Brian Kemp’s Quiet Campaign to Make Donald Trump Irrelevant

Last week, Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, was in suburban Atlanta, campaigning for the Republican Governor Brian Kemp, seeming a little exasperated with Donald Trump. Christie has been a central figure in American politics for more than a decade, and he still carries himself exactly the same way: the belt cinched tightly above the belly button, the determined stride, the slow metronomic nod as he listens, and the cadenced speech that gives the impression of a shortening fuse. But the meaning of his appearances has changed with time. Near Kemp’s campaign bus, a small cluster of reporters arranged itself around Christie. “What the Republican Party is gonna be deciding over the next couple of months is: are we gonna be the party of ‘me’ or are we going to be the party of ‘us’?” Christie said. “Because if we’re going to be the party of ‘me,’ people aren’t going to vote for that kind of party.”

Everyone knew exactly whom Christie was talking about. Ever since the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, when Kemp and other statewide Republican officials in Georgia refused to entertain overturning the results and gifting the state’s electoral votes to Trump—as Trump was pressuring them to do, publicly and privately—this state has been a fixation for the former President. Trump has staged rallies here, denounced Kemp and his allies, and backed a prominent loyalist, former Senator David Perdue, to challenge the Georgia governor in the Republican primary. This sort of antagonism and attention from Trump, among a Republican electorate still largely beholden to him, was supposed to spell political death for any member of the Party who got in his way. But in the most recent public polls Kemp has led Perdue by an average of twenty-five points. Trump had tried to make the governor’s race about himself, and Kemp was on the verge of a resounding victory.

In other races in Georgia this year, Trump’s influence has been stronger. In the Republican primary for secretary of state, a Trump-backed challenger looks competitive against the incumbent, Brad Raffensperger, who had resisted explicit entreaties from Trump “to find 11,780 votes,” one more than Joe Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia. Herschel Walker, a former professional football player and a Trump favorite, is running away with the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. But, on Tuesday, there is a strong chance that Kemp will get fifty per cent of the vote, avoid a runoff, and move on to the general election, where he will face a rematch with Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate whom he beat in the 2018 gubernatorial race. The bigger question is how he has managed to do it.

At one campaign stop last week, Kemp and Christie visited a microbrewery in a pricey new commercial development in the north Atlanta suburb of Canton. Kemp, “a former home builder with vast political ambitions,” as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution political writer Greg Bluestein once put it, is short and trim, with a relaxed, jokey manner and the kind of Southern accent in which words like “poetic” and “cosmetologist” become winding adventures. He had a closing bit in which he would mention that his campaign bus had been “spittin’ and sputterin’ ” and then call on the driver (“how many gallons to fill it up, Scott?”) to ask how many gallons of gas it took to fill up the bus (eighty-three) and then call on a member of the audience to ask how expensive diesel was around here (“$5.19”) and then have one of his three grown daughters hold aloft a yellow plastic gas tank and ask the attendees to fill it with campaign contributions to keep the bus running.

But Kemp also had the most finely tuned stump speech I’ve heard from a Republican this cycle. It was all about COVID, and his decisions to first impose lockdowns and then to lift them much earlier than most states. “We reopened small parts of our economy when nobody else did,” Kemp said. “And the criticism I caught from that—from the national media, from the so-called health experts who were getting paid to sit in their basements and criticize other policymakers all around the country, and specifically from Stacey Abrams . . . But you know what? Even when they criticized us, we did not waver, because I was not listening to them. I was listening to you.” He and the state’s public-health director, Kathleen Toomey, a Harvard-trained infectious-disease specialist, had pushed to reopen schools early “because that’s what the data said,” and because they were focussed on “not only protecting lives but livelihoods.” He had pushed to get kids back in classrooms, Kemp went on, “which is where the data from the Trump Administration and the data from the Biden Administration said they should be,” from both “a mental-health perspective and a physical-health perspective.” Kemp, who had not required businesses to reopen but had simply given them the option, later relayed a story of a woman who owned a south Georgia hair salon; according to Kemp, she had said, “ ‘If I opened up, I had a five-per-cent chance of getting COVID. If I didn’t open back up I had a ninety-five-per-cent chance of losing everything I’d ever worked for.’ ” It was that spirit, Kemp said, that had brought Georgia back. (In fact, these openings troubled Toomey enough that she had her lawyer write Kemp’s lawyer to register her concerns.)

The next stop was in the recently revived suburban downtown of Alpharetta, on a public green next to an upscale Mexican restaurant and a California Closets. “If you have not been to Alpharetta in a while, you might have checked your G.P.S. to make sure this was the right place,” the president of the city council said, in an introductory speech. The sun was bright, the crowd was diverse, and I watched Kemp and Christie mingle as if they owned the place. During his political ascent, Kemp had often played a more partisan, bristling character: as Georgia’s secretary of state he had purged 1.4 million allegedly inactive voters from the rolls, supported litigation aimed at repealing the Affordable Care Act (which he called an “absolute disaster”), and campaigned successfully for governor in 2018 with an ad in which he said, “I got a big truck just in case I need to round up criminal illegals.”

