The former president's GOP rivals should learn from Georgia Governor Brian Kemp
As Donald Trump rides high atop the primary polls, his rivals for the Republican nomination have struggled to gain traction. Only Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has consistently risen to double digits in national polls, and even his numbers have eroded over the past few months.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp might offer an instructive example to Trump’s challengers. Transforming a nail-biting 2018 win into a clear reelection victory, Kemp has proven successful in general elections, but he has also prevailed in political struggles with Trump. Unlike some of the ex-president’s foes, he has neither withdrawn from politics nor suffered a primary loss. He handily defeated a Trump-backed primary challenge in 2022, as did his slate of statewide allies. And he has steered clear of two extremes in dealing with the former president: either becoming defined by Trump’s criticism or being too deferential to his loyalty tests.
Perhaps the most obvious temptation for Trump’s Republican foes has been to succumb to an Ahab-like zeal for denouncing the former president (à la Chris Christie). Casting aspersions on the Republican electorate as a whole — as a “cult” or full of bigots and fascists — has proven even more strategically counterproductive for those seeking to challenge Trump from within the GOP. In a political era defined by negative partisanship, a Republican candidate torches his or her credibility with GOP voters by publicly attacking them.
Conversely, evading contrasts with Trump and going along with his loyalty tests poses its own risks for his rivals. Complaining about alleged “irregularities” in the 2020 election or dismissing his legal troubles as the “weaponisation” of government could at first seem like a way of appealing to some of Trump’s most faithful supporters. But for someone aiming to displace him, this approach is counterproductive because it only undercuts the case for a challenger. If Joe Biden was not legitimately elected, then why shouldn’t Trump be the 2024 nominee to reclaim what was stolen from him? Casting Trump as the victim of a “weaponised” prosecutor may simply encourage primary voters to rally around him.
Kemp has sailed between Scylla and Charybdis. He has been unafraid to draw strong contrasts with Trump. While not being personally nasty to him, he has also forthrightly said that the 2020 election “was not stolen”. Trying to have it halfway on the legitimacy of the 2020 election would not have strengthened Kemp in his 2022 primary but fatally undermined his position. The Governor has also rebuked an effort by Trump allies to organise an emergency session of the Georgia legislature to investigate the Fulton County district attorney who has indicted Trump.
However, even if Kemp has broken with Trump on key normative issues, he has also governed like a…Republican governor. He has cut taxes and expanded school choice. He has been willing to take fierce incoming fire from Democrats on issues ranging from election reforms to abortion. That record gave him the credibility among Republicans to rout his primary opponent.
Some candidates might be starting to move in Kemp’s direction. In the first Republican debate, Nikki Haley outlined some of the clear political weaknesses of a Trump nomination and clashed with Trump-allied Vivek Ramaswamy. For that, she was rewarded with a boost in support. She has risen to third place in national polls by CNN and the Wall Street Journal. She has also seen an improvement in early primary states. Another CNN poll shows her with the strongest general election advantage over Joe Biden (six points). Sensing political opportunity, Haley’s campaign may be doubling down on this strategy of tempered contrasts.
Drawing contrasts may be necessary for a Trump challenger to have a shot at getting a message out, but the specifics of the message also matter. Nevertheless, Haley’s bump in support may be a sign to other Republicans that there are political rewards to be found in drawing contrasts with the current frontrunner.
Phyllis Schlafly’s 1964 conservative bestseller was titled A Choice Not an Echo. Republicans who hope to displace Trump might want to remember that motto.