JEKYLL ISLAND, Georgia
(AP) — At his state party's annual convention on Saturday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp
drew jeers and boos, revealing the resentment that Republicans
still feel about his role in certifying Democrat Joe Biden
's victory in the presidential race.
Kemp's supporters tried to drown out the taunts, and he pleaded for party unity. As he prepares to run for reelection in 2022, the governor
emphasized his accomplishments, particularly an election overhaul pushed by Republican state lawmakers in response to Donald Trump
's false claims that he lost in November due to voter fraud.
“We must be strong and courageous,” Kemp said, adding that Democrats
. They have billionaires
in New York
.” “That is why we must be united
as well and move forward together,” Kemp said.
However, Kemp never mentioned the former president, who has been attacking him for months and returned to the political arena later Saturday with a speech to North Carolina
Republicans, nor did Kemp ever explicitly state that the 2020 election
was fraudulent or inaccurately tallied, distinguishing him from a parade of other speakers who took the stage, including one of his underdog primary rivals who receives a lot of support.
Kemp maintained enough strength to easily defeat a resolution condemning his handling of the election, which was adopted by at least 15 local party conventions out of 159 counties and two congressional district conventions out of 14; however, the resolutions committee of the state party shelved the matter, and Kemp opponents were unable Saturday to force a full convention vote.
Delegates, however, censured another Republican, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger
, for his more direct role in administering the 2020 elections
. Raffensperger, like Kemp, is running for re-election, but, unlike Kemp, did not attend his own party's convention.
The scene highlighted Trump's iron grip on the Republican Party
even in defeat, as well as the potential peril for Kemp or any other GOP
figure who crosses the former president, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It also left many Kemp supporters worried that Trump loyalists' continued fixation on 2020 will doom the party in the upcoming midterm elections.
“I am terrified of these anti-Kemp Republicans,” said James Hall, a 37-year-old Savannah delegate.
Trump recorded a video message for the convention in which he praised Georgia Republicans in general but never mentioned Kemp. Trump also promised to return to Georgia for a rally “in the very near future,” echoing his promise on Jan. 4, the day before Republicans lost U.S. Senate
runoff elections in Georgia, to spend the 2022 race “campaigning against your governor.”
Hall predicted that such polarization would result in a rematch of the Senate runoffs, in which Democrats Raphael Warnock
and Jon Ossoff defeated Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Republicans lost votes
from hardcore conservatives
enraged by Trump's defeat, and moderates turned off by false claims that Biden's November victory was illegitimate.
“If we keep playing these stupid games about Kemp not being pure enough, we’re going to hand it back to the Democrats,” Hall warned. “It’s just so counterproductive, because he’s the only Republican who can win in November.”
Critics of the governor maintain that he has earned their ire.
“If you don’t support Trump, you don’t get to play,” said Savannah resident Barbara Cunningham, who has been involved with the state party for more than 50 years.
Kemp challenger Vernon Jones echoed that sentiment. A Black former Democrat who backed Trump and switched parties to take on Kemp, Jones played up his race and former partisan affiliation, reminding delegates that Trump and Ronald Reagan
were both Democrats at one time.
Kemp, a lifelong Republican, was labeled a "Republican in Name Only" by Jones, who claimed that the state's "RINO leadership sat on the sidelines" as Trump lost.
He referred to Biden as "Jim Crow Joe" and referred to Stacey Abrams, the Democrats' 2018 governor nominee and likely 2022 nominee, as "the Wicked Witch of the South."
“What are they going to do, play the race card?” Jones enquired, eliciting laughter and roars from the mostly white delegate body
Kemp first enraged the GOP's right flank by appointing Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman, to a Senate vacancy rather than elevating Trump's preferred choice, then-Rep. Doug Collins. That boiled over in November, when Kemp followed state law by certifying Biden's Electoral College slate. He also declined to call a legislative special session to address — or attempt to overturn — the election results.
Cunningham bemoaned, "Kemp could have helped him, but he didn't."
Multiple recounts confirmed Biden's November margin of about 12,000 votes out of 5 million cast, making him the first Democratic
presidential nominee to win Georgia since 1992. Democrats' margins widened in the January Senate runoffs, with Ossoff defeating Perdue by 55,000 votes, and Warnock defeating Loeffler by more than 93,000 votes, or about 2 percentage points.
To be sure, Kemp remains the GOP nomination favorite.
“He has consistently delivered on what Republican voters
want, whether it’s pro-life issues, fiscal issues, or whatever,” said Kevin Gough, a delegate from Glynn County, where the convention was held.
Kemp certainly ticked off such items as tax cuts, new abortion
restrictions that are currently being challenged in court, “measured” relaxation of pandemic
rules to keep businesses open, and opposition to “critical race theory
” being taught in Georgia public schools
Gough claimed that the boos did not represent the entire party.