By Gabby Orr and Gloria Borger, CNN
Allies of Gov. Brian Kemp and top Republicans in Georgia have recently approached Donald Trump advisers to see if the former President can be persuaded to go easy on the incumbent GOP governor as he fights for reelection, sources told CNN.
The informal effort — which has not involved any direct contact between Trump and Kemp and is unlikely to result in a fixed agreement, according to two people familiar — comes as the Republican governor prepares for the general election against Democrat Stacey Abrams, a progressive star who Trump once claimed “might very well be better” than Kemp as a state executive.
Allies of both men have been unable to shake that comment, as well as Trump’s verbal assault on Kemp over the past year, as one of the most closely watched gubernatorial contests this cycle begins. And although Trump has not specifically criticized Kemp since the May 24 primary contest, his failed attempt to run a primary challenger against the incumbent governor and his baseless claim in a statement last week that Kemp won due to “obvious fraud,” has only heightened the concerns of Republicans across the Peach State and some in Trump’s orbit who worry he could imperil Kemp and other GOP candidates on the ballot in Georgia this November.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported on the effort to convince Trump to lay off of Kemp.
Trump has not yet signaled how he plans to approach the Georgia gubernatorial contest, which is likely to be one of the most expensive races in 2022. While the former President has endorsed other candidates this cycle who were critical of him in the past (most recently, Ohio Senate GOP nominee J.D. Vance, a prominent “Never Trump” voice during the 2016 presidential election), his anger toward Kemp runs unusually deep and virtually no one in his orbit expects him to endorse the GOP incumbent.
The bulk of Trump’s frustration with Kemp stems from the aftermath of the 2020 election in which the governor refused to indulge then-President Trump’s false claims about widespread voter fraud in Georgia and other states.
“We worked hard. We lost. The voters spoke and now there’s no looking back. Kemp won and now we’ve got to look forward,” said conservative radio host John Fredericks, who served as Trump’s Virginia campaign chairman and was one of several Trump allies who campaigned aggressively for former US Sen. David Perdue in the final weeks of his primary challenge against Kemp.
“Over time, President Trump is going to evaluate the options in Georgia and look at the picture long-term and make the right decision for Georgia and the nation,” Fredericks said in a phone interview Thursday.
While Trump is prone to acting on a whim and could reverse course at any time, allies of the former President said there are two compelling reasons for him to quit attacking Kemp. For one, Kemp’s 52-point margin of victory against Perdue in the primary proved that his popularity among Georgia Republicans has endured despite Trump’s blistering criticism. Allies of both men believe Kemp is thus well-positioned to win reelection, setting Trump up for further embarrassment if he continues to target the GOP incumbent after his preferred candidate already lost the primary.
But they also argue that the former President’s odds of winning Georgia if he seeks the GOP presidential nod in 2024 would significantly diminish if Abrams occupied the governor’s mansion and he was blamed for that outcome by Republicans across the state, which has emerged as a true battleground.
“There’s a lot of good reasons for him to not tee off on Kemp every week for his own sake,” said one Georgia GOP operative. “Trying to sink the campaign of an incumbent governor in a crucial battleground probably won’t help in a crowded [presidential] primary.”
If Trump refuses to relent, “he’s going to create a lot of enemies in Georgia,” said a second GOP operative in the state. “The establishment here is done with tiptoeing around his volcanic eruptions — we showed it last week.”
“I would hope that the outcome of last Tuesday’s election would send a signal to [Trump] that Georgia Republicans support the governor,” added Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran Georgia Republican operative.
Asked last week if the former President would ever get behind Kemp, Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington suggested it was extremely unlikely.
“That’s his decision to make. I’m certainly not going to speak for him but I highly doubt it,” Harrington told the far-right online network LindellTV.
Does Kemp need Trump?
As Trump plots his next moves in Georgia, where four of his endorsed candidates were crushed by their opponents on May 24, Kemp allies have been keeping low expectations for any sort of informal peace deal.
Some of the governor’s top allies went so far as to say it doesn’t really matter to the Republican incumbent if Trump continues to attack him between now and November — suggesting it will hurt the former President more than it will damage Kemp.
“The primary showed that the governor keeping his head down, running on his record and not engaging with Trump was a successful way to run a campaign and I don’t think we’re going to switch to a different strategy now,” said one Kemp adviser.
Another source in touch with Kemp’s team was told the governor doesn’t have any interest in a unity rally, which local and state Republican officials have customarily held on the heels of bruising primaries — including in 2018, after then-Secretary of State Kemp defeated Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in a grueling runoff contest.
“With 74% and more votes than [GOP Senate nominee] Herschel [Walker], this is the unity party,” the source recalled a Kemp aide saying.
Kemp said in a speech ahead of the primary, “We will all unite on the mission to make sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be our governor or our next president.”
Some Trump allies agree that the former President’s influence over Georgia GOP voters is waning, and that any interference against Kemp in the general election may not have much of an impact on the minds of Republicans in the state — including his own MAGA followers.
“Honestly, at this point I think Jesus Christ could tell us not to vote for Kemp and Republicans are still going to vote for him,” said Seth Weathers, a longtime GOP strategist who ran Trump’s Georgia operation in 2016.
Weathers added that although Trump’s feud with Kemp has caught the attention of Republicans in Washington and inside the party’s election apparatus over the past year, he has personally encountered GOP voters in Georgia who remain unaware that any tension exists between the two men.
“I still talk to friends who are like, ‘I’m going to vote for Kemp because he’s the Trump guy,'” he said.
A person close to Perdue echoed that sentiment, dismissing Trump’s vengeance-driven crusade against Kemp as “inconsequential.” Perdue, for his part, pledged to help Kemp defeat Abrams after conceding the primary race.
“People have known Donald Trump doesn’t like Brian Kemp for more than a year but they also know enough about Kemp to form their own opinions. The same way it rolled off people’s backs in May is the same way it will roll of their backs in November,” the Perdue ally said.
Still, there are scenarios in which Trump’s involvement in other Georgia contests could create an awkward situation for Kemp and GOP voters.
Allies of the former President said he could absolutely make another appearance in Georgia before November to rally support for Walker, the GOP Senate nominee who is running against incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, and lieutenant governor hopeful Burt Jones, the first elected official in Georgia to endorse Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and a steadfast believer in Trump’s false 2020 conspiracies. It would be odd, they said, if he omitted any mention of Kemp or Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, who also defeated his Trump-backed primary challenger and has drawn the former President’s fury, during a rally on behalf of other high-profile Georgia Republicans.
“If he were to do that, it would be a slight to all the people who worked pretty hard to get Perdue elected. He’s invested so much in Georgia — and in going against Kemp — that he just can’t do an about-face and walk away from it or suddenly be quiet,” said one outside Trump adviser.
While it is unclear if Trump has been invited by the Jones or Walker campaigns to return to Georgia before November, some Georgia Republican operatives said his presence in a general election could put both men at risk of having to answer uncomfortable questions if he were to use a campaign appearance to put Kemp on blast or continue talking about the 2020 election instead of focusing on top-of-mind issues for Georgia voters.
“If you’re Kemp, I think the best thing you can hope for is that Trump does a rally for Herschel and some of his other candidates like the lieutenant governor nominee, and just doesn’t mention Kemp,” the Perdue ally said.
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