Republican Brian Kemp credits consistent, good management for his 8-point victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams in their second matchup for the Georgia governor's office. In the end, Kemp was done in neither by the fierce national media criticisms of how he handled COVID, the corporate meltdown over the state's new voting laws, the massive resources that poured in for Abrams, nor even by former President Donald Trump's strident campaign against him in the state's primary.
"We just had a great record to run on, which obviously I didn't have last time," he told the Washington Examiner in an interview. When he ran in 2018, he was only the secretary of state. This time, his record included tax cuts, teacher pay raises and an economy less damaged by COVID-19 than those of many other states.
At a time when Trump's word was often golden in so many states' Republican primaries, Kemp not only defeated but in fact clobbered his Trump-backed Republican primary opponent, former Sen. David Perdue, by 50 points.
"I told our folks going into the primary, 'We have a record to run on offensively in this campaign and I don't ever want to be on the defensive; I want to take the fight to David Perdue and I want to take the fight to Stacey Abrams,'" he explained. "And that's what we did. And if you really look back, I think our team did a really good job of keeping them on their heels and keeping things focused on what we were; we never allowed anybody to get us in the weeds on all this other stuff. And we just ignored all the outside noise; stuff she was pushing, stuff the Left was pushing, stuff that President Trump or whoever may have been pushing."
Kemp credits how he has handled tough times, both campaigns and outside forces, as moments that paved the way and prepared him for this year.
"Ever since I got elected in '18, the likelihood of us having a rematch was going to be there," he said. "So, we developed our own ground game, our own, really, operation to get the vote out, to go after low propensity voters and swing voters and offered them a message of hope and prosperity that appealed to them."
Kemp said he was prepared to be outspent but knew that his team had offered an argument to voters, something for them to vote for and not against, and it served his party well.
"We won every single other constitutional office, and we had a good night with our legislative candidates as well, and we got Herschel (Walker) in a runoff with Warnock," he said. "It's tough beating an incumbent, but anytime you got an incumbent in a runoff in Georgia, there's an opportunity to knock them off."
Kemp went into his first race for governor against Abrams in 2018 as the underdog, with her as the superstar who ran on becoming the nation's first black female governor. She failed, but the media favorably covered her high-profile denial of the election result and spurious claims of mass voter disenfranchisement.
Within two years, many outlets were already writing Kemp's political obituary when he became the target of Trump's wrath. Kemp had enraged Trump by certifying Democrat Joe Biden's victorious slate of presidential electors in Georgia.
A few months later, he faced a different form of wrath from Biden, corporate America and every other news organization in America. They were falsely calling the state's new voting reform law "Jim Crow 2.0," even though most of them hadn't even bothered to skim the legislation -- they just took Democrats' word for it. The MLB went so far as to move the All-Star Game out of the state.
As he did then, Kemp shrugs. "Two of the largest investment companies in the state, Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, really were the ones that started that," he said of the allegations the voting law would somehow suppress minority vote, "and then obviously Major League Baseball piled on; we had a lot we had to stand up to and push through. But I think when we did that, I stayed really focused on what our people wanted, not what the political pressure and a few people wanted."
He also didn't cave under political pressure when he was the first to reopen small parts of the economy during the pandemic -- after the first wave of "stop the spread" and "flatten the curve" passed.
"Of the governors that were doing that at that time, I took obviously the most grief," he said. "At one time, every state around us had their state parks closed or some of their beaches closed, and we never did that," he said.
As a result, Georgia's tourism industry held up fairly well even during the worst part of the pandemic. Plus, people were actually able to go out and walk on the beach.
"We had some regulations around that, but people could get out there and do some exercise and give their kids something to do," Kemp said. "We had people from other states coming and putting in in our boat ramps because they just needed some sanity to get out on the lake and go fishing or do whatever."
Kemp said his approach was to strike the right balance and not get paralyzed by the public health experts. "I know they had a job to do and (the state's commissioner of public health) Dr. (Kathleen) Toomey did too, but she was one of the best and well-trained epidemiologists in the world who was advising me," he said.
"We didn't do mandates on the vaccine or mask, and we pushed hard to get our kids back in the classroom because both Dr. Toomey and I said early on that we got to think about the livelihood effect of people not having economic viability, not having their kids in the classroom, just how hard that is for parents to have to deal with that with no outlet," he added.
"I took a lot of grief from it just because of my political situation on other things that were going on with the president and just those politics," he said. Early in the pandemic, people may forget, Trump himself and several mayors were very critical of Kemp's failure to lock down his state.
"It was a tough time to go through," said Kemp. And he left the criticism of Trump at that. "But also, it was just listening to those folks that were worried about losing their business, and they were worried about where their kids were going. ... What was going to happen to their kids? And that's really who we were fighting for."
Kemp has now filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to create Hardworking Americans Inc., a federal PAC that he plans on using to help Republican candidates for federal office in Georgia. He says standing up for policies and principles is just what he does. He adds he doesn't do it for personal benefit, though sometimes it works out that way.
"In some ways, us standing up to Major League Baseball after we passed the election bill was one of the really first times that somebody started standing up to the woke cancel culture, if you will," he said. "We never backed down from that either, which ended up, looking back, really helped me in the primary and in the general."
Kemp added that he wanted to help other Republicans stand up in similar fashion going forward.