Now, as I listened to Kemp’s stump speech on the luxe Alpharetta green, I noticed how certain he was that his audience would appreciate that Georgia was thriving. Kemp’s riff on education included the need to protect kids from “obscene materials” in school and a line about transgender athletes (calling for “fairness in girls’ sports”), but he started it by saying that he’d pushed for more funding and passed a budget with five-thousand-dollar raises for teachers across the state, a campaign promise from 2018. “Stacey Abrams said I would never do that,” Kemp said. “She said Republicans would never do that.” Bragging about the last legislative session (“One of the best and most successful legislative sessions that I’ve ever been a part of”), Kemp emphasized funding increases for higher education, and a billion-dollar tax rebate he’d passed, to help Georgians deal with rising inflation. Repeatedly, he referred to a small piece of poster board he carried, the size of a bookmark, on which were written the names of local officials in attendance, and took care to mention them and the projects they had helped with by name, as if to say, Look at everything that we have done.

Having recently covered Republican primary campaigns in Pennsylvania and Ohio, I had a feeling of tonal whiplash. The culture-war topics that so dominated the campaigns of the Midwestern conservatives—the grievances over the supposed progressive dominance of corporations and media, the conviction that left-wing élites had cheated their way to control of a country they didn’t respect or deserve—were only flickering, background elements here. The Biden that Kemp described was not the powerful figure who had stolen the 2020 election but, instead, a rudderless one who had left the country saddled by inflation and was not building much. So much of Trump-era conservatism has depended on the certainty that the country is dying, but that itself hinges on economic contingencies. What Kemp brought might have been difficult in Pennsylvania, but it seemed obvious in Alpharetta: the opposing conviction that the country is still being born.

The Republicans lining up behind Kemp sound more assertive about Trump when they are not actually running for reëlection. “Donald Trump is in Georgia to try to settle a score,” Geoff Duncan, the Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia and a Kemp ally, told me. “He’s got a chip on his shoulder for Governor Kemp and others. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just where he’s at. It’s all about him, and he’s trying to look for any way he can to stay politically relevant.” The former President, Duncan went on, had intervened in elections to try to put his finger on the scale, but he was having a small enough effect that it “seems less like thumbs than like pinkies.” Duncan said, “The realities are that he’s not going to be the Republican nominee and he’s not going to be the President again, and the quicker we get to that realization as Republicans, the better off we’re going to be.”

The relentless present tense of Kemp’s campaign—the just concluded legislative session, the still rising cost of gas, the challenge of Abrams’s candidacy in the fall, a history that begins with COVID—has a purpose in this context, too, as a way of consigning Trump’s political issues to the past. Duncan said that Trump’s struggles to influence the vote in Georgia had to do with how much had transpired since the 2020 election. “A year ago at this time, if you had polled Georgia Republicans and asked them what’s the most important thing, you probably would have found some sort of majority saying, ‘a Donald Trump endorsement,’ ” Duncan said. “This fog of the 2020 election has nothing to do with the ’22 election, or the ’24 election, because nobody’s problems go away if we relitigate 2020.” He went on, “When someone rolls in and hires seventy-five hundred people in a community, when they invest billions of dollars in the state of Georgia, I think that’s what’s allowing people to see through this fog, where maybe the rest of the country is a little bit behind us.”

The Republican opposition to Trump has gone through phases. The first phase was embodied by the direct contestation of the Never Trump Republicans, of Mitt Romney and Bill Kristol and later Liz Cheney, who openly abhorred the former casino billionaire’s authoritarianism. That was a losing fight, and it ended with some of its principals (such as Kristol) effectively out of the Republican coalition and others (Cheney) on the verge of being expelled from it. The current version is a more subtle and less direct initiative—the Kemp Op—from Republicans who don’t disagree with Trump on so much ideologically. Their first great triumph was in Virginia, where the hedge-fund executive Glenn Youngkin won the governorship emphasizing the cost of COVID school closures and his opposition to the advance of progressive teaching on race in schools, issues which had different ideological valances but which had emerged largely after Trump, and so were not defined by him. Trump was still licking his wounds in 2021, and did not take a side in the Republican primary in Virginia. Still, Kemp is following a similar strategy to Youngkin’s: not to oppose the former President directly but to try to make the political fights of the moment so vivid that Trumpism has nothing to say about them. Every speech the governor of Georgia gives is intended as a little shove, to push Trump a little more emphatically into the past.

Even so, this remains a decidedly covert operation. In Canton, in a small gaggle with reporters, Kemp was asked about the former President’s endorsement of his opponent. The governor said, “I’ve never said a bad word about their Administration and I don’t plan on doing that.” In Alpharetta, during his introductory speech, Christie praised Kemp’s bravery. “It matters when people stand up for what’s right,” Christie said. “No matter who has gotten in between the people of Georgia and their government, this guy has shoved them out of the way and put the people of Georgia first.” This was an obvious reference to Trump’s pressure during the 2020 election, but even Christie declined to make the connection explicit. How successful is the Kemp Op likely to be if Kemp and Christie won’t even say Trump’s name?

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