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One Republican shows how to handle Donald Trump

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has prevailed in political struggles with Trump. Credit: Getty

September 13, 2023 - 1:00pm

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 Unlike some of the ex-president’s foes, he has neither withdrawn from politics nor suffered a primary loss.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.

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.


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Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
10 months ago

I think the author overestimates the extent to which Brian Kemp is a reasonable role model for GOP Presidential candidates. Kemp is basically a typical establishment / Big Business Republican, who tips his cap to the Religious Right / evangelical branch of the party when he absolutely must. But by and large he has served the corporate interests in Atlanta more so than the rural voters in the rest of Georgia. The reason he has navigated the Trump crisis well are due to several specific factors that may not be applicable to the current field of GOP Presidential hopefuls.
(a) Kemp was an early proponent of ending COVID lockdowns and doing everything he could to restart the state’s economy. This earned fierce criticism from Trump, who at the time was still reading the political tea leaves every day to craft his COVID policy. So Kemp’s first real conflict with Trump was on an issue where Trump voters sided with Kemp, not Trump. This has created a legacy of goodwill for Kemp, even among Trump voters. That’s not the kind of thing that Ramaswamy can lean on.
(b) The primary evidence that Kemp has mastered Trumpism is his defeat of Trump-backed David Perdue in the 2022 GOP gubernatorial primary. But the GOP Presidential candidates are running against Trump, not against a Trump-proxy. This really matters, because Perdue was an unusually bad candidate.
Before 2016 Perdue was just another rich businessman who bought his way onto the GOP ticket through a combination of personal wealth and name-recognition. (His first cousin Sonny Perdue had been a two term Georgia governor a few years before David ran for the Senate.) He never had the personality or political nous that Trump displayed in 2016.
Moreover, the prelude to the gubernatorial primary was strange. In 2020 Georgia was trending purple anyhow (you know, carpetbaggers), and those purple trends hit the wall of Trump’s antics mightily, resulting in a super-close election for many Georgia Republicans that year. David Perdue went to a run-off, at the very time that Trump was claiming Georgia’s electoral system was rigged or fraudulent. This depressed GOP turnout in the run-off, costing Perdue his seat (and costing the GOP the Senate). Then he decided to run against Kemp.
So, Perdue ran against Kemp fresh off a Senate loss and basically as a catspaw in Trump’s personal vendetta against Kemp for not supporting Trump’s election fraud claims. This made Perdue, not a strong candidate to begin with, an unusually weak one in the 2022 primary.
To summarize, Kemp has a legacy of executive action as a COVID skeptic which many GOP contenders don’t have (though DeSantis does), and Kemp’s electoral triumph over Trumpism came against a weak ‘spite candidate’ who could never match Trump’s charisma anyhow. To think Kemp defeating Perdue in 2022 is evidence that Kemp has mastered Trumpism is an overreach.

Last edited 10 months ago by Kirk Susong
J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

Excellent comment that provides needed nuance to the main article.

10 months ago

I like that rural Georgia has a town called Social Circle.