More Trump Than Trump? Meet Georgia’s Immigrant-Bashing, Vote-Suppressing Brian Kemp

Georgia candidate for governor Brian Kemp (Image from campaign commercial)

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is running to become the state’s governor. If Kansas Secretary of State and gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach is the candidate of Trumpism before Trump, Kemp is the candidate who has seemingly set out to prove he can be more Trump than President Donald Trump himself.

Kemp is running unabashedly as the candidate of the right-wing base, modeling his campaign and its “Georgians First” theme on the rhetoric of President Trump.

Kemp’s strategy for standing out in the Republican primary was to mimic Trump’s attacks on immigrants and so-called “political correctness” and to position himself as a culture warrior against liberals who are offended by “our faith, our guns and our big trucks.” He ran an ad that featured him bragging, “I got a big truck. Just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ‘em home myself,” adding a self-congratulatory, “Yep, I just said that.” His devotion to Trumpism is so strong that he even assured voters in one ad, “I say ‘Merry Christmas’”—a reference to the long-lived right-wing trope, appropriated by Trump, that the utterance of the inclusive phrase, “Happy Holidays,” somehow amounts to a “war on Christmas.”

In the general election, Kemp is pulling more rhetoric from the far-right playbook with his attacks on his Democratic opponent, voting rights activist and former state legislative leader Stacey Abrams, claiming that she is promoting a “socialist agenda” and is “coming for your guns.”

Voting Rights and Wrongs

As Secretary of State, Kemp has been in a position to maximize voters’ access to the ballot box. Instead, he has done the opposite. Indeed, Kemp is a “staunch defender” of the state’s voter ID law and a member of the voter suppression hall of shame who purged 600,000 voters from the state’s rolls. “Brian Kemp’s bid for governor depends on erasing the black vote in Georgia,” read a recent Slate headline. “It’s working,” reads the subhead. A Kemp ally is the “key figure” behind plans by the Randolph County election board to eliminate three-fourths of the county’s polling places for the November election. From the Slate article:

A rural, impoverished, and predominantly black county, Randolph has just nine polling locations, all of which were open during the May primaries and July runoffs. The election board may soon shut down seven of them, including one in a precinct where about 97 percent of voters are black. Its plan would compel residents, many of whom have no car or access to public transit, to travel as much as 30 miles round trip to reach the nearest polling place.

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern also pointed out that Kemp used a version of Kobach’s notorious Crosscheck program to cancel or suspend 35,000 voter registrations if “a single letter, space, or hyphen” did not match information in a database. “Black voters were eight times more likely than whites to have their registrations halted” by the program.

As New York magazine’s El Kilgore noted:

Abrams has spent a good portion of her career trying to expand voter registration among young and minority folk who are under-represented in the Georgia electorate. And Kemp, as Georgia’s chief election officer since 2010, has fought her efforts tooth and nail and shown himself to be a champion vote suppressor (or as he would put it, a courageous voter fraud opponent).

In 2014, Kemp slowed Abrams’ voter registration efforts by launching a fraud investigation that found no wrongdoing by her New Georgia Project, but prevented thousands of voters from being added to the rolls until after the election. That year, Kemp told a county GOP group to match Democratic registration efforts, saying, “Registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines, if they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”

A 2014 story in Vice that was headlined “Why does Georgia keep going after black voters?” captioned a photo of Kemp this way: “This guy really doesn’t like black-voter-registration drives.”

Last year, in a lawsuit brought against Kemp by the NAACP, a federal court entered a consent decree that the state will no longer be able to cut off voter registration beyond 30 days of any federal election. In 2016, when Hurricane Matthew shut down county offices for the last six days of the normal voter registration period, Kemp refused requests to extend the deadline. Under his leadership, the Secretary of State’s office accidentally disclosed Social Security numbers and other personal information on more than 6 million voters.

Like Trump and Kobach, Kemp has stirred fears of voter fraud by undocumented immigrants. Politifact rated “false”  Kemp’s claim that he fought Obama twice “to stop illegal immigrants from voting.” It also rated “false” Kemp’s claim in October 2016 about “the left’s blatant attempts to disrupt Georgia elections.”

As Secretary of State, Kemp resisted efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen election security in the face of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. According to The Nation, “Kemp rejected the help, calling it an effort to “subvert the Constitution to achieve the goal of federalizing elections under the guise of security.” More recently, Kemp “kept quiet” while other Republicans criticized Trump’s performance in Russia.

Kemp has for years resisted efforts to replace the state’s electronic machines, which have no paper trail that can be used to audit or confirm their vote counts. Sara Henderson, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, says Kemp dismissed warnings about the machines’ security for years. He has now joined the call for machines that create verifiable paper records, but not until after this year’s election.

In His Own Words

Here are some lowlights of Kemp’s record and rhetoric on other issues:

  • Kemp “wants to pass the most restrictive abortion rules in the nation,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  • “I oppose Medicaid expansion, Obamacare, and government-run healthcare,” says Kemp. “I always have and I always will.”
  • Kemp has pledged to sign the kind of LGBTQ-targeting “religious liberty” legislation that was vetoed by current Republican Governor Nathan Deal. “As governor, I’ll stand up to the radical left and politically correct,” Kemp says. “We will never apologize for protecting religious liberty and living out our faith.”
  • Just weeks after the Parkland shooting, Kemp ran an ad in which he held a shotgun and jokingly pretended to threaten a young man who played the part of a guy who was interested in one of his daughters. In an interview, Kemp told Ammoland he would support efforts to end gun-free zones, and supports arming teachers and allowing students to carry concealed weapons on college campuses.
  • ProPublicareporter Robert Faturechi reported in July that he had watched the post–Access Hollywood presidential debate with Kemp at a retreat in a Kansas hunting lodge, and Kemp joked that “Trump should have gone over there and groped her!”
  • Kemp retweeted a One America News Network story that characterized his race against Abrams as one in which he takes on a “Soros-backed candidate.” In the article, Kemp is quoted as calling Abrams “a darling of the radical, liberal left.” OANN is a Trump-boosting network that, like Kemp, has downplayed Russian interference in the 2016 election. OANN also boosted Roy Moore’s campaign and reported false allegations about voter fraud in that race.

The Company He Keeps

Kemp has been embraced by state and national Religious Right figures like Rep. Jody Hice, Ralph Reed and Newt Gingrich. Kemp has also been endorsed by the Family Policy Alliance of Georgia, whose president, Cole Muzio, says liberals “believe only in blind fidelity to their big government, anti-God, anti-individual ideology.” The group praises Kemp for his “boldness” and says he will move Georgia “in a more conservative direction.”

And perhaps no one makes it clearer what’s at stake for Georgians than Vice President Mike Pence, who said at a rally in July, “Brian Kemp will bring the kind of leadership to the Statehouse that President Donald Trump has brought to the White House.”