The loyalty of Georgia Republicans to President Donald Trump is unfailing, even if it means defending the president while he verbally tears down their governor.
In interviews Friday with a dozen Republicans in Georgia, GOP followers largely went out of their way to avoid criticizing the president’s strong disagreement with Gov. Brian Kemp’s decision to allow some businesses to reopen Friday. They chose instead to downplay Trump’s approach even as it laid bare that their state governor did not have the president’s public support.
Scott Jay, who leads the Newton County GOP, said it was unfortunate that Trump “decided to kind of take a swing at Brian.”
“I don’t know what the problem was and why he wanted to spit back at Brian Kemp,” Jay said. “But let’s let Brian do the job that he was voted in to do. And if he made a mistake, I guess we will all find out about it and the left will be more than happy to skewer him at the next roasting.”
But moments later he was cheering Trump on, saying “overall, I think he’s done a most exceptional job.”
The decision to try to restore a sense of normalcy at the state level has been a tense topic during the pandemic, and Georgia’s steps this week have produced a picture of Republicans at odds over how such a significant step forward should be handled.
Brian Kemp, who is serving his first term as governor, announced earlier this week that selected businesses could reopen Friday including gyms, barbers, massage therapists, hair salons and bowling alleys. He’s also said the businesses would face “specific restrictions, including adherence to Minimum Basic Operations, social distancing, and regular sanitation.”
That, along with the reopening of tattoo parlors, triggered Trump to publicly state he strongly disagreed with the governor. The president quickly hedged on that reprimand, however, saying, “I want him to do what he thinks is right.”
He was more stern during Thursday’s coronavirus task force briefing, saying, “If you ask me am I happy about it? I’m not happy about it, and I’m not happy about Brian Kemp.”
Trump’s direct rebuke has put the state’s Republicans in the difficult position of trying to support the Republican at home while justifying Trump’s targeting as just a matter of two differing opinions.
“President Trump always says exactly what he thinks,” said Abigail Safford, head of the Laurens County GOP. “He’s not about trying to be politically correct or things of that nature.”
Ginny Hall, the GOP chairwoman in Glynn County, praised Kemp for supporting constitutional rights and giving people a choice. But when it came to Trump’s words, she tried to avoid them.
“I support Trump 100 percent. I absolutely am not going to go down that road,” Hall said. “I think he is having to walk a fine line and he’s probably, I’m not speaking for Trump obviously, but I bet he is going to be very excited to see the positive things that are happening with the state of Georgia as people are allowed to get back to work.”
Trump isn’t alone when it comes to voices on the right questioning Georgia’s reopening push.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) publicly fretted on Twitter earlier this week that he was worried “that our friends and neighbors in Georgia are going too fast too soon.” He also tweeted support for Trump’s calling out Kemp after the president did so at Wednesday’s briefing.
On Fox News, Sean Hannity highlighted Georgia’s move on Thursday, lamenting that “if he does this wrong, they’re going to bludgeon him and not want to open anything.”
“We don’t need the tattoo parlors open yet,” Hannity said. “That’s a dumb idea. And some other of his ideas are pretty dumb.”
Even Republicans who supported Kemp’s decision noted that the reopening comes with high stakes. The push by some Republican governors to roll out reopenings comes with the added gravity that the pandemic is not yet over, and people continue to get sick and die.
“I do think Kemp has solid data on the ground and the fact that he's never shied from taking strong and controversial stances on things, so I take a little bit of comfort that he knows everyone is watching,” said Diane Lewis, the former chairwoman of the Floyd County Republicans. “And I think that probably bodes well for the likely outcome of this experiment.”
For one county leader, it was much easier to find reason to worry in Kemp’s move, saying it’s a decision “he’s gotta live with.”
“I really wish he’d taken it a lot slower,” Kay Godwin, the GOP chairwoman in Pierce County, said. “People say, he’s not demanding that you do it, but in this society all you have to do is to give a little bit of opening and they take a mile.”
Others didn’t have such a hard stance on the business opening decision, but did share some harsh words for Kemp’s decision to appoint Kelly Loeffler to Johnny Isakson’s old Senate seat over Trump favorite Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA).
Loeffler was a surprise choice for the Senate seat, and questionable stock sales in the leadup to the coronavirus largely shutting down the country has only made her a more divisive figure.
Kemp’s conflict with Trump over the reopening appears to only add another layer of difficulties between the two conservative leaders.
One prominent local Republican who supports Loeffler went as far as tying Trump’s criticism of Kemp to the Senate appointment kerfuffle.
“It’s giving him the negative publicity which, quite frankly, I think the president might have wanted to impose on him because of the friction over the U.S. Senate choice,” said Carvel Lewis, the Quitman County Republican chief who is also chair of the local county commission.
Three county chairs made clear in interviews Friday they supported Collins in the Senate race, with two showing greater concern with the Loeffler appointment than with Kemp’s reopening decision.
“A lot of people are disappointed with (Kemp) and I’m afraid he’s going to be in political trouble the next election,” said Larry Odum, the chairman of the Appling County Republicans who’s sided with Collins.
Trump’s handling of governors during the pandemic has been fraught with confusion, and his shifting tone has forced some Republican leaders to push back on the pronouncements coming from the nation’s leader.
The president’s approach has already forced him to make a rare embarrassing rollback after falsely claiming authority over governors’ reopening decisions.
Even so, Trump’s rebuke of Kemp was still a surprise, since the president is fretting about the economic impact of the coronavirus. He’s also been more likely to scorn Democratic governors than directly challenge sitting Republicans.
“The way I understood it was, he disagreed but, I mean, he doesn’t have any plans of interfering,” said Keith Hurley, chairman of the Pike County Republicans. “I like that about Trump. He’s kept his word. So he’s not going to step in and say anything or stop him.”