The Many Faces of Brian Kemp
Among prominent Republicans who have emulated Donald Trump, Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia, is least dependent on the MAGA brand. During his first run for governor in 2018, Kemp became notorious for his reactionary campaign ads, including one in which he mugged for the camera with a rifle and a chainsaw and promised to round up “criminal illegals” in his pickup truck. Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent in that race, Stacey Abrams, a former state representative and voting rights activist, highlighted Kemp’s part in purging vast numbers of voters from the rolls as Georgia’s secretary of state—over 1.5 million, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, a number that has only grown under Kemp’s governorship and the Republican-controlled state legislature. Voter suppression, as investigations into the state’s Election Integrity Act of 2021 attest, has been critical to how Kemp obtains and wields power. Like many other Republicans, he has fed unfounded right-wing conspiracy theories about voter fraud by Democratic supporters: “The question is,” Kemp said to Abrams in a 2018 debate, “why are you encouraging people to break the law for you in this election?”
Yet in other ways, Kemp cuts a more sanguine figure, especially compared to the agitated bombast of Florida’s Ron DeSantis or the draconian disposition of Texas’s Greg Abbott. His strong approval numbers in the face of Abrams’s second, less competitive campaign can be attributed to a focus on bread-and-butter issues and canny political maneuvers that go beyond traditional conservative red meat. It’s an approach that harkens back to an era when Sunbelt leaders from both parties foremost promulgated “pro-growth” policies. Sensitive to both the demands of a right-wing base and the need to court less ideological voters across the economic spectrum, Kemp harnesses the swagger of the populist right but has often retreated from explicit demagoguery, preferring a course that stresses Georgia’s attraction for new industry—including renewable energy firms. A conventional booster of business development, particularly for rural Georgia, he has built a coalition of upper-middle class suburban voters and rural, lower-income whites that he hopes will carry him again to victory in his rematch with Abrams this November. As a former small business owner who specialized in “spec homes” and later became a millionaire real estate investor, Kemp plays up his experience with hardscrabble entrepreneurship to voters and local media.
What makes Kemp exceptional in today’s authoritarian, hard-right Republican Party, however, is his unguarded enthusiasm for green capital, from solar companies to the “electric mobility ecosystem.” Press releases from his office have touted new manufacturing plants—proposed or under construction—by companies such as QCells, a South Korean solar panel firm; Rivian, an electric truck company based in California; Silicon Ranch, another solar panel firm whose largest shareholder is Shell; Hyundai’s electric vehicle division; as well as other fixed investments pertinent to the supply chain and infrastructure of climate resilience. Kemp’s drive to make Georgia a hub for renewables is central to an aggressive development strategy that is calculated to pay political dividends. With the state unemployment rate at 2.8 percent—the lowest level since 1976—Kemp is in an easy position to claim economic success even as he has sown division over public health since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Following the initial federal shutdown of the national economy in March 2020 to contain the virus, Kemp led the charge among GOP governors to rapidly reopen their state economies and has opposed mask and vaccine mandates.)
Despite his embrace of green capital, Kemp evades the subject of climate change. In a recent address that took place in Duluth to Gwinnett Clean & Beautiful, a conservation and environmental group in the Atlanta suburb of Lawrenceville, he praised Rivian and Hyundai for their dedication to “making a greener world.” But he has mostly stuck to a narrow message about the economic benefits that clean energy production and innovation will bring to Georgia. Organizations such as Conservatives for Clean Energy highlight Kemp’s record of supporting renewables, providing a window into how business interests may align with Republicans who trumpet the emerging renewables sector as a means to secure “energy independence.” While Kemp confidently points to a budget surplus—largely generated by the CARES Act and Biden’s American Recovery Plan—as evidence of his sound fiscal and pandemic policies, much of Georgia’s prospective growth in clean energy investment and production hinges on generous tax breaks and other incentives.
