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The Republican Inoculate Against Trump?
Brian Kemp proves that GOP leaders can take on the former president and win.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp is an interesting guy. In addition to being a popular and effective leader in his state, he’s one of the very few Republican office-holders who’s not only managed to survive relentless political attacks from Donald Trump, but flourish in the face of them.
The two men weren’t always at odds, of course. Trump endorsed Kemp during his first gubernatorial run in 2018, and Kemp had plenty of complimentary things to say about Trump. They were quite friendly. But the governor’s strong remarks at a press conference last week, in response to a MAGA lawmaker’s call to oust D.A. Fani Willis over her criminal prosecution of Trump, was just the latest reminder that a lot has changed since then.
Kemp touched on the origins of Trump’s ongoing beef with him, reminding the media that two years earlier, the governor resisted immense pressure from the then-president to overturn Georgia’s presidential election results. He described what Trump wanted him to do as “unconstitutional,” and said the same would be true if he took the prescribed action against Willis, who he had seen no “unethical or illegal behavior” from.
He added, “The bottom line is that in the state of Georgia, as long as I’m governor, we’re going to follow the law in the Constitution regardless of who it helps or harms politically…and in Georgia, we will not be engaging in political theater that only inflames the emotions of the moment.”
Taking an even stiffer swipe at Trump and Trumpism, Kemp encouraged his party to focus on real issues, and not “some grifter scam that somebody's doing to help them raise a few dollars in their campaign account.”
Trump has enjoyed the nickname “Teflon Don” for some time now, not only over his ability to successfully navigate serious legal turmoil, but also for repeatedly defying political odds that would have laid any other politician to rest. This is in large part, of course, because his supporters hold him to virtually no standards… while punishing and purging those in the Republican party who refuse to serve as his servile enablers. Liz Cheney may have been the most prominent casualty, but there’s a long list of former Republican leaders whose political careers were ended because of their unwillingness to prioritize Trump’s ego above all else.
That’s why Kemp’s durability is all the more impressive. Georgia has traditionally been a red state, and like other such states, Donald Trump is quite popular there. Yet, when a vengeful Trump hand-picked and endorsed former U.S. Senator David Perdue to defeat Kemp in Georgia’s gubernatorial party-primary last year, Kemp absolutely destroyed Perdue by an astounding 50 percentage points. And he did so without giving an inch on the decisions he made after the 2020 election.
Is Kemp really that compelling of a leader? I think the answer is yes, but what helped him amidst the chaos of the “stop the steal” campaign was a factor that few other Trump dissidents had: other Republicans in government willing to stand beside him, and against Trump’s corruption.
Georgia’s strong push-back against Trump’s election scheming was by no means a one-man show. Other prominent Republican leaders in Georgia, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gabriel Sterling, rose to the occasion. They demonstrated true integrity by defending their state’s election laws, and aggressively (and with precision) debunking one “rigged election” conspiracy theory after another. Raffensperger even did so in a direct conversation with Trump, a recording from which is now part of Georgia’s criminal case against the former president.
For their efforts, these officials were targeted for months with routine harassment (including death threats) by angry Trump supporters; I’m guessing they still are. But their counter-offensive, unwavering leadership, and commitment to the truth earned them respect from constituents — respect that made political inroads. Like Kemp, Raffensperger and other Republican officials who’d held the line against Trump were re-elected.
Georgia Republicans, by and large, are still pretty fond of Trump. Based on recent polling data, he’s the heavy favorite (like virtually everywhere else) to win the state’s presidential primary next year. But these voters are much more clear-eyed about Trump than Republicans in other states. As Aaron Blake of the Washington Post recently reported, more of them than not view the criminal charges against Trump as serious. More also believe Trump’s outreach to Georgia election officials, after he lost the 2020 election, was inappropriate. Additionally, a much higher percentage of Georgia Republicans believe the criminal indictments against Trump will make him a weaker general election candidate.
Sure, part of it can be explained by how much electoral damage Trump has caused to their state. His loud insistence that the 2020 election had been stolen from him suppressed Republican turnout two months later Georgia’s run-off election. The result was the GOP losing both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats… and with them the Senate majority in Washington. Two years later, Trump kept Republicans from taking back the Senate, this time by elevating extraordinarily bad candidates, across the country, to primary wins and general-election losses. This included Georgia’s Herschel Walker, who Trump had urged to run in the first place.
But without leaders like Kemp and the others, it’s hard to imagine a consequential number of Republican voters in Georgia coming to terms with Trump being to blame for those losses. Enough of them have been awoken from the “rigged election” nonsense to reward the leaders who stood up to, and exposed, that nonsense.
Leadership matters. Leadership persuades people. And when a leader stands on truth, principle, and integrity, that leader is deserving of support.
It seems the broader GOP unfortunately still has a long way to go before it releases itself from Trump’s toxic grip. That’s a shame, because if Mitch McConnell and just a few more Republican Senators would have shown the courage and leadership required to hand Trump an impeachment conviction after January 6, the spell would have been broken by now. Instead, they let a handful of Republican colleagues, who they knew were doing right thing, hang in the wind.
I’m glad that didn’t happen in Georgia. And if more Republicans across the country ever decide they’re done with the orange albatross that has cost them dearly in the last three election cycles, it’s that state’s leaders who they can look to for inspiration.