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Brian Kemp Shows Republicans How to Shake Off Donald Trump

Brian Kemp Shows Republicans How to Shake Off Donald Trump

The Georgia governor has a wide lead in the polls despite having infuriated the former president.

Jason L. Riley, WSJ

Oct. 18, 2022 6:11 pm ET


Democrats know how to beat Donald Trump, which is why they privately hope he never exits the political stage. It’s Republicans who can’t figure out how to deal with the former president. Fortunately for the GOP, Georgia might offer some clues.


No one will be surprised if control of the U.S. Senate is determined by the race between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock, who won the seat in a 2021 special-election runoff, and his Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia football star. That’s one reason the contest has received outsize coverage in the media.


But Republicans should also pay close attention to the governor’s race between Republican incumbent Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, the voting-rights activist and progressive darling. Mr. Kemp’s lead has been significant and steady, and if he prevails on Election Day his campaign could serve as a road map for other Republicans hoping to escape Mr. Trump’s shadow without turning off Trump supporters.


In the Senate race, Mr. Walker’s inexperience, personal foibles and questionable fitness for office have dominated press coverage. Many Republican officials in the state anticipated as much, which is why Mr. Walker wasn’t their first choice. He was Mr. Trump’s choice, and Mr. Trump got his way. Absent Mr. Trump’s urging, Mr. Walker, who has known Mr. Trump since the 1980s, almost certainly wouldn’t have sought the nomination.


What’s received less attention is that Mr. Warnock has run a smart campaign aimed at swing voters. He’s done that partly by running away from a voting record that shows near-lockstep support for President Biden, who is deeply unpopular in the state. The senator has also jettisoned much of the progressive playbook being used by many fellow Democrats running for office this year.


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“Across the country, most Democratic candidates have hung their electoral fortunes on the threat to abortion rights,” McClatchy columnist David Catanese wrote last week. A notable exception is Mr. Warnock. “In more than a dozen TV ads the first-term Democratic senator has run over the past year, none has mentioned reproductive rights. His campaign doesn’t harp on the right to choose in its press releases or relentlessly highlight the impact of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision,” he added. It’s “an intentional strategic omission” designed to avoid alienating the black churchgoers who are “an integral piece of Warnock’s fragile coalition that hold complex and evolving views on whether and when it’s morally acceptable to end a pregnancy.”


Mr. Warnock’s wisest move might be that he hasn’t spent much time campaigning with Ms. Abrams, whose race against Mr. Kemp is a rematch of the 2018 gubernatorial contest. Ms. Abrams has elevated issues such as abortion, gun control and supposed threats to black voting rights. She has supported defunding the police and regularly draws attention to her race and sex, as she did in her televised debate on Tuesday with Mr. Kemp. Still, she’s expected to lose again, by more than she did last time, and her support among blacks has declined from four years ago. Meanwhile, Mr. Kemp’s share of the black vote is expected to increase and could exceed what Mr. Walker receives in his Senate race.


Mr. Kemp’s focus on economic growth and his efforts to reopen the state in the early days of the pandemic seems to be resonating. The governor has never trailed in the race and currently holds a 5-point lead, based on the RealClearPolitics polling average. Mr. Kemp’s campaign performance thus far is even more impressive because he faced such strong Trump headwinds. In 2020 Mr. Kemp resisted pressure from Mr. Trump to overturn the Georgia election results after Mr. Biden narrowly won the state. In response, Mr. Trump tried to end Mr. Kemp’s political career.


Mr. Trump recruited former Sen. David Perdue to challenge Mr. Kemp in a primary earlier this year. The former president then campaigned for Mr. Perdue and used his political organizations to fund television ads attacking Mr. Kemp. Nevertheless, the governor won the primary with 74% of the vote, exposing the limits of Mr. Trump’s grievance politics and his hold on the party’s base. Mr. Trump has made a spectacle of his disagreements with Mr. Kemp—going so far as to say he wants Ms. Abrams to win—but the governor hasn’t responded in kind. Instead, Mr. Kemp has avoided publicly criticizing the former president and largely ignored him. The upshot is that Mr. Kemp enjoys the support of some 95% of Republicans in the state. Other Republican politicians might take note.


What works in Georgia won’t work everywhere, but some variation of Mr. Kemp’s strategy is worth pursuing if Republicans hope to reach a post-Trump era anytime soon. Exercising more self-control than Mr. Trump can go a long way toward marginalizing him without alienating his supporters.

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