ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp has been counted out before — when he launched a long-shot bid for a long-held Democratic state Senate seat, after he lost his first statewide bid for office, from the moment he entered the 2018 governor's race against a better-financed GOP opponent.
But never has he faced the political bind he's in now, squeezed from both sides of the ideological divide by political forces he's unable to contain or corral.
Democrats led by his archrival Stacey Abrams flipped Georgia in the presidential race and swept the U.S. Senate runoffs, ousting Kemp appointee Kelly Loeffler in the process. Once, Loeffler was seen as a potent Kemp running mate in 2022. Now her defeat could be a harbinger of GOP struggles ahead.
On his right flank, President Donald Trump vows to champion a Republican to primary Kemp next year, infuriated the governor didn't attempt to illegally overturn Georgia's election. At GOP events that once showcased Kemp's popularity, crowds now chant that he's a traitor to the conservative cause.
Coming off a string of GOP defeats in high-profile contests, Kemp's political position may be more perilous than it ever has before. But in an interview Monday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the governor had a message for his rivals: Don't count him out.
Kemp said he was planning to run for a second term in 2022, a formal announcement that would likely come later this year. He said he was confident he would defeat a GOP primary challenger, but pointed to the Democratic upset victories in the runoffs as an example of the dangers of dividing the party.
He talked in detail about the strategy behind his selection of Loeffler, a wealthy financial executive, to the open seat — and how a formidable challenge from fellow Republican Doug Collins, a former four-term congressman backed by Trump, scrambled the campaign calculations by forcing Loeffler further to the party's right flank.
And he blamed "distractions" from falsehoods about Georgia's election and internal fissures for depressing Republican turnout. But he pointed to down-ticket victories from state legislative candidates in November, and Public Service Commissioner Bubba McDonald in January, as signs of enduring GOP strength.
"Most Georgians, even if they may disagree with me on an issue like the heartbeat bill, they've been supportive of 90% of the other issues that we've taken on," said Kemp. "That's why we've got to keep our eye on the ball. If we do that, we're going to be very successful in two years."
What follows are lightly edited excerpts of the interview:
Q: On whether Trump's false claims of a 'rigged' election contributed to defeats of Loeffler and U.S. Sen. David Perdue:
"Anybody in the runoff that was talking about other things besides the left, and David and Kelly, to me, was a distraction. There were a lot of people doing that, so I don't want to point the finger at the president or any one person. But I don't know how many times I said the word 'distraction' the month before the election. I had people literally emailing me on Monday before the election calling for a special session. And the real session started in eight days. That is people getting distracted and not focusing on the task."
Q: On Republican messaging on issues like healthcare ahead of 2022:
"Four years ago, you'd ask Republicans what their plan was for health care, and it was to get rid of Obamacare. Nobody knew what the replacement plan was. Well, we weren't going to let that happen. I campaigned on the Patient's First Act and waivers. And we came in, and there was a lot of tough work, but we got that done. We got the waivers done. And now we're going to start implementing it."
As runoff nears, Trump complicates GOP case by demanding that Kemp resign
Q: On whether he's running for a second term:
"I plan on running in 2022. I'm not worried about any kind of primary fight. We'll be victorious. I personally think it's unnecessary. … I hope at the end of the day people come our way, but if they don't, we'll get them back after a potential primary.
"I think when people really start thinking about this and realize what's at stake here, we've seen what a divisive primary does to our chances of winning. You see what we've got now in the Senate with (Raphael) Warnock and (Jon) Ossoff. And if you're a Republican you're not happy about that …
"Look, that's not something I can control. What I can control is making sure we have a good session and continuing to do what we tell people we're going to do. And if we get a primary we've got to deal with, we'll deal with it."
Q: On the conservative backlash for not heeding Trump's demands to reverse his defeat:
"When people start settling down a little bit, and really thinking through this, they're going to realize that I really had taken the conservative approach. And that is supporting and defending the Constitution of this state, the Constitution of the United States.
"I had somebody the other day say, 'We want you to get your shotgun back out and fight.' I said, 'Well, I've had my shotgun and I'm fighting for the law and the Constitution.' If we're going to be a party that is not going to stand up during those times, then we've got a bigger problem than people realize. I don't think people are there — I just think they're not thinking clearly right now."
Q: On the fallout of the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol:
"Well, it certainly woke a lot of people up. I think if people are honest with you, there are some people that are very shocked and they can't believe it. And there are others that are not surprised at all. I'm not surprised at all … "
Q: On how he responds to rampant misinformation about election law in Georgia:
"I tell them I don't have the authority to do that, and I explain the laws and the Constitution. But they still don't believe me. I've told some of them, 'Look, I'm telling you the truth, I'm being honest with you, but I can't make you believe me.' Some people are not at the point where they can believe that yet. That will come with time for most people."
Q: On Kelly Loeffler's defeat:
"I'm very proud of what Kelly did. She fought hard and you can see her transform from being a novice politically to somebody who really got good on the stump. She was energized on the campaign trail, she leaned into it …
"She was just in a place where she unfortunately could not control a lot of things around her, or these distractions. It's disappointing because I don't think she ever really got to run the kind of campaign that I envisioned that is what our party needs to be doing right now."
Q: On what he initially hoped the campaign would highlight:
"I just think when Doug Collins got in the race, it just completely changed the way the jungle primary worked. Even though she won convincingly, and was really strong going into November, you had all these other distractions that just really didn't allow her to do what I thought would have been possible. Sometimes you can't control things in politics – you just deal with it and move on."
Q: On Loeffler's appeal:
"One of the things that I tried to say early on, to the powers that be, is: You can imagine Kelly, with the contacts that she has in the metro area, being a woman and also an outsider and a business person, I think those tentacles have the opportunity to reach a lot of people. And, you know, you think about her campaigning in the metro area with Marty Kemp and Bonnie Perdue and Ivanka Trump and Melania Trump and Karen Pence, Jan Jones — I felt like that would be very appealing. ... And she just never really got the opportunity to do that."