Trump’s Tantrum Over Loss Could Smash Georgia GOP
Trump’s anger at Gov. Brian Kemp is making it nearly impossible for the GOP to unify ahead of two runoff elections in the state that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.
ATLANTA—Two years after he made Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, President Donald Trump now appears dead-set on breaking him.
The president has seethed at his loss to President-elect Joe Biden in Georgia, throwing out bizarre conspiracy theories to argue he was robbed and urging Kemp to do something—anything—to reverse the devastating loss, even if it means shattering Republicans in the Peach State in the process.
On Sunday, after weeks of needling Kemp yielded nothing, Trump decided to go nuclear. “The governor’s done nothing, he’s done absolutely nothing,” the president complained to Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo. “I’m ashamed that I endorsed him.”
Twenty-four hours later, the president was still stewing. On Monday morning, he blasted the “hapless” Kemp on Twitter, demanding to know why he didn’t use his “emergency powers” to find what he alleged was a “goldmine” of fraud, the discovery of which would immediately hand him the win in the state, he said.
Trump’s attempt to rescind the very endorsement that powered Kemp through a tough GOP primary in 2018 amounts to a healthy splash of lighter fuel on what was already a combustible situation for the sitting governor. Because not only does Kemp now have a 2022 primary to seriously worry about, but he also has a more immediate concern that Trump’s unfettered anger is making it near-impossible for the entire GOP to unify ahead of a pair of runoff elections in Georgia that will decide control of the U.S. Senate.
The conservative grassroots—taking its cues from Trump and his legal team, who have baselessly alleged widespread fraud—have soured on the governor for presiding over an election that they argue, without evidence, was stolen. Very few top Republicans have pushed back, leaving ample space for the distrust to take root. That steady stream of rhetoric has, in turn, corroded trust in Georgia’s voting system among members of the party base, who are now questioning whether the Jan. 5 runoffs are so hopelessly rigged that it’s not worth showing up to vote.
In a campaign stop in suburban Cobb County on Saturday, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel attempted to assuage those concerns—and was heckled by local Republicans for it. “Why should we vote in this election when we know it’s already decided?” one attendee shouted, according to CNN. “Kemp is a crook!” another exclaimed.
Since Trump’s defeat in the Nov. 3 elections, national Republicans have had to weigh how much collateral damage is acceptable in validating Trump and his supporters’ angst and anger over the result in hopes of saving their Senate majority. The first target was Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, who received death threats—and a push to resign from Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA)—because of his handling of the process. He declined, and has been openly defiant to both the president’s and the sitting senators’ calls for action, insisting instead that he’s adhering to the law.
Now that Trump has truly let loose on Kemp, the governor could become another political casualty of that rage—and the indignity could worsen when Trump visits Georgia on Saturday for a rally intended to boost Perdue and Loeffler. Already, some Georgia Republicans, from local party leaders down to rank-and-file activists, could no longer see themselves backing Kemp in the 2022 primary, or were seriously struggling with the prospect.
Kay Godwin, the chair of the GOP in Pierce County, was vocally critical of Kemp even before November. And Godwin, who campaigned for Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) in his Senate race and is also chairman of the group Georgia Conservatives in Action, was among those saying the 2020 election has only made Kemp’s position more perilous. Though she said the focus should be on the January runoffs, Godwin predicted Kemp “will be primaried… Just hoping and praying we get the right one this time.”
Still, the current GOP civil war in Georgia is hardly a shocking sight to party veterans who’ve seen many intraparty struggles come and go. “There’s nothing Georgia Republicans love more than a fight,” said Rusty Paul, a former chair of the state GOP. “Especially if it’s with a fellow Republican.”
But many find it hard to downplay the toxicity of this fight—and the fact that a changing Georgia has made the price of such fighting higher than ever, for the January runoffs and for 2022. “You should have done something’… that’s the mindset people have right now,” said Paul. “That [Kemp] should have been more engaged. That’s a tough position to be in. That’s the same tough position that Perdue and Loeffler find themselves in.”
“Georgia is such a competitive state right now that simply winning the primary isn’t enough anymore,” continued Paul. “You’ve gotta have your eyes focused on the general election. You can’t go out and primary the governor and take him down, or the secretary of state or another incumbent, and just assume… that you’re going to be successful in the general election.”
Republicans like Paul expressed hope that, in the coming weeks and months, Republicans will lay down their arms, go all-in on retaining the Senate and, looking to 2022, bypass bruising internal fights in order to protect their hold on the state from an energized Democratic Party.
It may no longer be possible, however, for a Republican to win a primary from inside Trump’s doghouse, even if Trump himself will be out of office when Kemp next faces voters. And the election distress may have proven a decisive third strike with Trump for the embattled governor.
The first came in December 2019, when Kemp appointed Loeffler, an ultra-wealthy Atlantan with deep political ties, to a vacant U.S. Senate seat—passing over Collins, a staunch defender of the president during the impeachment inquiry. Trump had reportedly pushed hard for Kemp to choose Collins and nursed lingering disappointment that he did not, though he did remain neutral in the contest after the congressman jumped in the race anyway.
