ATLANTA (AP) — A controversial new election law may help Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp rebuild his relationship with a broad swath of Republicans as he prepares to run for a second term next year.
The governor was narrowly elected in 2018 as a strong conservative and staunch ally of then-President Donald Trump. But Kemp’s refusal to bow to pressure from Trump to find a way to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in the state left many of the former president’s allies seething — and eager to exact revenge at the ballot box.
That means the sweeping election law could be one of Kemp’s last hopes to rekindle a bond with Republicans who remain fiercely loyal to Trump and will be a critical force in next year’s GOP primary. The legislation, which Kemp signed into law, could give him an opening to persuade Republicans that he is an outsider, willing to stand up to Democrats, corporate leaders and sports leagues who have derided the measure as an affront to democracy that is based on false claims and needs to be rewritten.
“This is an absolute godsend for Brian Kemp,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant and former top aide to Kemp’s predecessor, Nathan Deal.
Contention over the new law, which adds restrictions on mail voting and gives the GOP-controlled legislature greater control over how elections are run, came to a head Friday when Major League Baseball pulled this summer’s All-Star Game from Truist Park, outside Atlanta, in opposition. The chief executives of some of Georgia’s most prominent companies, including Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, have also stepped up their criticism of the bill, calling it “unacceptable.”
“I want to be clear: I will not be backing down from this fight,” Kemp said during a quickly assembled news conference on Saturday after MLB’s decision was announced. “We will not be intimidated, and we will also not be silenced.”
The question is whether the fight will be enough to help him win another four years in office. There’s no guarantee that Kemp’s support of the bill will change the minds of Trump’s most loyal supporters, many of whom remain convinced the election was marred by fraud.
“If only Gov. Brian ‘Big Truck’ Kemp had been this passionate about election integrity back in November & December,” Republican state Rep. David Clark tweeted Monday, referencing one of Kemp’s previous campaign ads. “Instead he was all crickets until he realized poll numbers had him at rock bottom going into re-election next year. I want a fighter who goes 24/7.”
For his part, Trump called into the conservative network Newsmax on Tuesday and said the new law doesn't go far enough and blamed Kemp for what he called a “very strongly watered-down bill.”
“A lot of the real power, a lot of the guts have been taken out of it,” Trump lamented.
Trump has raised the possibility of backing a primary challenger to Kemp and has already done so for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Raffensperger is among the GOP election officials in battleground states, including Arizona, who have said the election was fair. Trump’s legal claims to the contrary were roundly rejected by the courts, including by Trump-appointed justices at the Supreme Court.
Democrats, meanwhile, hope the legislation could invigorate their supporters, serving as a reminder of what’s at stake in 2022. Stacey Abrams, who lost to Kemp in 2018, is being closely watched to see whether she will mount a rematch. She has already proven herself adept at using arguments over voting rights to raise vast sums of money and drive voter turnout.
The Democrat came within 55,000 votes of Kemp in 2018, and that was two years before Democrats scored victories in the state’s presidential contest and twin U.S. Senate runoffs.
“We changed the direction of the nation, and we’re not going to stop fighting now, as ugly as it is,” said Democratic state Rep. Shea Roberts, who defeated a Republican in a competitive metro Atlanta district in 2020. “They’re fueling the fires to keep us motivated. Democrats aren’t going to give up. They’re just more mad and more determined to elect better leaders.”
Abrams said in a statement Friday that Republicans’ support for the new law shows they have “prioritized making it harder for people of color to vote over the economic well-being of all Georgians.”
Abrams has discouraged boycotts against Georgia and has instead called for businesses to stay put and speak out against the law. But that hasn't stopped Republicans from trying to cast her as responsible for any economic fallout, a line of attack they're likely to reprise if she runs for governor.
On the GOP side, polling data suggest that Trump has damaged Republican sentiment regarding Kemp, but Republicans never fully parted ways with the governor.
AP’s VoteCast survey of voters in Georgia’s January U.S. Senate runoffs found Raffensperger, who openly refuted Trump in a recorded phone call, to be most unpopular with fellow members of the GOP and most popular with Democrats. But the results on Kemp were much more mixed. The most Republican group was people who approved somewhat of how Kemp handled the results, followed by those who approved strongly. Those who disapproved of Kemp’s actions remained Democratic supporters, showing that his basic pattern of partisan support, although muddied by the conflict with Trump, never reversed as it did with Raffensperger.
During the fall, when Trump peddled his false assertions about election fraud, Kemp did not criticize the former president or explicitly take his side. He carefully, even if sometimes clumsily, declared that he was doing what the law required: certifying Biden’s slate of electors once Raffensperger certified the Democrat’s victory.
Even after repeated attacks from Trump, Kemp has stuck by the former president and tried to downplay any rift between them.
“We’re not always going to get along. But I think the president deserves a lot of credit,” Kemp said in an interview last month on Fox News Channel.
“And he’s not going away.”
AP writers Jeff Amy and Bill Barrow contributed to this report.