ATLANTA—Bristling at his defeat in Georgia, President Donald Trump increasingly believes that Gov. Brian Kemp has not done enough to deliver him a victory or challenge the state’s election results. Now, sources close to the president—and Republicans in Georgia—say it is a foregone conclusion that Trump will help stand up a primary challenger to Kemp when the Republican is up for re-election in 2022.
“It’s a fait accompli,” said one veteran Trump political adviser.
According to two people who’ve discussed Kemp with the president this month, Trump has largely focused on how Kemp would be “nothing” without him or his endorsement in the 2018 gubernatorial primary. The president has also mentioned that he’s looking forward to fundraising and campaigning against Kemp in Georgia, in the likelihood that a GOP primary challenger emerges.
One of the sources said that Trump had privately compared his desire to see Kemp’s political future ruined to how he wanted to see the political implosion of his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, during an attempted comeback this year in Alabama.
Kemp’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast. But not everyone allied with the president thought that challenging the governor would be a good idea.
“It is not wise because if you haven’t learned anything from the Senate race this year, you could at least say that having two strong candidates has nearly cost us the seat,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA). “ So I think that Georgia no longer has the luxury of having a divided Republican primary and then going on to win in November.”
Trump has not seemed worried about such considerations. Publicly, he has toyed with recruiting a primary challenger to Kemp. Onstage in Georgia at a recent rally for the GOP’s candidates for Senate there, he turned to his close ally Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) and asked, “you want to run for governor in two years?” The crowd of thousands burst into cheers and applause at the very suggestion.
Collins, who led Trump’s recount efforts in Georgia after failing to make the U.S. Senate runoff election, has responded diplomatically but in a manner that doesn’t rule out a possible bid. At a December rally for the Senate in his hometown of Gainesville, the outgoing congressman told The Daily Beast, “the only political decision I’m thinking about right now is getting these two senators elected.” Asked if he was ruling it out, he declined to expand beyond his initial statement.
The outgoing president’s continued obsession with getting revenge on Kemp has trickled down throughout his universe of devoted followers and allies. In a column outlining his vision of the future of the Trump movement last week, campaign advisor Steve Cortes explicitly called for knocking out Kemp in the 2022 cycle.
“[S]erious candidates must also be equipped to challenge the many squish Republicans who failed our movement in recent weeks,” he wrote, “such as Governor Kemp of Georgia..."
On Sunday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted an encouragement for Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia football star and GOP surrogate, to run against Kemp. “Think about it buddy,” said Trump Jr.
Trumpworld’s efforts to exact revenge on Kemp have annoyed various Republican officials and operatives who fear that the president is zapping needed enthusiasm for the GOP candidates currently in Senate runoffs in Georgia.
In Georgia’s GOP circles, the scorched-earth campaign against Kemp has sparked debate about just how enduring Trump’s hold may be on the Republican Party, and how long he can harness resentment among his base over the outcome of the 2020 election.
“I foresee the governor being OK,” said one prominent Georgia Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the delicate political situation in the state. “I don’t foresee him getting beat in a primary. He may very well be primaried... That’s an uphill battle. You’re talking about millions of dollars to take out an incumbent governor.”
That Republican argued Kemp is positioned to bring Georgia out of the coronavirus pandemic and improve his reputation through vaccine distribution and economic re-opening campaigns, things that could displace the 2020 election in GOP voters’ minds.
Other Republicans in the state aren’t as bullish on Kemp’s chances.
“Brian Kemp thinks he can weather this storm. He can’t,” Debbie Dooley, the founder of the Atlanta Tea Party and a consistent critic of the governor, told The Daily Beast. “It’s like he is the captain of the Titanic. His governorship is going down. It’s hit an iceberg.”
Within Georgia’s conservative base, Trump’s relentless repetitions of conspiracies about the election have cemented a belief that it was fundamentally corrupt, and that Georgia’s statewide elected officials—all Republicans—were complicit in that corruption. Many voters on the right have taken their cues. At so-called “stop the steal” rallies that have taken place around the state, attendees have held up signs that say “Primary Kemp!”
“Kemp doesn’t have a prayer anymore,” said Carol Susan Cook, a Gainesville resident who went to see Sarah Palin and Collins rally in support of Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA) on Dec. 11. Cook referenced conspiracy theories promoted by the president’s legal team surrounding the Dominion voting systems and believed Kemp was central to them.
Kemp has taken pains to note that he was still in Trump’s sphere, if only physically. On Friday evening, he posted photos to his official Twitter account, announcing that he’d had “a great time at the @WhiteHouse Christmas Party.” The tweet did not go unnoticed in Trump’s political and legal orbit. During a radio program on Sunday, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani obliquely mocked Kemp for getting lost during the visit. Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to Trump and his 2020 campaign, responded to Kemp’s post with a terse reply: “Seriously?”
“I am disgusted and disappointed in Republican leaders, including Kemp, who are actively refusing to uphold their own states’ laws, which were clearly violated in the administration of the 2020 election.” Ellis said in follow-up comments, “this is the moment for conservatives to genuinely conserve our Constitution and rule of law for election integrity—not to just brazenly show up at a party while ignoring their responsibilities.”
Though other figures are mentioned as possible primary challengers—such as Lin Wood, the pro-Trump attorney who has advanced the most far-fetched election conspiracies—the clear favorite among Georgia Republicans who would like to see a Kemp challenger is Collins. Dooley, who backed Collins’ Senate bid against Loeffler, said that he would “clear the field” if he chose to run, and encouraged him to do so as soon as the January runoffs end.
Collins and Kemp already have some tension between them. When Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) announced his retirement in 2019, giving Kemp a Senate seat to fill, Collins—who was Trump’s preferred choice for the vacancy—expressed his interest. Kemp, one Georgia Republican told The Daily Beast, directed the congressman to apply via an online portal, which the operative said was an “insult.”
Trumpworld was later met with the distinct impression that Kemp had always intended to choose Loeffler, and presented her appointment as a foregone conclusion, the Washington Post reported.
Collins’ allies say that he would not run against Kemp out of spite for being passed over for the Senate. But he might if the political upside for him were clear, and several GOP insiders believe that the congressman, who will be out of office in January, is seriously thinking about it.
“I can’t imagine not being interested,” said a GOP operative in the state. “It’s a damn good offer, and you can’t walk away from it.”