The Georgia Senate runoff of 2022 is attracting plenty of Republican speculation about the 2024 presidential election - and not just because of Donald Trump.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, whose star seemed to be fading at the start of the year, is the hot new name in GOP politics.
That's thanks largely his decisive re-election win over Democrat Stacey Abrams, which has pivoted to his aggressive campaigning for Senate runoff candidate Herschel Walker - and his sidelining of Trump, at least in the pivotal state of Georgia.
"Brian Kemp not only survived this year, but he thrived," said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. "There's a certain faction of the Republican Party that just wants to move past Trump and I think Kemp has an argument that he's gone up against Trump and he's won."
At a time when Republicans historically underperformed in the midterms thanks in part to the emergence of unpopular, Trump-endorsed nominees, the 59-year-old Peach State leader stood out as a success story. His name now is being bandied around as a potential Senate or White House contender.
Kemp has deflected questions on whether he might seek the presidency in 2024, telling Fox News he hasn't "ruled in or out anything" but that his focus right now is on Walker's Dec. 6 runoff race against incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
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Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere said they expect Kemp to play a role in national politics, either as a candidate or party elder.
"He's earned a national voice and a national presence in our party," said John Watson, a former chairman of the Georgian Republican Party and a friend of Kemp.
Marci McCarthy, chairwoman of the DeKalb County GOP, said many party activists within the state talk about the governor running against Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff in 2026. She said she hasn't heard speculation about Kemp being in the 2024 presidential bucket, but that his record is strong among the state's conservative base.
"In putting Georgians first, when he terms out (of the governor's mansion) there's certainly a range of political opportunities for him down the road," McCarthy said.
Other GOP thinkers, however, said with Kemp's resume on policy and political wins they certainly expect him to be some kind of factor in 2024, if only because Georgia has become such an important battleground state in the wake of President Joe Biden's victory there in 2020.
Republican strategist Scott Jennings, a CNN political commentator, said the bench of GOP governors - such as Florida's Ron DeSantis and Virginia's Glenn Youngkin - are among the most viable Trump alternatives because they're outside of Washington and they're winners.
"When I hear Brian Kemp, I hear a straight shooter, a plain spoken guy who accepts what the universe gives him," he said. "My suspicion is if you dropped someone like that off in Iowa, they'd be quite effective in a retail setting."
A model for dealing with Trump
In many ways, it's only natural that Kemp would be mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, state and national Republicans told USA TODAY.
For starters, he's a governor with solid approval ratings, who defeated a Democratic star with far more money than him in a state that helps decide presidential elections.
On top of that, Kemp stood firm amid a liberal-led backlash from corporate America, including Major League Baseball, when it objected to the state's stricter voting rules in 2021.
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Kemp also has a unique credit: He developed a blueprint for getting around what many Republicans see as their party's biggest obstacle to victory: Trump.
"This guy has stared down a lot of different Goliaths in various corners of American politics, and he's always won," Jennings said. "I think that's what Republicans are finally coming back around to these days, it's is like: who can win."
At the start of the year, several Republicans thought Kemp was a walking dead man politically: Trump, furious at the incumbent governor for refusing to help him overturn his loss of Georgia to Biden, recruited former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to challenge Kemp in the Republican primary.
During that campaign, Kemp was careful not to attack Trump, while stressing his own record as governor and appealing to Trump voters on economic and social issues, allies said. Kemp would often say that while Trump was mad at him, he was not mad at Trump.
Kemp's campaign also poured more resources into an updated get-out-the-vote operation, trying to match the machine that Abrams and the Democrats had built up. The governor also campaigned with Trump's vice president, Mike Pence, who is considering a 2024 race of his own.
It all worked. Despite Trump's aggressive campaigning for Perdue, Kemp won more than 73% of the GOP primary vote.
McCarthy, the DeKalb County Republican chief, said what outside observers never understood was how Kemp had won over many base conservatives when he made Georgia one of the first states in the country to begin reopening its economy amid the COVID-19 crisis.
"He put himself in the hot seat from the very beginning, and really trusted Georgians with their own lives and livelihoods versus the government telling you that you have to stay home," she said.
Former Georgia congressional candidate John Cowan, a neurosurgeon who unsuccessfully ran against Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene in the 2020 GOP primary, said tagging Kemp as a "Republican in name only" never made sense to mainstream conservatives.
He said Kemp would be an excellent contender for the 2024 presidential contest, and represents a more traditional GOP.