Later, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Trump took his grievances with Kemp public. In April, he berated the GOP governor for opening up his state too soon, even as Trump was pushing states to do precisely that. “I want them to open as soon as possible and I want the state to open,” he said during a press briefing. “But I was not happy with Brian Kemp. I will tell you that.”
Since then, Trump has dangled the prospect of his disapproval over the governor, seemingly delighting in making him sweat. In a mid-October rally in Macon, Trump touted his giving “a very early endorsement” of Kemp’s 2018 run for governor—in fact, he only endorsed him days before the GOP runoff—and jokingly issued the threat that he ultimately carried out.
“How am I doing by the way, Brian, are we going to win it?” Trump asked. “‘Cuz if we’re not, I'll tell you what, I'm going to take my endorsement away from him if I don’t.”
Trump and his supporters’ dissatisfaction with Kemp stems from the apparent belief that the president could not have possibly lost Georgia and, therefore, incompetence from state officials such as the governor is the only explanation for the baffling result.
That angst among some Georgia Republicans is rooted in the belief that Kemp did not use his power to call a special session of the legislature to pass major changes to state voting rules—around absentee ballots’ signatures, particularly—that Trump supporters believe contributed to “fraud,” despite there being no evidence of such activity. Some even wanted Kemp to somehow try to deny the certification of Georgia’s results for Biden, even though Biden won the state by 12,000 votes after each vote was recounted by hand.
At a Nov. 21 rally at the Georgia State Capitol protesting the “steal”—and COVID prevention measures, generally—members of the crowd were spotted with signs that urged: “Primary Kemp.” An anti-Kemp website advertised on the signs said on its main page that Kemp’s opposition to a special session “may very well cost conservatives two Senate seats in Georgia, handing over the U.S. Senate majority to the Democrats with Kamala Harris presiding over the body.”
“We are committed to his removal,” reads the site, which does not disclose a funder. “Recall? Impeachment? Primarying him?”
But there are more bizarre factors at work. Sidney Powell, formerly a member of the president’s legal team fighting to throw out the election results, has woven an elaborate web of alleged fraud and conspiracy that ensnared Kemp. Powell has alleged that the electronic vote-counting system from the company Dominion, used in Georgia, was programmed by the regime of the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. And in a Nov. 21 interview with the pro-Trump outlet Newsmax, Powell claimed, without evidence, that Kemp had been bribed to ensure Trump’s defeat in Georgia.
These claims have been roundly debunked and discredited by leading Republican officials nationally and in Georgia, including Raffensperger. Most party leaders understand that there was nothing Kemp could do to ensure Trump’s win—and more to the point, that such a task is not in his job description. But among local leaders and the rank-and-file, the belief that Trump actually won Georgia is widespread, and some have invoked claims made by Powell and her ally, Atlanta attorney Lin Wood, to supposedly make that case.
Scott Jay, the chair of the GOP in Newton County, said there were “too many questions” about Kemp for him to support him right now, citing Wood and Powell’s allegations to discredit Georgia’s election.
Jay said he would prefer to see Kemp primaried in ’22, but did not say by whom. “I will have to wait and see how all this plays out,” Jay said of Kemp. “I’ll vote based upon actions, upon results. He can show me solid results in a conservative manner moving forward, he may regain my vote.”
A GOP volunteer monitoring Fulton County’s recount in downtown Atlanta who spoke to The Daily Beast on Saturday expressed a strong conviction that Trump had, in truth, won Georgia. The north Atlanta woman, who did not want to be named, said Kemp did not have “a chance in heck” to win a primary in 2022.
Through it all, Kemp has steadfastly validated the president’s anger, however unfounded, as he attempts to defend his own leadership, and his standing with the GOP base, at the same time. Kemp’s office did not respond to a request for comment about Trump’s most recent comments Sunday morning.
But during a COVID-focused press conference Tuesday, the governor briefly made clear he continued “to stand with the president and I support his decision to ensure that every legal vote is counted.”
Moments later, however, Kemp attempted to address the conspiracy-fueled attacks without mentioning the specific people—Trump chief among them—who are lodging the attacks.
“Over the last several weeks, unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of misinformation and more recently, quite honestly, baseless attacks that are absolutely absurd and accusations made against myself and my family,” Kemp said. “These are ridiculous. They only seek to breed fear, create confusion and sow discord amongst our citizens.”
In an example of how complex the mood is within the Georgia GOP right now, Laurie Crozier, the chair of the Clay County Republican Party, praised Kemp in one breath and then quickly moved to attacking Raffensperger, calling for the secretary of state to be recalled and arguing he “has done a disservice to his party in Georgia in how he has handled this entire election.”
After Trump’s loss and ahead of the pivotal Senate runoffs, Crozier told The Daily Beast before Thanksgiving that Kemp probably has a “40 percent chance” of being primaried. Echoing other Republicans, she said it will be key to see how well the GOP can unify in the coming months.
By Sunday, it became clear that unification would be far off. When told about Trump’s attack on Kemp earlier in the day, Crozier let out a sigh.
“Trump gets to say what he wants. He’s angry, and I understand, he has a right to be angry,” she said. “And Trump tends to lash out at people when he does that, when he gets mad about something. That’s his normal M.O. and part of that is probably what’s costing him the White House.”