“Just about every ‘stop the steal’ Republican is getting rejected by Republicans in Georgia tonight,” Erick Erickson, the conservative radio host, tweeted Tuesday night just before taking the stage to emcee Kemp’s victory party. “The message is voters want to move forward, not settle Trump’s grievances for him.”
From the beginning of the cycle, people close to Kemp’s campaign told CNN the governor’s battle plan was simple: Ignore the attacks from Trump, tout his existing record, run as an unabashed conservative and emphasize the future.
The team around Kemp honed this strategy as early as January 2021, when it became clear Trump’s relentless attacks on the governor following the presidential election weren’t going to let up.
“As it became clear to us that he was not going to move on, we made a determination that, if you want to win an election, we are going to have to have people who like Trump also like us,” one Kemp aide told CNN. “We had to give Trump supporters permission to like both of them.”
In a few words at his Tuesday night victory party, Kemp summed up his approach.
“Even in the middle of a tough primary, conservatives across our state didn’t listen to the noise. They didn’t get distracted. They knew our record of fighting and winning for hard-working Georgians,” he told supporters at the College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta. “Georgia Republicans went to the ballot box and overwhelmingly endorsed four more years of our vision for this great state.”
“I do think it’s a prescription for others to focus on your record and the problems you’re going to solve,” said Marc Short, an adviser to Kemp’s campaign who was chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence.
Early lesson from Virginia
Last fall, Kemp was already anticipating that Perdue would soon jump into the race with the full force of the Trump political machine behind the former US senator.
Notably for Kemp advisers, Youngkin never adopted the idea of a “stolen election” that gripped the most fervent parts of the Republican grassroots at the time.
“It shows that ‘stop the steal’ isn’t the winning formula for purple states,” the Kemp aide told CNN in November as the Virginia results were coming in. “And that’s what Perdue would have to embrace.”
Kemp had none of the support from Trump that Youngkin enjoyed to keep MAGA voters in the fold, but he did have something the Virginia Republican lacked: a record, and one that gave Republicans a lot to like.
“Brian had the added challenge of the President wanting to make this race a focal point, but the governor didn’t focus on those attacks and instead focused on one conservative achievement after another,” Short said.
“Even when they pulled the All-Star Game from us, I did not waver, as I told you I wouldn’t,” Kemp said Monday at an election eve rally in Kennesaw.
“(We) started pushing to be one of the first states in the country to get our kids back in the classroom,” Kemp said Monday in Kennesaw.
The Stacey Abrams factor
The effect was the creation of a wealth of goodwill among Republican voters toward Kemp, including among those inclined to be angry at him for not acquiescing to Trump on overturning the 2020 election. Even committed Perdue supporters said before the primary they would support Kemp if he won renomination.
“I would have to vote for him,” said Kelly, a voter from Watkinsville who declined to give her last name when she spoke to CNN earlier this month.
So when Trump rallied in Georgia last September and, in the middle of a rant about Kemp, said he would prefer Abrams as governor, Republicans in the state recoiled.
“Trump going the Abrams route helped Kemp … solidify established elected GOP support,” the Kemp aide told CNN earlier this year. “It rang untrue that Stacey Abrams would be a better governor than Kemp.”
It also indicated that Trump’s interests in Georgia — namely, revenge against Kemp — did not align with those of the state’s GOP voters.
“I think that the former President has no skin in the game in Georgia,” Carol Williams, a realtor in Athens and a Republican voter, told CNN at a Kemp event on Saturday. “He does not understand what’s best for our state. We have stayed open. We’ve done the right thing here in this Covid. His endorsements need to stay more so in Florida.”
While Kemp’s win against Trump via Perdue is conclusive, it remains to be seen whether Republicans who may challenge Trump’s hegemony over the GOP more directly — say, in a presidential primary — can have as much success with the same strategy.
“When you say yes to Gov. Brian Kemp tomorrow, you will send a deafening message all across America that the Republican Party is the party of the future,” Pence said.