Three years ago, Brian Kemp was elected governor when Republicans embraced his nearly decade-long quest to restrict voting access in Georgia. Now he has tied his re-election hopes to making voting in the state even harder.
After infuriating former President Donald J. Trump by resisting his demands to overturn the state’s election results, Mr. Kemp became an outcast in his own party. He spent weeks fending off a daily barrage of attacks from right-wing media, fellow Republican lawmakers and party officials, and Mr. Trump vowed to retaliate by sending a hard-right loyalist to oppose him in the primary next year.
But the sweeping new voting bill Mr. Kemp signed two weeks ago has provided a lifeline to the embattled governor to rebuild his standing among the party’s base. The bill severely curtails the ability to vote in Georgia, particularly for people of color. Mr. Kemp has seized on it as a political opportunity, defending the law as one that expands voting access, condemning those who criticize it and conflating the criticism with so-called cancel culture.
It’s an argument he believes may restore him to the good graces of Georgia Republicans after being publicly derided by Mr. Trump, a predicament that has proved fatal to the career aspirations of other ambitious conservatives.
Since signing the bill into law on March 25, Mr. Kemp has done roughly 50 interviews, 14 with Fox News, promoting the new restrictions with messaging that aligns with Mr. Trump’s baseless claims that the election was rigged against him.
“He knows that this is a real opportunity and he can’t blow it, because I don’t think he gets another layup like this again anytime soon,” said Randy Evans, a Georgia lawyer whom Mr. Trump made ambassador to Luxembourg, and is also a close ally of Mr. Kemp.
A political reversal of fortune would represent an unlikely turnaround for Mr. Kemp, making him the most prominent Republican to find a way to overcome Mr. Trump’s campaign of retribution, and perhaps providing an early test of the former president’s ability to impose his will on the party’s electoral future.
Mr. Kemp’s argument is designed to pump adrenaline into the conservative vein, by focusing on two of the most animating topics of the political right: election mechanics and an ominous portrayal of the Democratic left.
“They folded like a wet dishrag to the cancel culture,” he said, responding to businesses that publicly objected to the legislation, in an interview on Fox Business on Tuesday. “It is woke in real life, and Americans and Georgians should be scared. I mean, what event are they going to come after next? What value that you have — the way that you live your life — are they coming after next? Are they going to come after your small business?”
Mr. Kemp declined an interview request.
Whether Mr. Kemp will be able to make amends with Mr. Trump remains unclear. Late Tuesday, the former president signaled how difficult it would be to win him over, releasing a statement slamming Mr. Kemp and Georgia Republicans for not going far enough to restrict voting access in the new law.
“Kemp also caved to the radical left-wing woke mob who threatened to call him racist if he got rid of weekend voting,” Mr. Trump said. “Well, he kept it, and they still call him racist!”
If Mr. Trump’s animosity lingers, he has the potential to complicate Mr. Kemp’s re-election effort by endorsing a rival and attacking the governor. Some political allies of Mr. Kemp are trying to broker a truce. Mr. Evans, for instance, is in South Florida this week aiming to engage in a delicate round of diplomacy that would get Mr. Trump on board with Mr. Kemp. He said he’s talking to Mr. Kemp daily but isn’t particularly optimistic.
“There are some times,” Mr. Evans said, “when the hate is so deep and so ingrained that there’s nothing, and that’s when you just have to go to divorce. There’s no gift, no diamond, no car, no flowers, no nothing that will ever repair it.”
Mr. Trump’s harsh stance notwithstanding, there are many conservatives in the state who remain fixated on the losses by Mr. Trump and the state’s two Republican senators, and are happy to see Mr. Kemp finally joining their fight, no matter how opportunistic it might seem.
“I’ve not seen our party in Georgia as united in five and half years,” said Chip Lake, a longtime Republican strategist in the state. “This has allowed people who are angry at Brian Kemp for not doing enough for Donald Trump to get back on board with Brian Kemp.”
Not every Republican has signed on. Debbie Dooley, a conservative activist in Georgia, said that the Republican base remembered Mr. Kemp’s denying Mr. Trump’s request to call for a special session to address the presidential election results, and that it remained eager to punish him for what it views as failing to fully investigate claims of fraud.
