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Brian Kemp prepares to lead Georgia after rough, partisan campaign
Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp speaks with supporters early Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, after a long election night in Athens. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — Georgia’s new governor campaigned as a self-described “politically incorrect conservative” who sealed support among fellow Republicans with an endorsement from President Donald Trump and eked out a close November victory after lobbing a last-minute accusation that the state Democratic Party tried to hack the election.

Now the question is whether Brian Kemp will be as partisan a governor as he was a candidate after he’s sworn into office Monday.

He told reporters during a statewide victory lap last week he plans to work hard to win support from Georgians who didn’t vote for him in November. And he’s already thinking ahead to running again in 2022.

Republicans still control all statewide offices in Georgia and both chambers of the legislature, giving Kemp little short-term need to reach across the aisle. But the 2018 midterms saw Georgia Democrats make their first notable advances in years, including a gain of a dozen seats in the state House.

Continued momentum, spurred by demographic changes as the state becomes less rural and less white, could threaten Georgia’s red-state status in future elections. Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by fewer than 55,000 votes out of 3.9 million cast in November.

A group backed by Abrams has filed a federal lawsuit saying Georgia deprived many low-income and minority voters of their voting rights with Kemp, serving as secretary of state, overseeing the 2018 election. Outgoing state Democratic Party Chairman DuBose Porter, in a final address to party members, called Kemp a “morally corrupt man who knows he has to cheat to win.”

Outgoing GOP Gov. Nathan Deal focused his two terms, above all else, on protecting Georgia’s reputation as a desirable state for businesses to relocate and expand. Deal worked with Democrats on criminal justice reforms aimed at keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison. And he outraged social conservatives by vetoing a so-called “religious freedom” bill that some feared would legalize discrimination against same-sex couples and risk boycott threats by big corporations.

Kemp has revealed few specifics of his agenda for the legislative session that begins in tandem with his inauguration Monday. Touring the state last week, he revisited broad campaign promises to promote small business and economic growth in rural areas, and to crack down on violent gangs.

“Those are bipartisan issues,” Kemp said. “They are going to be my focus of the (legislative) session.”

While competing in a crowded field for the Republican gubernatorial nomination last year, Kemp staked out conservative positions on social issues, pledging to sign tough abortion restrictions and expand gun rights.

He also vowed to sign a version of the religious protection bill that Deal rejected. During the general election campaign with Abrams, Kemp said he would approve only a narrowly drawn version that mirrors an existing 1993 federal law, insisting such a law “doesn’t discriminate.”

Asked at an Augusta stop last week if his 2019 legislative agenda includes a “religious freedom” bill, Kemp replied: “I’m going to be talking about a lot of things I’m going to do legislatively when we get ready to talk about them.”

University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said new governors often try to avoid hot-button issues as they take office.

“Often a person who gets elected in a close contest, they spend an inordinate amount of time in their first term reaching out to people or groups who didn’t support them initially,” Bullock said.

That’s not what some supporters among Kemp’s Republican base want to see.

“From what I’ve noticed, compromise involves Republicans caving on principle and ideology,” said Benjamin Richardson, 36, an information-technology specialist who backed Kemp and turned out to see him in Augusta. “While they have power, they should seize it and use it.”

Democratic state Rep. Scott Holcomb of Atlanta said he can’t yet tell whether Kemp will tack right or try to work across the aisle and set a more moderate tone.

“I’m having trouble reading the tea leaves because he’s said both things,” Holcomb said. “He’s said that he’s interested in bipartisan work to improve our state, but he’s also said that he’s not going to forget his base and is going to push very conservative policies.”

Kemp’s fellow Republican, House Speaker David Ralston, said during a Thursday news conference that he has little appetite for taking up issues that have the “potential to divide us as a state.” Ralston said he did not favor another attempt at passing “religious freedom” legislation.

The schism between Kemp and many Democrats remains deep following the bruising campaign. Two days before Election Day, Kemp directly accused the Georgia Democratic Party of attempting to hack the state’s online voter database. Kemp refused to provide evidence of any hacking, but said party officials were being investigated “for possible cybercrimes.” Democratic Party leaders denied wrongdoing and accused Kemp of abusing his office as Georgia’s then-top elections official.

More than two months later, no further details about that investigation have been released.