Few politicians have been both elevated and diminished by the vicissitudes of President Donald Trump like Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican governor.
Kemp rocketed from hard-right underdog candidate to the governor’s mansion two years ago on the strength of a surprise endorsement from Trump, and an argument that the president was right about a lot of issues facing the country.
But these days Kemp is facing daily reminders of the perils of deciding that Trump is actually wrong.
Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times
In recent weeks, Kemp has infuriated the president for resisting his demands to help overturn the election results in Georgia, a state Trump lost by roughly 12,000 votes. The president’s outrage has spread to many of his supporters in Georgia as he persists in his extraordinary intervention into the nation’s electoral process.
At a news conference in the state Capitol on Tuesday to discuss the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, Kemp was confronted by Trump loyalists asking why he had refused to call a special session of the legislature, as the president has requested, so that lawmakers can reallocate the state’s 16 electoral votes to Trump. The question crowded the screen of a Facebook live feed of the event. As he departed the event, Kemp was stopped by a small group who presented a bag that they said was filled with 2,000 petitions making the same plea.
“If he doesn’t call a special session, he’s definitely a one-term governor, no doubt about it,” said one of the activists, Erik Christensen, CEO of a moving company, who said he voted for Kemp in 2018.
Kemp is now the most vivid example of the battle-scarred and even shellshocked conservative Republicans who once basked in Trump’s glow but now find themselves derided for enforcing their state election rules and laws. Republican governors like Kemp and Doug Ducey of Arizona, and lower-level state officials like Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in Georgia, have emerged as a new kind of institutionalist in the face of the Trump attacks on the election system: They are refusing to bend procedures to the will of Trump, and potentially paying a political price for it.
As Trump continues to grope for a way to undo his electoral loss to President-elect Joe Biden, he is also engaged in a furious effort to torpedo Kemp’s political future.
Trump has called Kemp “hapless,” mocked him for a supposed dip in popularity, and suggested, at a recent rally, that U.S. Rep. Doug Collins should challenge Kemp in the primary when he seeks a second term in 2022.
“I’m ashamed that I endorsed him,” Trump said in a Fox News interview.
The president’s willingness to threaten the governor’s fervently pro-Trump voter base demonstrates how challenging it may be for Republicans to navigate a post-presidency in which the mercurial Trump could choose to play kingmaker, de facto party head and potential 2024 candidate.
Republican politicians, strategists and party officials are anxiously watching the turmoil in Georgia, fearing that the civil war the president started among Georgia’s Republicans could spread throughout the country. That would complicate the political dynamics for incumbents like Kemp, who plans to run for reelection two years from now.
In November’s election, Trump expanded the party base, driving up margins in rural areas, winning a larger share of Latino voters and capturing a record number of Republican votes. Whether those new voters will transform into loyal Republicans when Trump is not on the ticket remains one of the biggest uncertainties facing the party. And much may depend on what Trump tells Republicans to do.
“Any operative is wondering right now whether this is what the future looks like,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican committeeman from Mississippi and an influential voice in the party. “We don’t know, but the party has a tremendous opportunity going forward to build on what the president has accomplished.”
Kemp, 57, has not been the only target of Trump’s wrath. Republican politicians and officials across the country who have defended the integrity of the election — and resisted bending to the will of the president — have faced a backlash from their own party.
In Arizona, Trump has criticized Ducey for certifying Biden’s win in that state, and suggested he would also pay a political price for it. (“Republicans will long remember!” he wrote in a recent tweet.) While term limits prevent Ducey from seeking another term, he is among those mentioned as a potential presidential contender in 2024.
On the day that Ducey was selected to head the Republican Governors Association, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona said in a column on a conservative news site that Ducey had “harmed the common cause of the Republican Party.”
“The Duceys and the Kemps of the world, they may have some difficulty if they want to seek elective office within the Republican Party,” said Michael Burke, chairman of the Republican Party in Pinal County in Arizona. “People will remember what happened here,” added Burke, who worked at Trump’s properties before becoming involved with politics.
Allies of the president have begun issuing veiled threats toward Kemp, warning that what they see as his insufficient loyalty to the president could carry a political price.