The dynamic growth for which Kemp eagerly claims credit is primarily the fruit of a subsidy-based, mini-industrial policy. On the one hand, Kemp’s initiatives are in keeping with a strategy of Southern developmentalism that stretches back decades. Proceeding from the cutthroat competition of Southern textile mills that slowly eroded the position of New England manufacturers to the rise of the military-industrial complex in the postwar era, underdeveloped Southern states played catchup in the second half of the twentieth century through a combination of low tax rates, low wages, and few regulations. Right-to-work laws that curbed unionization further enticed domestic capital to shift manufacturing to the region, and in recent decades, automotive giants from South Korea, Japan, and Germany have set up shop, partly offsetting the loss of local industry caused by NAFTA and other trade deals. In this light, Kemp’s successful overtures to Rivian and other renewable energy firms are not an aberration; green capital isn’t inherently more sympathetic to organized labor, as a recent exposé of Rivian’s poor labor practices shows.
More broadly, Georgia’s ostensibly laissez-faire conditions belie a history of extensive federal support that originated with the New Deal’s developmental agenda for the South and Southwest and continued through Ronald Reagan’s military Keynesianism, which facilitated the economic diversification, urbanization, and increasing prosperity of this former cotton state. In recent years, Georgia has turned to public-private partnerships (PPPs) to accelerate growth and plug shortfalls in municipal and social infrastructure. Under Kemp’s predecessor, Nathan Deal, Georgia enacted the Partnership for Public Facilities and Infrastructure Act—effectively privatizing municipal projects wherever possible. As the examples of other city and state development agencies over the last half century have shown, increasing local reliance on PPPs, nonprofits, and the private sector for public services can exacerbate poverty and other socioeconomic and racial disparities—key issues for Abrams that are, unsurprisingly, missing from Kemp’s portrait of economic progress.
Kemp’s development strategy is therefore emblematic of the peculiar entwinement of the legacies of Cold War liberalism and neoliberal prescriptions to stimulate markets. While he has launched The Georgia Electric Mobility and Innovation Alliance, a new multisector partnership, federal transfers continue to underwrite the state’s pro-business tax and regulatory environment, reinforcing the hand of conservatives who are resistant to more egalitarian public investment and distribution. In April, Kemp signed a regressive flat tax bill projected to cut $1 billion from state revenue.
On the other hand, Kemp’s support of renewables suggests a grander ambition for Georgia’s continued development as well as his own political future. More than just competing with other states and regions to attract investment that can accelerate an energy transition, Kemp is signaling that Georgia should be at the forefront of new and advanced manufacturing. Rather than play perpetual catch-up, Kemp wants to sell Georgia as an economic powerhouse. His steady emphasis on rural development, meanwhile, appears to be an indirect way to address one aspect of economic inequality without naming it as such—similar to how he frames the importance of clean energy in terms that skirt the widespread climate denialism in the Republican Party.
Kemp’s marriage of old-fashioned boosterism with industrial policy points to the deepening complexities of energy and climate politics outside of Washington. Notwithstanding formulaic attacks on the fiscal policies of the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats, Kemp and Georgia stand to benefit from Joe Biden’s industrial strategy, which encompasses investments in infrastructure, onshoring mechanisms to facilitate targeted reindustrialization, and a bevy of tax credits and related incentives to ramp up the domestic production of renewables. In short, the sudden revival of the Hamiltonian tradition within the Democratic Party dovetails with Kemp’s determination to shape his increasingly national profile on the basis of his economic record.
The demands of hyper-partisanship and the Republican base, however, require more from Kemp than a redux of supply-side economics and productivism. Kemp may dedicate his press releases to business investment and job creation, but his history in government shows a knack for consolidating power and dispatching rivals alongside a desire to deliver victories to social conservatives. Kemp’s relative lack of demagogic tendencies when compared to the hardcore MAGA crowd is indeed just that: relative. The stylistic inconsistency reflected in his oscillation between “mainstream” business champion and pugnacious political operator is deliberate, as a testimonial from Prosper Group, a campaign firm he hired during the 2018 gubernatorial race, reveals. “Following the hard-fought primary and primary runoff,” Prosper Group explains, “the Kemp for Governor campaign had to pivot immediately to more nuanced messaging in its advertising campaigns, targeting both a broader non-Republican audience and those who had voted for President Trump.”
