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Kemp faces uphill battle overcoming Trump's rage

Former President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE and his allies are showing no signs of backing down from their vow to challenge Georgia Gov. Brian KempBrian KempStacey Abrams on why she won't quit working: 'The world isn't fair yet' Georgia, South Carolina governors sign bills to pay college athletes Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor MORE’s (R) reelection effort, setting up a potentially brutal intraparty fight during a critical election year.

Kemp has become an outcast within the GOP after resisting Trump’s demands to reverse his loss in the 2020 presidential election. Kemp had hoped that signing an expansive elections bill into law last month would help rehabilitate his once-strong standing among conservatives.

So far, however, it has done little to smooth over tensions with the Trump wing of the party.

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The former president has continued to criticize Kemp, arguing that the recently signed election law, S.B. 202, does not do enough to address his baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. Last week, several county Republican parties in Georgia voted to censure Kemp. And on Friday, Vernon Jones, a staunchly pro-Trump Republican, launched a primary challenge against the first-term governor, who’s up for reelection next year.

The flurry of attacks and censures from Republicans inside and outside of Georgia portends a difficult reelection battle for Kemp, who coasted to the GOP nomination in 2018 by embracing Trump and his brand of politics.

“It’s very dangerous for him,” said Chuck Clay, a Kemp ally and former chairman of the Georgia GOP. “There is no doubt that Trump and the popularity of Trump and the level of people firmly believing that this election was somehow stolen or fraudulent runs deep. And at the grassroots level, those people are the majority.”

“When you’re talking about the governorship in this state, you’ve got to figure any incumbent has an uphill climb,” he added. “So you also just can’t drink the Kool Aid because you’re not going to bring over suburban voters or moderate voters that way.”

For now, the pool of potential GOP challengers to Kemp is small. Trump floated former Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsPoll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor The Hill's Morning Report - Census winners and losers; House GOP huddles Former Rep. Doug Collins won't enter Georgia Senate race MORE (R-Ga.) for the job late last year, and Collins has indicated that he’s weighing a run for governor. But Georgia Republicans say that the former congressman is more likely to mount a bid for the Senate in 2022, when Sen. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockDemocrats cool on Crist's latest bid for Florida governor Alabama museum unveils restored Greyhound bus for Freedom Rides' 60th anniversary The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' MORE (D-Ga.) will face reelection.

Trump has stayed silent so far on Jones’s campaign, and people familiar with his thinking say he’s waiting to see who else jumps into the race. Still, the former president has already pledged to campaign against Kemp in 2022 as punishment for the governor’s refusal to invoke nonexistent emergency powers to overturn his state’s election results last year.

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“It’s pretty much going to be a proxy war,” one Georgia GOP strategist said. “It’s Trump’s base versus Kemp’s folks. And in that scenario, I wouldn’t want to be Kemp.”

Kemp is also reviled by Democrats, who have mounted a new offensive against the Georgia governor over the state’s new elections law.

That law includes several provisions that Democrats and voting rights activists say are intended to suppress the vote in the wake of Trump’s electoral loss, including an ID requirement for absentee voting and a cutback in the availability of ballot drop boxes, which made their debut in Georgia last year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Kemp has emerged as an ardent defender of the new law, seeing it as a political lifeline to stymie Trump’s criticism of the state’s elections system and regain his standing among Georgia conservatives.

He has aggressively pushed back against Democrats’ allegations of voter suppression while casting corporate backlash against the law as the latest front in the culture wars.

After Major League Baseball announced earlier this month that it would pull its All-Star game out of Atlanta in response to the voting law, Kemp accused MLB of caving “to fear and lies from liberal activists,” including President BidenJoe BidenDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Sasse to introduce legislation giving new hires signing bonuses after negative jobs report Three questions about Biden's conservation goals MORE and Stacey Abrams, his Democratic rival in the 2018 gubernatorial race who is seen as a top challenger to Kemp next year.

“In the middle of a pandemic, Major League Baseball put the wishes of Stacey Abrams and Joe Biden ahead of the economic well-being of hard-working Georgians who were counting on the All-Star Game for a paycheck,” Kemp said at a news conference earlier this month.

His popularity among Georgia Republicans has, in fact, seen an upswing since he signed the elections bill into law. A Morning Consult poll released earlier this month found his approval among GOP voters at 74 percent — a 15-point improvement from where it stood in the days before he signed the measure.

But Kemp’s defense of the voting law has done little to silence criticism from Trump and his allies. In an interview with Fox News’s Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityPoll: Americans consider Fox News, NYT, CNN, MSNBC 'mainstream media' Lindsey Graham: GOP can't 'move forward without President Trump' Caitlyn Jenner tells Hannity friends are fleeing California because of homeless people MORE aired on Monday, Trump once again insisted that the bill signed by Kemp was “far too weak” and accused the governor and other top Georgia Republicans of capitulating to pressure from Democrats.

“Look, what happened is the governor and others were afraid to be called racists,” Trump said. “So they gave a very weak bill, and they’re called racists anyway. They had a much stronger bill a few weeks before this one came out. The governor, what he did, is so sad.”

That argument was echoed by Jones last week as he announced his campaign for governor. Jones, a former state representative who joined the GOP in January after spending decades as a Democrat, blamed Kemp not just for Trump’s loss in November, but for two Republican defeats in a pair of January Senate runoff elections.

He said that Kemp should have accepted nothing less than a complete overhaul of Georgia’s elections system and called on the governor to resign for failing to take more drastic action after the 2020 presidential race.

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“As a result of the governor’s fear of Stacey Abrams and the left, he cost us two Republican U.S. Senate seats and the president’s reelection,” Jones said.

“His failed leadership and unwillingness to fight election integrity left us Joe Biden, Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Gaetz, Greene tout push to oust Cheney: 'Maybe we're the leaders' Free Speech Inc.: The Democratic Party finds a new but shaky faith in corporate free speech MORE and Cryin’ Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture How to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs MORE cramming their ... liberal and their socialist policies down our throats,” he added, referring to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture How to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs MORE (D-N.Y.).

To be sure, Kemp still has allies in Georgia. While a dozen county Republican Parties have formally censured the governor, most local GOPs have not. In Gwinnett County, for instance, the local Republican Party voted down three measures censuring Kemp over the weekend. Meanwhile, the Fulton County GOP condemned Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) but did not hold a censure vote on Kemp.

Some Republicans see the tensions between Kemp and Trump as a potential boon for the governor in a general election matchup against a Democrat, believing that it could help him win over some moderates who remain uncomfortable with Trump’s dominance in the GOP.

Still, Republicans almost universally acknowledged that Kemp can’t afford to isolate Trump’s supporters altogether.

“He’s going to have to thread a needle,” Clay said. “But there’s still a hole in the needle to be threaded.”