georgia voters that if they don’t dash her ambitions now, at the state level, she’s going to use her success to vault herself right into the White House. Stopping her has become, in their eyes, an act of patriotism.

But what about Kemp’s own presidential ambitions?

I’m not saying that he has any. Unlike Abrams, the disciplined Kemp hasn’t shown the slightest public hint that such thoughts have crossed his mind. But let’s say the polls are right and that Kemp rolls to a relatively easy victory next week. Under normal political conditions, the governor of a crucial swing state such as Georgia who manages to defeat a nationally known political figure in not one but two consecutive elections – well, presidential ambitions have been launched on much less than that.

The problem is that these are not normal political conditions. This is the Age of Trump, and as we know, Donald Trump despises Kemp for not joining his conspiracy to void the 2020 election and stay in power. So even if Trump himself is not the 2024 nominee, he would have a lot to say about who is, and he’ll do everything he can to ensure it isn’t that traitor from Georgia.

Nonetheless, others have dared to wonder. Even Newsmax, a media outlet that built its business model around support for Donald Trump, allowed a writer to muse this week that “If Kemp wins, he could be the possible avenue for a post-Trump era, at least within the Republican Party.”

Again, Kemp himself has studiously avoided engaging with such suggestions, particularly anything involving a “post-Trump era.” But if you watch what people do, instead of what they say, a slightly different picture comes into focus.

This week, for example, Kemp invited former Vice President Mike Pence to campaign with him around Georgia, a subtle signal which I’m sure did not go unnoticed down in Mar-a-Lago. Others slated to join Kemp on the campaign trail in the last days before the election include Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who, like Kemp, enraged Trump in 2020 by refusing his demands to overturn election results in his state. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has recently made Trump a target of a series of slashing attacks on his character and intellect, is also on the Kemp schedule.

Trump, on the other hand, isn’t coming to campaign in Georgia. Neither is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another popular figure in GOP circles. It’s true that DeSantis is running a re-election campaign of his own, but he has felt comfortable enough about his prospects to leave the state and make appearances in support of Doug Mastriano, running for governor in Pennsylvania; Kari Lake, running for governor in Arizona; and JD Vance, running for Senate in Ohio.

But Republicans in neighboring Georgia apparently aren’t that interested.
Jonathan Last, writing in The Bulwark, a conservative but anti-Trump web magazine, puts it this way:

“Brian Kemp offers a return to something that looks like normal Republicanism. Yes, there’s some performative stuff, like the election reform law. But he’s of the same species as Mitt Romney. He is a recognizable pre-Trump Republican, from the Before Times.”

And if the Romney reference doesn’t give it away, Last makes it clear that Kemp is dead in the water in national GOP politics, because in his view “there is no going back. Because even the Republicans who pretend not to like Trump don’t want to.”

From a Georgia perspective, likening Kemp to Romney is a little much. But he’s trying to survive as a Republican governor in a purple state, and the shadings of rhetoric and policy, the avoidance of overt craziness, that might make that possible are not what titillates the national GOP base grown ravenous on endless servings of red meat.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.