It’s not often that politicians do the right thing and infuriate the most influential figure in their party and the most committed element of their political base and live to tell the tale. Kemp and Raffensperger did. Together with former Vice President Mike Pence, whose separation from Trump is increasingly evident, they form a cadre who have withstood intense pressure to turn their backs on their duty in 2020 – showing courage and of a moral and institutional integrity that will reflect on their credit in the history books.
They also point to a future where the GOP has escaped the box canyon of Trump’s “Stop the Steal” obsessions. That day isn’t here yet, but Tuesday’s results show it may not be far off either.
Trump has lost Georgia three times in two years, which makes General John Bell Hood’s record impressive by comparison. He first lost it to President Joe Biden in November 2020; then to the Democrats in the Senate special election in January 2021 when his rants about how he was robbed in the presidential election sent Republican turnout plummeting; and, finally, in this week’s GOP primaries, when his hand-picked candidates crashed and burned and his planned revenge only ended up embarrassing him and his epigones.
If Trump had calculated his interests rationally, he would have thought twice about making his flagship project for the 2022 primary season a challenge to a politically savvy governor.
Instead, he pulled strings to create a statewide revenge slate defying everyone from Kemp down. Trump wanted to kick state Rep. Vernon Jones out of the gubernatorial primary to make way for his preferred candidate, former Sen. David Perdue. So he brought Jones to the primary for the 10th congressional district, then brought one of his former advisers, Patrick Witt, out of the congressional primary and into a primary against the Kemp-selected incumbent insurance commissioner.
The tape’s story is that Perdue got 21.8% of the vote, Jones got 21.6%, and Witt got 16.7%.
To be fair to Witt, he was sent on a particularly insane suicide mission.
As a 32-year-old former Trump adviser who worked on the president’s legal team that tried to overturn the Georgia result, Witt was running against John King, a former police chief and major general of the Georgia National Guard who is the first Latino to serve in a statewide office in Georgia. Only someone drunk on the supposed power of “Stop the Steal” would think that was a good idea, and given the circumstances, getting close to 17% of the vote was probably an over-achievers.
(The nearly 22% Jones collected, by the way, was enough for second place in a crowded field and he made it a second round.)
Of course, challenging the incumbents isn’t an entirely fair test of political strength, especially when the top-ranked incumbent is as skilful and determined as Kemp. Still, Republican primary voters in Georgia were clearly in favor of moving beyond an all-consuming focus on 2020 and objected to Trump continuing to make the state his political plaything.
Trump has catalyzed healthy and useful changes in the GOP. The coalition moved even further in a working-class direction, paving the way for winning over more working-class minority voters. Given the stakes, the party is more culturally oriented and more combative than before. The debate over its substantive direction is a welcome departure from the outdated approach that took hold before 2016.
The plague is the fixation on 2020 that Trump has encouraged and, whenever possible, insisted on. Some Republican candidates are true believers, like Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and out-of-nowhere serious candidate for the Pennsylvania Senate nomination, Kathy Barnette, who were both outside the U.S. Capitol on 6 january. Many others endorse the “Stop Theft” out of sheer expediency, or try to give the impression that they buy into it by focusing on the bias against Trump in the press and on social media and the ramshackle edits. election rules during the pandemic (both of which were real phenomena.)
Each party has its orthodoxies. For decades, some Republicans have pretended to believe they were anti-abortion or pretended to care about the issue more than they actually do. If you’re an opponent of abortion, this hypocrisy has been a good thing, serving, over time, to cement the party’s status as a party dedicated to protecting unborn life.
Stolen election orthodoxy, on the other hand, compels Republican politicians to say something that is wrong and that most know to be wrong; it institutionalizes a politics of cynicism and fear – fear of both Trump and his constituents; it distracts from Biden’s continued failures; and it’s not helpful in winning over swing voters who care more about the cost of living than what cellphone geolocation data is supposed to tell us about the movements of ballot harvesters in 2020.
Pence, Kemp and Raffensperger are notable for walking through the Trump gauntlet in 2020 unflinchingly and still pursuing active political careers. Candor about Trump and 2020 is usually associated with politicians on their way to retirement. It’s possible to read too much into the victories of Kemp and Raffensperger, who would have been hard to come by without the starting advantages and flawed opponents, while Pence will have a lot to overcome if he shows up in 2024.
But by refusing to abide by the rules set by Trump, they showed a courage that should encourage other members of the party. Being an ambitious Republican doesn’t necessarily mean promoting or accepting lies about 2020 for fear of a lawman whose firepower and writing aren’t quite as advertised.