“He is hoping Trump voters forget he was a coward,” she said. “He undermined us at every turn during investigation of election fraud, and now because he is talking tough in regard to M.L.B., Delta and Coke, he thinks we will forgive him. We won’t.”
The most recent polling, conducted before Mr. Kemp signed the voting bill, showed that 15 percent to 30 percent of Georgia Republicans disapproved of his time as governor, largely because of his performance during the 2020 election.
The new law Mr. Kemp is championing makes it harder to acquire an absentee ballot, creates new restrictions and complications for voting and hands sweeping new power over the electoral process to Republican legislators. It has drawn harsh criticism from local companies like Coca-Cola and Delta, and prompted Major League Baseball to move its All-Star Game out of suburban Atlanta as a form of protest.
Mr. Kemp has used the rebukes to fire up the Republican base. He made little effort to calm tensions with some of his state’s most prominent corporate leaders, and said that baseball executives had “caved to fear, political opportunism, and liberal lies” in deciding to relocate the All-Star Game. Through it all, he has positioned himself as a fierce defender of Georgia’s sovereignty, saying, “Georgians will not be bullied.’’
Mr. Kemp’s embrace of the voting law appears to have helped his standing among Georgia Republicans. Former Representative Doug Collins, Mr. Trump’s preferred intraparty rival for the governorship, is now leaning toward a 2022 Senate bid instead, according to strategists and activists in the state. The two remaining Republicans weighing a bid are not as well known and would face a tougher time mounting a serious challenge to Mr. Kemp, who has already banked more than $6.3 million for his re-election campaign. He’s now fund-raising off the voting bill, wrapping his re-election website in a plea for funds to help “defend election integrity.”
“Activists in my own county who were dead set to finding someone to primary him are saying maybe he does deserve another chance,” said Jason Shepherd, the chairman of the Republican Party in Cobb County, who is running to lead the state party. “It’s going to make people less likely to wade into the race.”
The two other lawmakers mulling primary bids are Vernon Jones, the former Democratic state legislator who became a Republican in January, and Burt Jones, a state senator. Both say they are assessing the political landscape and expect to make a decision soon. The two men took different approaches to Mr. Kemp, underscoring how quickly the politics have shifted for the governor.
In an email, Vernon Jones said Mr. Kemp’s appeal to the base was “too little, too late,” casting him as profiting off a cause he neglected in November.
“Governor Kemp sat back and allowed the legislature to come in and hammer out the new bill, and then in an effort to mislead the public, he chose himself as the poster boy for election reform in Georgia,” he said.
Yet Burt Jones praised Mr. Kemp’s management of the moment, admitting that “what has gone on the last week has not hurt him among his base.”
Every week that potential challengers deliberate over whether to enter the race gives Mr. Kemp more time to make his case to grass-roots conservatives.
“You can’t beat somebody with nobody,” said Mr. Lake, the Republican strategist. “As every day goes by, you’re getting farther and farther away from Donald Trump’s presidency and Brian Kemp gets stronger with the base.”
In many ways, Mr. Kemp’s embrace of the legislation signifies a return to the conservative language — and voting issues — that defined his political career. Billing himself as a “politically incorrect conservative,” Mr. Kemp has long been one of the left’s most enduring villains because of his defeat of Stacey Abrams, who was vying in 2018 to become the nation’s first Black female governor.
Mr. Kemp, then the secretary of state overseeing Georgia’s elections, stalled 53,000 voter registrations, which were disproportionately from Black voters. Ms. Abrams and her allies argued that Mr. Kemp had used his position to engineer a “stolen” election, a charge he denied.
Since then the two have spent years engaged in a contentious argument over voting rights, an issue that rallies their parties’ bases in the state. In an interview with a sports radio program this week, Mr. Kemp accused Ms. Abrams of running the “biggest racket in America right now” with her claims of voter suppression.
Democrats say his ardent support of the law and attacks on Ms. Abrams are a cynical effort to bolster his standing among his conservative base while suppressing votes for his general election opponents.
“This is all politics,” said Representative Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, who replaced the civil rights icon John Lewis in Congress. “Let’s also be clear that a part of that politics is keeping Black and brown people away from the polls so he can continue to win elections in Georgia.”
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