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What Donald Trump didn’t count on in Georgia

THOMASTON, Ga.— Brian Kemp, Georgia’s incumbent governor and high on former President Donald J. Trump’s hater’s list, was walking around in a pair of cowboy boots in this small town one morning recent, happily walking through an adoring Republican crowd at a place called Greatest Generation Memorial Park. Soon, he was confronted by a smiling man wearing a baseball cap adorned with a cursive letter “A”.

It was a University of Alabama hat. Mr. Kemp, a sports enthusiast, is a famous supporter of the University of Georgia, his alma mater and one of Alabama’s rivals. He even adopted the Bulldog football team’s motivational slogan, “Keep choppin’,” like his.

There was a brief moment of good-natured sporting ribbing. So Mr. Kemp turned to his left and addressed a man with a badge. “We need to lock this guy up, sheriff,” he deadpanned. The crowd laughed.

With his boots, his fixation on football and a typically folksy Southern voice – a voice that, in campaign mode, rarely nails the “g” at the end of a gerund – Mr. Kemp comes across as the most Georgian of Georgians. And it was his gift for reflecting and rewarding his conservative Georgia constituency that gave him a surprisingly comfortable lead in the polls ahead of Tuesday’s Republican primary, even as Mr. Trump, who remains hugely popular in Georgia, continues to sway him. disparage as a “Republican in name only” and demands that voters punish Mr. Kemp for refusing to help him overturn the results of the November 2020 state presidential election.

What the former president apparently did not count on was the willingness of many Georgian Republicans to simultaneously remain loyal to Mr. Trump and Mr. Kemp.

Immediately after the campaign event in Thomaston, Upson County Sheriff Dan Kilgore identified himself as a Trump voter. But he said Mr. Kemp seemed like a natural candidate for the state. “He is of the people,” Mr Kilgore said. “It’s one of ours.”

Linda Reeves, a retired government worker, said she and her husband, Clarence, voted for Mr Trump and even believed his claim that Georgia’s election was stolen, an argument that goes viral. turned out to be unfounded. “We are Trump supporters,” she said. “But not everything that comes out of someone’s mouth is necessarily true.” Mr. Kemp, she said, had proven his bona fides, most recently signing a law limiting discussion of race in public school classrooms and another allowing Georgians to carry guns without permit.

“Brian Kemp is a very conservative governor,” she said.

While Mr. Kemp has appeased socially conservative Republicans with legislation, he has also strengthened his hand with major economic development victories, including a planned Rivian electric truck plant east of Atlanta and a new Hyundai electric vehicle plant to be built outside of Savannah. The state budget he signed into law this month includes pay increases for teachers and state government employees. Former Vice President Mike Pence plans to travel to Georgia on Monday to campaign on Mr Kemp’s behalf; in a statement, he called Mr Kemp “one of America’s most successful conservative governors”.

Mr. Trump endorsed former US Senator David Perdue, the former chief executive of discount chain Dollar General, who repeated Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. But Mr. Perdue, who lives in the exclusive community of Sea Island, struggled to gain ground in its primary against the governor.

This week, NBC News reported that the former president privately complained about Mr. Perdue’s performance and essentially wrote him off. Mr Trump pushed back on Friday with a social media post calling the report “FALSE”.

“I’m with David all the way because Brian Kemp was the worst governor in the country for election integrity!” he wrote.

Mr. Trump’s record of influencing Republican primary results this season has been mixed. Successful candidates backed by Trump include JD Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and U.S. Senate candidate from Ohio, and Doug Mastriano, a gubernatorial candidate from Pennsylvania who echoes false claims of voter fraud by Mr Trump. But other Trump candidates have lost high-profile Republican primary contests in North Carolina, Nebraska and Idaho.

Mr. Trump has endorsed a wide slate of Republican candidates in Georgia, where he and some of his allies are under investigation in Fulton County for potentially violating state criminal law in their attempts to interfere with the results of the presidential election. But the results of Team Trump members from Georgia this primary season may vary.

A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll of likely Republican voters shows U.S. Senate candidate and former University of Georgia running back Herschel Walker with a big lead in his primary race, likely helped by both the endorsement of Mr. Trump and Mr. Walker’s status as a footballer. Legend. The same poll shows Trump-backed nominee for Secretary of State, U.S. Representative Jody Hice, in a close primary race against incumbent Brad Raffensperger.

April’s AJC poll shows Mr. Kemp with a 23-point lead over Mr. Perdue; a more recent Fox News poll showed the governor ahead by more than 30 points. Mr. Perdue, whose appearances this week included a Bikers for Trump event in Plainville, Georgia, hopes the anticipated high turnout is a sign that Trump voters are quietly moving the needle in his direction and will at least allow him to force Mr. Kemp into a runoff.

The Kemp campaign significantly outspent and outspent the Perdue campaign, a sign that much of Georgia’s donor class, which tends to be wary of political turmoil, prefers the status quo. And although Mr. Perdue has benefited from television ads from outside groups featuring Mr. Trump, the Perdue campaign has not aired with its own ads since late April, according to Adimpact, an ad tracking firm.

Mr. Kemp, meanwhile, quashed Mr. Trump’s anger by relentlessly focusing on the business of his own backyard. On Wednesday, Norman Allen, the chairman of the Upson County commission, praised Kemp for personally taking his calls in 2020 and pledging additional help from the state government as the county suffered in the first few months. of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Kemp has also strategically distributed executive spoils, including coveted government appointments, keeping his fellow Georgia Republicans in his camp, or at least out of the way. That seemed to be the case earlier this year, when the board of trustees that oversees Georgia’s public college system, which is filled with Kemp loyalists, chose as system chancellor Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor and member of the Trump cabinet who happens to be the cousin of David Perdue. .

Ahead of his Thomaston stump speech, Mr Kemp mingled with the crowd, the sleeves of his red gingham shirt rolled up, shaking hands with old acquaintances, talking about tailgate parties from past football seasons and praising the moxie of his octogenarian mother.

Mr. Kemp is aware that this kind of warm reception, from a rural, mostly white crowd, coexists with strong distaste for him on the left and from influential voices outside of Georgia. In 2018, a number of high-profile Democrats described some actions he took as secretary of state as voter suppression tactics. Some of them used variations of the word “steal” to describe Mr Kemp’s loss to Democrat Stacey Abrams that year in the gubernatorial race. Ms. Abrams, who also alleged that Mr. Kemp engaged in voter suppression, never conceded in that contest.

His four years in office brought more controversy. President Biden has described the sweeping law Mr Kemp signed following the 2020 election to restrict access to voting “Jim Crow in the 21st Century”. And Mr. Kemp has been heavily criticized for his decision in April 2020 to allow many state businesses to reopen in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

In his Thomaston speech, Mr Kemp said he knew those criticisms were wrong because he had listened to voters. “I knew how much they were hurting, because I heard from them,” he said of the pandemic-affected business owners and workers in Georgia. “I was talking to them. I was talking to barbers, cosmetologists, waitresses and restaurant owners.

The governor made no mention of David Perdue, or Mr Trump, but instead looked ahead, with multiple mentions of Ms Abrams, whom he will face in the general election if he gets there. “We are fighting for the soul of our state, all of you,” he said. “We get up every morning to make sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be our governor or our next president,” he said.

He added, “Keep chopping, God bless you and thank you for coming.”


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