Kemp has continued to hone these pivots. His resounding primary victory over Trump’s handpicked challenger, David Perdue, demonstrated a clear ability to deflect Trump’s vitriol, which sprung from Kemp’s less-than-heroic refusal to tamper with Biden’s 2020 election victory in Georgia. (“It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to fold up and do something different,” he asserted in a local television interview, but he “swore to protect the laws and constitution of this state and the constitution of the United States.”) It’s unclear, though, how much Kemp needs to worry about disgruntlement on his right flank. While his attacks on pandemic mandates were pitched to libertarians and small business owners, Kemp’s firm alignment with militant anti-abortion groups and legislators illustrates his deep commitment to religious and social conservatism. In May 2019, he signed into state law a bill that banned abortion the moment cardiac activity can be detected in an embryo—effectively at six weeks, around the time most women first discover that they’re pregnant. This decision to take the lead in anti-choice legislation has marked him, like other zealots in the GOP, as entirely callous toward and ignorant of women’s reproductive health in the eyes of Democrats and moderate independents.
Expanding his repertoire of consumerist politics seems to be the key to neutralizing attacks from both sides: that Kemp is an extremist, or, from the perspective of hardcore Trump loyalists, a phony conservative. The counterpart to his strategy to attract green investment has been an array of well-timed policy announcements. Ahead of the Republican primary, Kemp announced tax rebates of $250, $375, or $500 depending on filing status; in August, he promised that stimulus checks of $350 would be delivered to three million low-income Georgians—after cutting off a pandemic-related increase in SNAP benefits earlier in the spring. He also extended a gas tax holiday from March into mid-September and has floated another tax rebate, this time for property owners. The pattern reveals an intent to court a broad range of constituencies. In his State of the State address in January, for example, Kemp vowed to raise teachers’ salaries by $2,000 and boost pay for state employees. And, in a bid to further energize social conservatives, as soon as the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Georgia’s abortion law in July, the state’s Revenue Department announced that, starting after July 20, all “unborn” children—including six-week-old embryos—would qualify for a $3,000 tax exemption for family dependents on tax filings for 2022.
While Kemp is not the only Republican governor to have announced state-level stimulus checks, these examples underscore that, in his campaign for reelection, he wants to keep voters squarely focused on his economic record. Framed by the governor as a source of relief from the pandemic and inflation, Kemp’s measures are clearly meant to blunt the appeal of Abrams’s vision of inclusive development. To a certain degree, his tactics recall the ad hoc populism deployed by many Democratic bosses of the old, Jim Crow “Solid South,” but they also correspond to the welfarist and natalist strategies of certain right-wing nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe. This raises the possibility of a broader strategy at play. With scant evidence, a small faction of right-wing intellectuals and Republican politicians have insisted over the last few years that the GOP is developing ideas to attract and serve working-class voters along this model. When they have not concerned industrial policy, these ideas have mostly consisted of tepid overtures to unions and natalist tax credits. By charting a course that combines booming development with what critics might call bald, “kitchen table” vote-buying—the recipe for economic populism that some observers feared Trump would execute—Kemp is proving to be one of the few Republicans to repeatedly dabble in a form of openly distributive politics.
One can only speculate over how much Kemp will further dole out benefits and stoke private investment if he wins reelection. As he is again counting on a contingent of moderate voters to secure victory, it is not altogether implausible that he will stealthily distance himself from the most extreme forces in the GOP while telegraphing a concern for underserved communities, especially given projections that a majority of Georgians will be people of color by 2030. At the same time, suppressing the vote of Black Georgians and stripping women of their reproductive rights have been as integral to Kemp’s politics as his gambit on renewables. His narrative of economic success, moreover, is undercut by persistent inequality: while Georgia’s poverty rate has declined since the Great Recession, the Black poverty rate, at 19.1 percent as of 2019, is over double the white poverty rate. Should Kemp harbor aspirations to run for president and redefine what it means to be a “mainstream” conservative in a post-Trump GOP, he will be at a severe disadvantage with social moderates and pro-choice suburban women who have been galvanized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs ruling that nullified a federal right to an abortion.
But if the MAGA right falters—and, most importantly, if it fails to steal future state and federal elections through judicial coups—Kemp may claim a way forward for the GOP. An optimistic, “pro-growth” vision that euphemistically promises adaptation to climate change could become the right’s answer to the “supply-side progressivism” that has captivated liberal think tanks, journalists, and the Biden administration. Thus, while Kemp’s record may be warmed over Reaganism, progressives would be wrong to simply dismiss its appeal. In the ongoing fight for a transformational climate policy, Democrats will need to counter the paltry solutions of clean energy conservatism—and the shrewd Georgia Republican bearing them.