Bookman: It took guts for Kemp to openly defy Donald Trump

As Georgia’s then-Secretary of State, Gov. Brian Kemp and his staff mocked allegations of voter suppression, according to emails revealed during a U.S. House Oversight Committee hearing Wednesday on voter suppression in minority communities. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

It turns out that Gov. Brian Kemp is a bit of a gambler. To be honest, he might also be a little smarter and braver than I had credited him for being.

After all, it takes guts for a Republican governor to openly defy Donald Trump these days, and that’s what Kemp has done. Trump made it clear that he wanted to reward one of his most stalwart defenders, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, with an appointment to fill the Senate vacancy left by the retirement of Johnny Isakson. Kemp basically told Trump no.

“No” is not a word that Trump takes well, and as those poor folks in Ukraine can tell you, he isn’t shy about trying to punish those who dare to utter it. A man so insistent on getting his way that he will deny military aid to an ally under attack by Russia – well, he’ll do about anything.

In addition, the Republican Party has pretty much built its continued existence upon total, unquestioned loyalty to their Great Leader, because they truly believe that the only thing keeping them in power is their unity. They may even be correct.

(And yes, it’s odd to see a party that once celebrated states’ rights and a weak federal government now acting as if a president should be able to dictate senatorial appointments. But then again, that same party used to champion free trade and NATO and consider Russia our major competitor. These days, their party identity can change with a presidential tweet.)

Given all that, why would Kemp stiff-arm Trump’s choice and a safe bet in the form of Collins and instead appoint Kelly Loeffler, a wealthy political unknown with less-than-sterling conservative credentials?

Because basically, Kemp has read the election returns. He knows that the short-term political costs of defying Trump may be significant, but he’s also looking at the long term for himself and for his party here in Georgia. It is finally sinking in that the future for a party with a face of conservative white males won’t be much of a future at all, and that they can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing and maintain power in this state.

Next November, however, Loeffler will have to earn her seat in a special election. If Trump swallows this defiance by Kemp, if Collins sets aside his considerable ambition and chooses not to run, if the Sean Hannitys and other enforcers in the conservative thought-police decide to let Kemp slide, and if Loeffler proves an adept politician, then Kemp’s bet has a chance of paying off. But that’s a lot to ask, and it would come at a price.

In officially accepting the appointment Wednesday at the state Capitol, Loeffler had to pledge her total loyalty to Trump, to Second Amendment extremism, to right-to-life legislation, to “The Wall” and all it symbolizes about immigration policy. The situation allows her no wriggle room, no ability to demonstrate any degree of independence or create her own identity, and I’m not sure that suburban women will find Trumpism with a feminine face all that appealing. It sure didn’t work in Georgia’s traditionally Republican Sixth District last year, when incumbent U.S. Rep. Karen Handel lost her seat.

On the other hand, if Collins does choose to run against Loeffler next fall, it would probably be with Trump’s implicit or explicit blessing. If that happens, it’s hard to see Loeffler surviving, and Kemp’s attempt to change direction, even by a degree or two, will have collapsed. Sometimes, the hardest thing in the world is to try to do something different.

Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.