Sitting Gov. Brian Kemp — Georgia’s first lifelong Republican chief executive — has become a heavily-challenged incumbent, in part because of his refusal to overturn the 2020 election results on former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of fraud. This dispute hangs heavily over Kemp as he seeks reelection in a potential blockbuster rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams, who lost by little more than 50,000 votes (just 1.4%) in 2018.
And yet, even before he gets to the general election, Kemp faces a synthetic primary challenge from the right by former Sen. David Perdue, whose campaign is grounded on re-litigating the 2020 election. Perdue is not running because he has sincere policy differences with Kemp. His entire campaign is based on a political divide still festering within the GOP that threatens the direction of the party.
By the numbers, Kemp’s record as governor is one that any conservative should be proud to carry into battle. Throughout the course of the pandemic, Kemp has balanced lives with livelihoods and resisted the draconian shutdown measures favored by our colleagues in blue states. November’s jobs report showed Georgia’s unemployment rate falling to 2.8% — the lowest rate in our state’s recorded history. We concluded the 2021 budget year with an almost $2.2 billion surplus and the rainy day fund of $4.3 billion — the state’s legal limit.
Meanwhile, Perdue is a former senator because he failed to beat back a challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff. He failed to work hard enough during the campaign, including refusing to debate Ossoff, and then focused some of his runoff messaging mimicking Trump’s lies about voter fraud. His loss handed Democrats control of the US Senate, which now requires moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to put the brakes on the Biden administration’s agenda.
Perdue’s campaign message for 2022 is as simple as it is misguided: he is promising to carry the torch of Trump’s baseless election conspiracy theories. Among other falsehoods, Trump claimed 5,000 dead people voted in Georgia. Election investigators took a look and found just four absentee ballots from voters who had died, all of which were returned.
Despite the absence of facts or evidence, Perdue remains hellbent on spreading disproved claims — increasing the odds of handing the keys of the governor’s mansion to Abrams, who is seeking her party’s nomination currently unopposed. Make no mistake: for conservative voters, a governor Abrams imperils all that is dear. We should take her at her word when she campaigns as an “unapologetic progressive.”
But then again, the intraparty dispute in Georgia is symbolic of the broader national debate for a Republican Party reckoning with its past and plotting its future. We recently lost former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, our onetime standard-bearer and a genuine American hero, followed by Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who passed away after a yearslong battle with Parkinson’s disease in December.
There are immediate lessons the GOP can take from both Dole and Isakson. Both were unabashed conservatives. Neither could ever be tagged as a milquetoast moderate, as their unsuccessful primary opponents learned the hard way. But they were also willing to roll up their sleeves and work across the aisle to find common ground — and they did it with a smile. Following their passing, the warm wishes poured in from all corners — including Democrats. The tributes were brimming with stories of kindness and compassion, and genuine authenticity.
Both Dole and Isakson knew that winning a primary is half the battle. If we focus only on winning the first half rather than the whole game, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Right now in Georgia, our state’s Republicans continue to focus on destroying each other — and ignoring the increasing threat from the other party.
Isakson’s funeral falls on January 6, 2022 — one year since the dark day that pro-Trump forces stormed the US Capitol. It’s a period that the party must reckon with before earning the right to govern again.
The GOP’s current situation cries out for the type of consensus-building leadership personified by giants like Dole and Isakson. They may be gone, but their lessons can live on in the next generation of GOP leaders. The stakes are high for not only our party, but also the future of our country. Let’s hope we get it right.