ATLANTA – Four years can be a lifetime in politics. Especially in Georgia.
Brian Kemp won the 2018 Republican primary for Georgia governor propelled by grassroots conservatives and a late endorsement from then-President Donald Trump. Kemp went on to defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in the general election.
Now, Democrats are riding high on President Joe Biden's win in the state. Trump and his ardent supporters are fuming with Kemp for certifying Biden's victory. And Republicans are reeling from losing two Senate seats.
Still, Kemp is readying to go for it again — he may even get a rematch against Abrams. Ahead of his Saturday reelection campaign launch, The Associated Press talked to Kemp about the race ahead, Abrams, Trump and the new Georgia political landscape. The interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
AP: What’s your bottom-line argument about your accomplishments and what’s left to do?
KEMP: I think just our resiliency to fight through COVID, but also the record. We have so many good things to talk about, the great economy, still the No. 1 state in the country for business. We’re setting records right now and have been during the global pandemic with economic development. We have the lowest unemployment rate of the 10 most populous states in the country. That’s a testament to us trying to do two things: protect lives and livelihoods.
We also have a great agenda that we pushed on education. We have the largest teacher pay raise in state history. We’ve done away with ridiculous amounts of high-stakes testing that was stressing our kids, our parents and our educators. Public safety is a huge issue. People are scared to death, especially in the city of Atlanta. We’ve done as much as anybody in the country when it comes to not only ending human trafficking, but also supporting the victims. We want to continue doing that work.
AP: Coming out of 2020, you’re trying to shore up your Republican support. Are you concerned you’ll face the same problems on the right that hurt Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue?
KEMP: I, for one, learned a lot of lessons looking at the 2020 cycle. There were some really bad things that happened in my eyes as a Republican at the national level. But there were some really good things that happened here in Georgia at the legislative level and around the country when you look at the gains the congressional Republicans made in the House. It’s because those members campaigned on the issues that people care about, and that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing, reminding people what I ran on (and) what I have delivered on.
AP: From your view as a former secretary of state and sitting governor, was President Biden legitimately elected? Did he legitimately win Georgia?
KEMP: Well, he’s currently serving as president, so I would say yes. But look, my role — and I’m going to always do this — I’m going to follow the law and the Constitution. It’s bigger than any party. It’s bigger than any politician, certainly bigger than me. I think if we ever get away from that in this country, it’ll be a very bad day that we may never recover from, and I think a lot of conservatives like myself are now waking up to that fact.
AP: Does it hurt you politically if (former University of Georgia and NFL player) Herschel Walker runs for Senate and President Trump comes to Georgia to criticize you?
KEMP: I learned in politics a long time ago, you can’t control what other people are doing. I’m focused on what I can control, what I can do. I love Herschel Walker. The guy’s a Georgia icon. He’s been a friend, still is, and a supporter of mine. I have no idea what Herschel’s going to do. I think he might be the only one that really knows what he’s going to do himself. ... I think he certainly could bring a lot of things to the table. But as others have mentioned, there’s also a lot of questions out there on that.
As far as President Trump, he did some great things for our country. And I supported and really fought (for) and defended a lot of his policies. I know he feels very strongly about the election. (But) I had to follow the law and the Constitution. I did what I thought was right, and I did what I thought Georgians wanted me to do.
AP: For some conservative voters, their frustrations with you go back to your appointing Sen. Loeffler and not Trump's choice when (former Sen.) Johnny Isakson retired. Do you regret that?
KEMP: No, not at all. She’s a very conservative person. I felt like (having) a female at the top of the ticket going into the 2020 election would be helpful with suburban and urban voters that the party had been leaking for a long time. That obviously didn’t play out because of a bloody primary and a lot of other things. But look, she did a great job as our senator. I think she brought a lot of things to the table that the party still needs. It was just a very unique situation going into that runoff.
AP: How do you put the coalition back together?
KEMP: Remind people of what we’ve done, because a lot of people are so frustrated with things that they heard on the internet or somebody said that weren’t necessarily true. I’m enjoying talking to some of those people and setting the record straight or at least letting them hear my side of the story. (Democrats) want to take us in a completely different direction. They just don’t want to flare off on a little bit of a tangent ... they want to do a 180.
AP: Since you brought up the other side, Stacey Abrams narrowed Democrats’ midterm gap in 2018. Now she’d have a national fundraising base and four more years of registering new voters. If it’s a rematch, are you the favorite or underdog? How do you compete alongside her national celebrity?
KEMP: There’s two ways to run: unopposed and scared. So I’m running scared and hard. I’m not concerned about being a national celebrity. And I’m certainly not concerned with what she or anybody else is doing. I got too much to do every day to worry about that.
AP: You’ve asked the state school board to ban teaching critical race theory. What should Georgia students learn about slavery and segregation? Do you believe problems from those systems remain?
KEMP: They need to learn factual history, and they don’t need to be indoctrinated. I’ve always agreed with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: We can’t run from our history, we have to learn from it, embrace it and be better for it in the future. But it needs to be truthful history and not somebody’s political agenda.
AP: Some of the narratives, especially outside Georgia, caricature you as a central casting Southern governor from another era. Does that bother you, or does it work for your politics?
KEMP: I can’t really control what they’re casting me as, but I know what the truth is. And I think Georgians, at least a lot more of them than in November 2018, know what the truth is versus what they were saying. (Democrats’) whole campaign was I was a racist and I’m a vote suppressor. Well, obviously that’s not true. We’ve done some historic things there. One of them is appointing John King, first Hispanic constitutional officer ever in the state of Georgia (as) insurance commissioner, first Asian and Asian female to the state Supreme Court, first African American female superior court judge in Gwinnett County. So, the record is there for people to know that that is just a lie.
Look, I am a hardworking country guy, (been) in agriculture and farming. I’m proud of the rural roots that I’ve developed over the years. I tell people all the time I’ve been on the back of a backhoe, but I’ve also been in the boardroom. That’s actually good for our state because parts of our state are very different, (and) you need somebody that can relate and resonate with all of those factions.