The Man Who Neutered Trump

It’s not surprising that Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, fresh off his re-election victory, would take a field trip to the Adventure Outdoors megastore. Shooting ranges, gunsmithing, machetes, tomahawks, ammo, camo, “over 130 yards of gun counters” with more than 18,000 guns in stock — what red-blooded Southern Republican wouldn’t jump at the chance for a holiday-season visit to this Pole Star of Second Amendment vibes nestled in the Atlanta suburbs?

That said, some folks might have found it a tad curious to see Mr. Kemp hanging out in the store’s parking lot, hugging and mugging for the cameras with Herschel Walker, the Republican Party’s deeply problematic Senate nominee. The former football star is in a tick-tight runoff with the incumbent, Raphael Warnock, and Mr. Kemp was imploring the crowd to turn out for him in this Tuesday’s vote. “He will go and fight for those values that we believe in here in our state,” the governor insisted.

Talk about a postural shift. Throughout his re-election race, Mr. Kemp practiced scrupulous social distancing from his ticketmate. The men did not do joint events. (Adventure Outdoors was their first rally together!) Mr. Kemp did not talk up — or even about — Mr. Walker. When asked about the distance between their campaigns, Mr. Kemp tended to make vague noises about supporting “the entire ticket.”

Which, honestly, was the only sensible course of action considering the freak show that has been Mr. Walker’s candidacy. Accusations of domestic abuse? Semi-secret children? Allegations (which he denies) that he paid for abortions for multiple women? Making up stuff about his academic and business ventures? The guy has more baggage than a Kardashian on a round-the-world cruise. No candidate with a sense of self-preservation would want to get close to that hot mess.

Credit…Matthew Pearson/ WABE

But now! Mr. Kemp is having a moment. Having secured another four years in office — despite being targeted for removal in the primaries by a certain bitter ex-president — he is feeling looser, freer, more inclined to lend a hand to his good buddy Herschel.

Way more than a hand, actually. Mr. Kemp put his formidable turnout machine — everything from door knocking to phone banking to microtargeting — at Mr. Walker’s disposal. Or, more precisely, he put it at the disposal of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell. And Mr. Kemp personally has gone all in. In addition to hitting the trail with Mr. Walker, he has been promoting him in media interviews, was featured in a pro-Walker mailer and cut two ads for him.

Whatever happens with Mr. Walker, keep an eye on Mr. Kemp. The 59-year-old Georgia governor is positioning himself to be a major Republican player — one that, unlike so many in his party, is not a complete Trump chump.

If Mr. Kemp’s electoral victory over Stacey Abrams was decisive, besting her by more than seven percentage points, his psychological victory over Donald Trump was devastating, in ways you cannot measure in votes. Mr. Trump had targeted Mr. Kemp for defeat this year, after the governor refused to help him subvert the presidential election results in 2020. The former president put a lot of political capital on the line in his crusade against Mr. Kemp, only to get spanked once again in Georgia. The governor’s refusal to bow to Mr. Trump wound up burnishing his reputation across party lines, which served him well in the purplish state. In the general election last month, Mr. Kemp won 200,000 more votes than Mr. Walker did in his race.

National Republicans are now desperate for Mr. Kemp to help Mr. Walker win over a chunk of those split-ticket voters. Originally, the governor accepted this mission when it still looked as though control of the Senate might once again rest with Georgia. But even after Democrats secured 50 seats, he was happy to go the extra mile for the team.

It’s all upside for Mr. Kemp. No one will seriously blame him if he can’t rescue a candidate as lousy as Mr. Walker, and he wins friends and influence within the party simply by trying. He also gets to wallow in his status as a separate, non-Trumpian power center. After all the abuse he has taken from Mr. Trump, the governor must on some level relish being asked to salvage the former president’s handpicked dud — even as the party made clear it did not want Mr. Trump anywhere near the Peach State this time. And if Mr. Kemp somehow manages to drag Mr. Walker to victory, clawing back one of the two Georgia Senate seats Mr. Trump helped cost the party last year, it will be an ostrich-size feather in his already heavily plumed cap — not to mention a fat thumb in Mr. Trump’s eye.

Mr. Kemp clearly has his sights set on the political road ahead. National Republicans were impressed by how thoroughly he decimated his Trump-orchestrated primary challenge in the governor’s race, ultimately stomping his chief opponent, former Senator David Perdue, by more than 50 points. Post-primary, Mr. McConnell hosted Mr. Kemp for a cozy breakfast in the Senate dining room. In early September, Mr. McConnell was a “special guest” at a Kemp fund-raiser in Washington that touted another 16 Republican senators as “featured guests.”

Mr. Kemp’s work on behalf of Mr. Walker is opening even more doors, helping him forge connections with officials, operatives and donors well beyond Georgia. All of which will come in handy if, say, Mr. Kemp decides he wants to run for federal office one day.

And it sure looks as though he might. Not long before Thanksgiving, he filed the paperwork to form a federal super PAC. Named Hardworking Americans Inc., the organization will help him gain influence — having a pool of political cash tends to raise one’s popularity — and possibly pave his way for a federal campaign.

As it happens, Mr. Kemp’s second term ends in 2026, the same year that Jon Ossoff, Georgia’s other Democratic senator, is up for re-election. There is buzz around the state that this would be a logical next step for the governor — and that it is definitely on his mind.

Of course, 2026 is four eternities away in political terms. But Mr. Kemp has distinguished himself as his own man, having won on his terms in a party increasingly anxious about the former president’s influence. For those who see Mr. Trump as the G.O.P.’s past, Mr. Kemp may look appealingly like its future.

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