Opinion | Brian Kemp, Raphael Warnock and Georgia’s Post-Trump Present

Georgia’s 16 electoral votes and a voting population that has supported both Democrats and Republicans at the top of the ticket in recent years keep the state one of few true battlegrounds.

Georgia is, of course, also the place where Donald Trump called and asked a Republican to “find” votes. And Georgia is the place where the Fulton County district attorney, Fani Willis, filed criminal charges that led to the indictment of Mr. Trump and 18 others for a conspiracy to subvert the 2020 election. For all these reasons, Georgia is also home to conflicting visions about the present and future of the Republican Party, demonstrated by differing responses to the fourth indictment this year. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of Mr. Trump’s most enduring defenders representing one of the country’s more conservative districts, posted an image of an American flag upside down, signaling distress.

And in one second-floor wing of Georgia’s State Capitol, a pair of Republican executives most likely shed few tears. The offices of Gov. Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger, secretary of state, sit just off a grand rotunda of the gold-covered dome in downtown Atlanta, and in 2020 the duo found themselves at the heart of a tsunami of threats and harassment.

“The 2020 election in Georgia was not stolen,” Mr. Kemp said last month on social media in response to Mr. Trump’s claims that he would unveil a report demonstrating the state’s election was fraudulent. “The future of our country is at stake in 2024 and that must be our focus.” Mr. Raffensperger, who withstood pressure from Mr. Trump to “find” the votes that were not there, offered a more succinct response: “The most basic principles of a strong democracy are accountability and respect for the Constitution and rule of law. You either have it, or you don’t.”

Enter a new paradox of Georgia politics: Even as voters and top leaders signal a desire to enter a post-Trump era, the former president’s antics in the courts and his hold on Republican politics keep him stuck squarely in the discourse like sweat on a humid Georgia summer afternoon.

To understand the outsize influence Georgia will have on shaping the pathways of American politics once Mr. Trump is no longer the dominant force, one must look at the state’s recent electoral history that had voters send two Democrats to Washington and kept Republicans in charge back home.

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, some savvy political operators and Washington insiders saw Republicans like Mr. Kemp and especially Mr. Raffensperger as dead men walking. The governor, a masterful retail politician, never wavered from his message touting a booming economy, looser coronavirus restrictions and a raft of conservative legislation around concealed carry, abortion restrictions and election administration. The secretary of state, a mild-mannered engineer, opted for Rotary Club speeches and smaller gatherings where he patiently explained that Georgia’s Republican-endorsed voting system was safe, accurate and one of the best in the country.

Even as individuals like Mr. Kemp and Mr. Raffensperger saw personal success with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach, the larger Republican apparatus in the state has only further embraced Mr. Trump, purging the ranks of nonbelievers and elevating election deniers into key party posts.

But it’s clear that Mr. Kemp and Mr. Raffensperger benefited from being diametrically opposed to Mr. Trump’s temperament and obsessive focus on his 2020 defeat. Despite signature accomplishments and ideological underpinnings lying farther to the right than a battleground state’s electorate should theoretically support, each earned some degree of crossover support from Democratic-leaning voters.

That electorate’s tiring of Trump also paved the way for Senator Raphael Warnock to win a full six-year term in a December 2022 runoff against the Republican Herschel Walker. Mr. Warnock was the only statewide Democrat to win. The two-time nominee for governor, Stacey Abrams, a rising star in the Democratic Party, and the rest of the slate failed to gain an effective foothold against the Republican nominees’ strong economic messaging and general lack of Trumpiness.

In other words: The disarray on the right has not meant an equal and opposite opportunity for those on the left. But under that same lens, a key bloc of Kemp-Warnock voters who perceived Mr. Warnock as a less extreme option propelled him to victory.

Mr. Warnock’s success came from largely avoiding direct attacks on Mr. Walker, his Trump-backed policies and often nonsensical stances and statements. Mr. Warnock focused instead on a more positive message, centered on tangible governance like lowering insulin costs, promoting Democratic economic projects like the bipartisan infrastructure bill and casting himself as a more moderate figure representative of Georgia — while still speaking to the more progressive base of the party.

To see Georgia’s post-Trump electoral strategy play out in the real world, look at the state’s rise as a hub for clean energy and electric-vehicle manufacturing, touted by Democrats and Republicans alike (and opposed by Mr. Trump these days, naturally) as good for the state.

Mr. Kemp’s broad mandate at the start of his second term has allowed him to loudly trumpet the growth in electric-vehicle manufacturing and associated suppliers as a result of incentives and a friendly business climate (despite being an un-conservative industry). Mr. Warnock, Mr. Biden and Democrats have celebrated the boom in green tech as a direct impact of federal investment in infrastructure. Global companies have also smartly praised their state and federal partners in announcing their multibillion-dollar expansions built around generous tax incentives.

Though Georgia may be emerging as a pioneer in post-Trump politics, the pathways of politicians like Mr. Kemp, Mr. Raffensperger and Mr. Warnock are not necessarily replicable in other states. Georgia’s electorate is more diverse than those in some other parts of the country, for starters. More challengingly, the political latitude enjoyed by these politicians and the broader constituency that elected them can primarily be measured by its distance from Mr. Trump.

So where does that leave Georgia and its crucial electoral votes heading into the 2024 presidential election cycle, where recent polling (and not-so-recent polling) suggests a rematch between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump?

For the case against the former president, it’s not entirely clear yet when a trial might take place, but the legal updates seem to come weekly.

For the state’s electoral system, the lingering effects of 2020 have manifested in closer scrutiny over voting procedures and those who help oversee them, as well as renewed preparation by local officials.

For Mr. Kemp, the past is prologue: On Thursday, he found himself yet again facing calls for a special legislative session pushed by an ally of Mr. Trump’s, this time seeking to punish Ms. Willis because of the charges against the former president, in a plan that other officials have called impractical and possibly unconstitutional. Yet again, Mr. Kemp refused, warning his fellow conservatives against siding with what he called an effort “somebody’s doing to help them raise a few dollars into their campaign account.”

“In Georgia, we will not be engaging in political theater that only inflames the emotions of the moment,” he said. “We will do what is right. We will uphold our oath as public servants and it’s my belief that our state will be better off for it.”

It’s unclear what the future holds, for Mr. Trump in court, for the direction of the Republican Party and for the ability of Democrats to continue winning battlegrounds. But all the answers might be in Georgia.

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Stephen Fowler is the political reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting and a regular contributor to National Public Radio. He also hosts the “Battleground: Ballot Box” podcast, which has chronicled changes to Georgia’s voting rules and political landscape since 2020.

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