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Is Georgia's Gov a stud?

He is, but he really needs to throw a few hand grenades to get in the national spotlight. Just kidding folks...sort of. I need to start promoting "affable" people (although I have trouble understanding the term).

Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Affable Culture Warrior

The governor who defied Trump to reopen during Covid was also ahead of DeSantis in combating woke corporations.

By James Taranto, WSJ

March 24, 2023 4:24 pm ET

A week after I met Georgia’s governor, he got some good press in the New York Times. Brian Kemp is a Republican, so naturally the compliment was left-handed. Columnist David Brooks lauded Mr. Kemp as part of “the conservative managerial wing of the party,” which consists of governors who are “providing businesslike leadership” in “growing, prospering states.”

That’s in contrast with “populist Tweedledum and populist Tweedledee,” Mr. Brooks’s nicknames for Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. They “put culture war issues front and center” with an “ever-present anti-woke combativeness” that drives Mr. Brooks to disdain. Mr. Kemp functions in this analysis only as a foil—the respectable Republican whose counterexample disqualifies Mr. Trump’s leading prospective challenger for the 2024 presidential nomination.

Like Mr. DeSantis, Mr. Kemp, 59, was elected narrowly in 2018 and re-elected handily in 2022. Anyone who has met both men can attest to their differences in personality and style: Mr. Kemp is affable and keeps a low profile; Mr. DeSantis is cerebral and seems to relish both the political limelight and a good battle of wits. But an hourlong conversation with Mr. Kemp makes clear that Mr. Brooks’s comparison is unfair, although whether it’s unfair to Mr. DeSantis or Mr. Kemp will depend on your partisan leanings.

In Mr. Kemp’s telling, his substantive differences with his southern neighbor are minimal. “DeSantis has been a great governor,” he says, “but my point is, we’ve been right there the whole way. He’s been ahead of us on some things and we’ve been ahead of him on some.” Most notably, Mr. Kemp was ahead on reopening during the Covid-19 pandemic—and that put him and Mr. DeSantis on opposite sides of then-President Trump.

In April 2020, businesses in Georgia were shuttered by government decree as in most of the rest of the country. Mr. Kemp was hearing from desperate entrepreneurs: “ ‘Look man, we’re losing everything we’ve got. We can’t keep doing this.’ And I really felt like there was a lot of people fixin’ to revolt against the government.”

The Trump administration “had that damn graph or matrix or whatever that you had to fit into to be able to do certain things,” Mr. Kemp recalls. “Your cases had to be going down and whatever. Well, we felt like we met the matrix, and so I decided to move forward and open up.” He alerted Vice President Mike Pence, who headed the White House’s coronavirus task force, before publicly announcing his intentions on April 20.

That afternoon Mr. Trump called Mr. Kemp, “and he was furious.” Mr. Kemp recounts the conversation as follows:

“Look, the national media’s all over me about letting you do this,” Mr. Trump said. “And they’re saying you don’t meet whatever.”

Mr. Kemp replied: “Well, Mr. President, we sent your team everything, and they knew what we were doing. You’ve been saying the whole pandemic you trust the governors because we’re closest to the people. Just tell them you may not like what I’m doing, but you’re trusting me because I’m the governor of Georgia and leave it at that. I’ll take the heat.”

“Well, see what you can do,” the president said. “Hair salons aren’t essential and bowling alleys, tattoo parlors aren’t essential.”

“With all due respect, those are our people,” Mr. Kemp said. “They’re the people that elected us. They’re the people that are wondering who’s fighting for them. We’re fixin’ to lose them over this, because they’re about to lose everything. They are not going to sit in their basement and lose everything they got over a virus.”

Mr. Trump publicly attacked Mr. Kemp: “He went on the news at 5 o’clock and just absolutely trashed me. . . . Then the local media’s all over me—it was brutal.” The president was still holding daily press briefings on Covid. “After running over me with the bus on Monday, he backed over me on Tuesday,” Mr. Kemp says. “I could either back down and look weak and lose all respect with the legislators and get hammered in the media, or I could just say, ‘You know what? Screw it, we’re holding the line. We’re going to do what’s right.’ ” He chose the latter course. “Then on Wednesday, him and [Anthony] Fauci did it again, but at that point it didn’t really matter. The damage had already been done there, for me anyway.”

The damage healed quickly once businesses began reopening on Friday, April 24. Mr. Kemp quotes a state lawmaker who said in a phone call: “I went and got my hair cut, and the lady that cuts my hair wanted me to tell you—and she started crying when she told me this story—she said, ‘You tell the governor I appreciate him reopening, to allow me to make a choice, because . . . if I’d have stayed closed, I had a 95% chance of losing everything I’ve ever worked for. But if I open, I only had a 5% chance of getting Covid. And so I decided to open, and the governor gave me that choice.’ ”

At that point, Florida was still shut down. Mr. DeSantis issued his first reopening order on April 29, nine days after Mr. Kemp’s. On April 28, the Florida governor had visited the White House, where, as CNN reported, “he made sure to compliment the President and his handling of the crisis, praise Trump returned in spades.”