"I do see this as a swing back towards towards the Constitution-first type of Republican over the America-first Republican," Cowan said. "I'm hopeful because we got a pendulum that swung a little too far. I wouldn't even say to the right, but off the reality axis into a conspiratorial, fear axis."
Kemp's approach can be seen as a model for other Republicans who are thinking of challenging Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, whether it's Pence or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
He "was never critical of President Trump; he just focused on the positives," said Eric Tanenblatt, a long-time Republican strategist based in Georgia said of Kemp. "He never got ugly about it - unfortunately, I can't say the same thing about President Trump."
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Kemp even kept quiet about the fact that Trump is under investigation by a Georgia grand jury looking into Trump's pressure on the governor and other state officials to overturn Biden's 2020 victory in Georgia.
Kemp appeared before the grand jury on Nov. 15, a week after his reelection victory.
Kemp defeats Stacey Abrams - again
Kemp stayed on message in the general election against Abrams, whose long-time Democratic voter registration and turnout projects transformed Georgia politics.
When the two first jousted, Kemp defeated Abrams by little more than 1 percentage point in the 2018 governor's race; last month, he won re-election by more than 7 percentage points over her.
In the general election, Kemp focused on the suburbs and sought to appeal to people who didn't normally vote Republican. He also played a 2024 election card, arguing - somewhat ironically - that Abrams saw the Georgia governor's job only as a stepping stone to the presidency.
Supporters described it as another model for Republicans looking to win in diverse states. Watson said Republicans across the country "ought to take a close look at what he's doing in Georgia," in terms of both "governing and campaigning."
Helping out Herschel Walker
For now, Kemp is spending some of his new-found political capital to help Walker in his uphill runoff race against Warnock.
In the general election, Kemp pulled some 200,000 more votes than Walker out of nearly 4 million votes cast.
The former football star has struggled with his lack of political experience, a series of odd comments that included a recent discussion of werewolves and vampires, and statements by two women that he paid for their abortions, even though he's a staunch supporter of banning the practice.
As the Warnock campaign runs ads featuring Kemp voters, the governor is looking to get his supporters back to the polls to vote for Walker. He has hit the campaign trail, held fundraisers, and conducted media interviews in support of the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Georgia.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a high-dollar political action committee aligned with Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, recruited Kemp to the cause in order to use his turnout operation on Walker's behalf.
This in contrast to Trump, who has been absent from the Georgia campaign trail even though he encouraged Walker to run in the first place. The ex-president isn't scheduled as of yet to visit Georgia in-person, but is expected to call into a tele-rally for his Senate candidate sometime before runoff day.
Political observers said the runoff will be viewed as a win-win for Kemp no matter the outcome.
"Even if Walker ends up losing, Kemp can still turn around and say, 'Well, guess what, I led the Republican ticket in Georgia.' And Herschel Walker, who was Trump's candidate, he was the weak link, " Coleman, the Crystal Ball associate editor, told USA TODAY.
Republicans across the country blame Trump for midterm election defeats that cost them control of the Senate and kept down their margin of victory in the House.
In his recent interviews, Kemp has played down 2024 talk, saying the focus should be on the Walker-Warnock runoff. But the governor has also pointedly refused to say whether he would back Trump if he is the nominee.
"I haven't seen who else is going to run," he told CNN.
A national figure with a role
In his victory speech last month, Kemp sounded a bit like a national candidate, discussing national issues like COVID policies and voting rights.
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said the speech made her think for the first time that Kemp might have presidential ambitions.
"It had a national tone," Gillespie said. "There was an audience beyond the room in that speech."
Kemp also fueled the speculation about his future by creating a federal political action committee called Hardworking Americans Inc. Kemp says the PAC is designed to support federal candidates in a position to help Georgia, but the money could just as easily be used to support a Kemp run for the Senate or the presidency.
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One way or another, Kemp will play a role in the 2024 election.
Georgia figures to still be a competitive state, and Kemp will probably work for the Republican nominee, whether it is him or someone else.
Liz Mair, who once worked for a pro-Kemp Super PAC, said Kemp "didn't shy away" after being challenged by the national media, Democrats or Trump.
Instead he "just got on with the job at hand, as opposed to letting it overtake his entire persona and political profile, and he won that fight," she said.
There's just one problem with a potential Kemp candidacy, according to Mair.
His entry would increase the size of the Republican field, increasing the chances that the former president might prevail in primaries because the anti-Trump vote would be spread out.
"There will be a lot of people who worry about more than one candidate not named Trump running and potentially splitting the non-Trump vote," Mair said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2024 talk includes Brian Kemp, Georgia governor who stood up to Trump