Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp says he is certain one thing won’t happen before the Republican gubernatorial primary May 24: an endorsement from former President Donald J. Trump.
After Trump called him “a turncoat, a coward, and a complete and total disaster” in front of a crowd of supporters at a rally in Commerce, Georgia, last Saturday, Kemp is probably not wrong. And he said he is fine with that.
“I’ve never said a bad word about President Trump. And I don’t plan on doing so. I appreciate what he did for our state,” Kemp told me in an interview.
Kemp says his emphasis right now is on the present. “I’m staying focused on what my record is. I can’t control what other people are doing. I’m looking for the endorsement of our voters and I believe I’ll get that on election day.”
Ever since Trump publicly blasted Kemp for refusing to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results—results that were certified following three recounts—many Georgians figured Kemp would be a dead man walking in this year’s Republican primary race, especially if Trump backed someone else to run against him.
That’s exactly what happened when Trump tapped former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to run against Kemp in the Georgia primary, which many presumed would catapult Purdue ahead of Kemp in the polls.
But polling for the past few months has steadily shown Perdue trailing Kemp by about 10 percentage points. The most recent Fox News Poll in March shows Kemp now up 11 points over the former senator.
The media have wildly underestimated Kemp’s tenacity and appeal with voters. They also don’t truly know what matters to people when they vote. They see Republican voters as frozen in time in a cultish allegiance with Trump, but in reality, they are much more complicated.
It is not hard to find Republican voters in Georgia who lean right and have also voted for Trump, Purdue, President Joe Biden and Kemp over a number of years. Voters are more complicated than the way they’re framed by reporters or strategists.
Leland Sproul is one of them. The 33-year-old customer-training manager for a Fortune 500 company who lives in suburban Atlanta voted for Trump in 2016, cast a vote for Biden in 2020, and sat out voting for any of the U.S. Senate candidates—Republican or Democrat—that year.
“I fall very in line with most Republican policies, especially when they focus on fiscal policies, but I was just unhappy with how all of the candidates on the Republican side focused on social issues and I couldn’t get with the Democrats, so I just didn’t vote for Senate,” Sproul explained.
He will, however, vote in the upcoming Republican gubernatorial primary and he said he is about 90% sure Kemp has earned his vote. A lot of the reason has to do with Trump’s influence—and not in the way the ex-president intended.
“As much as I agree more with David Perdue’s platform, I fear his Trump endorsement. I fear his disagreement with the election. I fear his Trump alignment and what I would describe as blind loyalty,” Sproul said.
“I’m worried that Perdue’s term as governor would be more stacked towards helping out Trump in his 2024 (presidential) bid instead of trying to run the state of Georgia.”
Right to his point, Purdue said at the Trump rally on Saturday, “In the state of Georgia, thanks to Brian Kemp, our elections in 2020 were absolutely stolen, yeah!”
Statements like that don’t sit well with a lot of Georgia voters who lean center-right. Many are still angry that Trump encouraged Georgia conservatives not to vote in the 2020 senate runoff election, where two Democrat challengers battled against two Republican incumbents, including Perdue—and both Republicans lost. As a result, the GOP lost its majority in the senate.
The upcoming Georgia primary is one of three big contests where Trump has handpicked challengers to upend fellow Republican incumbents. But if all three challengers lose, that could cause him to rethink a run in 2024.
In the senate primary race in North Carolina, Trump has backed Rep. Ted Budd over former governor Pat McCrory. And, in the GOP House primary race in Wyoming, he has backed attorney Harriet Hageman over Rep. Liz Cheney, the most prominent Republican in Congress to vote for Trump’s second impeachment.
But, among all three contests, a Kemp loss would be the biggest win for Trump.
Kemp said his job is not to get mired in the endorsement drama. He just needs to meet with voters one-on-one and talk to them about what his administration has accomplished.
“We took a pounding in the polls right after the election and all of the questioning about the results, but governors go through that with tough issues,” he said of the initial weeks after the 2020 elections. “But I do think that situation gave me the opportunity to let people know that I was still the fighter they elected when I got in office.”
The 58-year-old businessman—who jumped into local politics nearly two decades ago because of his frustration over bureaucratic red tape—said his fortunes changed with the voting bill last year.
“It was a good bill. I knew what was in it,” he said of the sweeping Republican-sponsored overhaul of state elections that had President Joe Biden repeatedly calling it “Jim Crow 2.0” and saw Major League Baseball pull the All-Star Game out of the state.
“I never wavered. I stood by our position. I defended the bill. I pushed back against the Democrats, including the president, the vice president, a lot of woke corporate CEOs and retired CEOs and called them out for lying about the bill,” he said.
“And even though we lost the All-Star Game to another state, we got poetic justice when the Braves won the World Series,” Kemp proudly said of his home team.
Jim Southard has voted for both Purdue and Kemp. He also voted for Trump twice and liked his policies. But as the confluence of all three meet in this primary he said he’ll be casting his vote in the best interests of his state.
“Kemp, most certainly,” said the 37-year-old entrepreneur and father of four boys.
Southard said he’s impressed Kemp evaded the controversies that Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams tried to bait him with in 2018. Now, four years later, he is a fan—especially as Abrams is running again.
“I think he’s done a fantastic job. He has transformed Georgia, particularly in my region, and has turned it into an EV (electric vehicle) powerhouse. We’ve got the new battery plant, and the Rivian automaker that just announced they’re going to be building a $5 billion factory in that same region,” he said.
“I don’t care who endorses whom,” he added. “Kemp has a really good track record. He’s batting a thousand against Stacey Abrams and I want the person running who has already beat Abrams to win the primary.
“It is just offensive for anyone to say, ‘You should vote for him because I endorse him.'”
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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