Three years later, here’s the thanks Mr. DeSantis gets: This Wednesday Mr. Trump issued a statement excoriating “Ron DeSanctimonious” as “a big Lockdown Governor on the China Virus.” As Mr. Trump now tells the tale, “other Republican Governors did MUCH BETTER than Ron and, because I allowed them this ‘freedom,’ never closed their States. Remember, I left that decision up to the Governors!”

Mr. Kemp was also ahead on the issue that vexes David Brooks: battling woke corporations. Mr. DeSantis famously confronted Disney after it publicly opposed the Parental Rights in Education Act, which restricts public schools’ initiation of pupils into fashionable ideologies about sex. But that wasn’t until 2022.

Three years earlier, Gov. Kemp faced his first boycott threat after signing a “heartbeat” law that prohibits abortion as early as the sixth week of pregnancy. A court order enjoined the state from enforcing the law until last year, but that didn’t stop Hollywood from threatening to shun Georgia, whose Film Tax Incentive program has made the state a center of movie and TV production.

“I didn’t waver,” Mr. Kemp says. Among governors, “I was really the first standing up to the cancel culture.” Though not, he admits, in its most fearsome form: “If you really look, it was just a few of the left-coast actors. Well hell, that was easy for me to push back against.” Georgia’s film industry, he adds, “did great during the pandemic, because we were open and Hollywood was closed.”

The Hollywood heartbeat skirmish turned out to be a mere warm-up. The real workout came in 2021, after Mr. Kemp signed the Election Integrity Act, a reform spurred by Georgia’s embarrassing performance counting the votes in the 2020 election. “There was problems out there,” Mr. Kemp says. “They were mechanical issues with the election that we needed to fix, not all this fraud and abuse that everybody said was out there.” (“Everybody” in this context means Mr. Trump and his most ardent supporters.)

One problem arose because of a surge in absentee voting—from 5% of ballots to as many as 40%—caused by the pandemic. Local officials were overwhelmed by the task of matching so many signatures. The Election Integrity Act requires voters to provide identification when requesting an absentee ballot. It also codifies and regulates the use of ballot drop boxes, which were introduced as a temporary measure during the pandemic, and it imposes mandates on counties designed to reduce long lines at polling stations.

Election regulation can be a neuralgic issue, especially in the South—and of late especially in Georgia, where Mr. Trump wasn’t the first sore loser to claim a recent election was stolen. In 2018 Mr. Kemp beat Stacey Abrams, a former state House minority leader, by 1.4 points. Ms. Abrams, who is black, accused Mr. Kemp of voter suppression and refused to concede.

The combination of Ms. Abrams’s and Mr. Trump’s grievances made the Peach State fertile ground for demagoguery in 2021. President Biden called the Election Integrity Act “Jim Crow 2.0.” Corporations came under pressure to denounce the law, and Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines were among those that yielded. Delta CEO Ed Bastian asserted: “The entire rationale for this bill was based on a lie: that there was widespread voter fraud in Georgia in the 2020 elections.” That was five days after the airline issued a statement praising many of the law’s provisions.

“It’s never easy or a good thing to be having to go after your own businesses, but the CEOs crossed the line,” Mr. Kemp says. “The rank-and-file Delta people were with us. I’d get on a flight; I’d have pilots and flight attendants going, ‘Hey, hang in there. We’re with you. Don’t worry about what the boss is saying.’ ” Coca-Cola “lost business, because people were throwing their products out of convenience stores and stuff. The problem is, that really hurts the bottlers, not corporate Coke, and the bottlers are our people. They have warehouses and their truck drivers live in Tifton,” in the south central part of the state.

Major League Baseball also moved the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver. Mr. Kemp says Commissioner Rob Manfred told him “I am getting a little bit of pressure” and assured him he wouldn’t give in. “And then he called me the next day, literally about 24 hours later on Sunday, and said, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know we’re moving the game.’ ” Atlanta did get a consolation prize—the World Series, in which the hometown Braves defeated the Houston Astros in six games.

Georgia voters seem to like Mr. Kemp’s record. He beat Ms. Abrams in a 2022 rematch by 7.5 points—a wide enough margin that even she conceded, and an improvement of roughly 7.8 points over Mr. Trump’s losing margin in 2020, when Georgia was the closest state in the country. Mr. DeSantis did even better, winning by 19.4 points in a state Mr. Trump carried by 3.3. Contrary to Mr. Brooks, the obvious lesson is that conservative culture warriors can win resoundingly in close states, provided they aren’t crazy. Republican primary voters in 2024, take note.

Mr. Kemp won’t be on the ballot that year. He answers with a flat no when I ask if he’s thinking of a presidential run. So how does he size up the field?

“I have a great relationship with Pence and a really good relationship with DeSantis. Chris Christie came and campaigned for us multiple times, along with a lot of other governors. I know Tim Scott real well. Nikki Haley came and campaigned for us. I’ve known her over the years, and I’ve gotten to meet [Mike] Pompeo a couple of times. So I’m kind of like everybody else, I’m just seeing how things are playing out and keeping an open mind.”

One candidate is missing from that list. “Yeah, I haven’t heard from Trump.”

Mr. Taranto is the Journal’s editorial features editor.

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