Polls showed a close race for the Republican nomination in Georgia governor’s race. But in the last week of the runoff campaign, the White House went all in for its preferred candidate, Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Trump endorsed Kemp on Twitter last Wednesday, and Vice President Mike Pence went to Macon on Saturday for a campaign rally with Kemp. This aggressive intervention was somewhat surprising: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was favored by the Georgia GOP establishment, and he had also embraced Trump. Kemp cast himself as “politically incorrect” in the mold of Trump, but in reality, he’s a longtime and fairly traditional politician.
Kemp won the runoff election by almost 40 percentage points on Tuesday — a huge margin. Cagle had actually finished ahead of the secretary of state, 39 percent to 26 percent, in the initial primary vote.1 So it’s safe to say the White House’s backing helped Kemp. Of course, Cagle had all sorts of other problems too, including the release of two secret recordings, including one in which the lieutenant governor suggested the initial GOP primary had turned into a race of “who could be the craziest.”
“We cannot forget that tweet that we heard around Georgia,” Kemp said in his victory speech last night, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He added, “We had the momentum in this race, but those endorsements by the president and the vice president poured gasoline on the fire.”
The question of how much Trump contributed to Kemp’s come-from-behind win isn’t simply academic. Georgia is the first of three gubernatorial contests this summer in GOP-controlled states where the president has backed one candidate and key Republican establishment figures in that state have backed another.
In Michigan, which holds its GOP primary on Aug. 7, Trump-backed Attorney General Bill Schuette faces Lt. Gov Brian Calley, who withdrew his support for Trump during the 2016 election after the release of the Access Hollywood tape. Calley has been endorsed by outgoing Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
In Florida, which has a primary on Aug. 28, Trump is backing Rep. Ron DeSantis, who has been one of the president’s most aggressive defenders on Capitol Hill on issues surrounding the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The congressman has called for cutting off funding for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. DeSantis’s top rival is Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who is backed by much of the GOP political class in the Sunshine State.
If Trump wants to expand and entrench his influence and ideology within the GOP, governorships are a great way to do it. Obviously, governors have huge power in terms of both setting policy and influencing politics at the state level. But there’s a second factor that makes governors distinct from House members or senators, who almost always win re-election: Because of term limits in many states (usually two terms), governors change over fairly regularly, even if the new governor winds up being from the same party as the outgoing one. So in red states, Trump could get a fairly establishment figure (like outgoing Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal) replaced by someone who more closely echoes the president’s ethos, like Kemp. This year, there will be gubernatorial elections in 26 states that currently have a GOP governor, and almost half of those races (11) are “open” contests, with no incumbent on the ballot.
According to Ballotpedia, which has been tracking Trump endorsements in gubernatorial races, Trump has endorsed a candidate in the Republican primary in four of those 11 races so far. (The fourth is Nevada, which held its primary in June. Trump endorsed Attorney General Adam Laxalt, but Laxalt was basically the GOP’s consensus choice and won by more than 60 percentage points.)
Of course, it’s unlikely that all of Trump’s gubernatorial candidates will make it to the statehouse. In Florida, Michigan and Nevada, the GOP gubernatorial nominees will have a hard time winning in the general election, whether they are Trump-backed or not, because they are Republicans in swing states in what looks to be a Democratic-leaning year.
Kemp is not guaranteed to win either. His general-election opponent, Stacey Abrams, has Democrats excited about the possibility of making her the first black female governor in U.S. history. And Kemp’s style (remember this ad where he points a gun at a teenager) and embrace of Trump may turn off some more establishment-oriented Republicans who might decide not to vote for either candidate, which would help Abrams. But Georgia is a red state, so Kemp is the favorite. And if he wins, Trump will likely have an ally and defender in the Peach State.