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The Jolt: Behind Donald Trump’s endorsement of Brian Kemp


To say that GOP insiders were surprised by President Donald Trump’s decision to endorse Brian Kemp over Casey Cagle in the Republican runoff for governor would be an exercise in understatement.

Even Kemp seemed to be caught off-guard by the timing. The president’s tweet Wednesday afternoon came as the secretary of state was in the middle of a press conference with Clay Tippins, the former GOP candidate who stirred up the race with his secret recording of the lieutenant governor.

Kemp said when he looked up to see ecstatic aides eyeing their cellphones and “jumping up and down,” he knew something was up.

The more important question may be how Trump came to make his choice, given that both Kemp and Cagle have made elaborate shows of fealty to the president – and a popular Republican governor had weighed in on Cagle’s side only 48 hours earlier.

Many eyes are being cast toward the Perdue cousins in Washington. Both U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue deny any involvement and say they remain neutral in the gubernatorial contest. But given that saying otherwise would put them in a direct confrontation with Gov. Nathan Deal, let’s set that aside and look at what might be called circumstantial evidence:

-- In the Senate, David Perdue has become Trump’s most ardent defender. On Monday, he refused to join in a Republican backlash to the president’s performance in Helsinki. That kind of loyalty could be deserving of a returned favor.

-- As governor, Sonny Perdue tapped Kemp as secretary of state, when Karen Handel resigned that post to run for governor. Against Nathan Deal.

-- Sonny Perdue attended Wednesday’s meeting of the Trump Cabinet at the White House, assuring the president that, though they’re getting nervous, “patriot farmers” still stand with him in his trade war with China and other nations. Also in the room, sitting in a row behind the president, was Nick Ayers – chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, but also a former aide to Sonny Perdue. According to the official White House pool report, that cabinet meeting adjourned at 12:22 p.m. Via Twitter, Trump issued his endorsement of Kemp at 3:25 p.m.

There are other potential explanations for the president’s decision. For instance, Trump likes a winner, and Kemp is trending upward in the polls. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News poll showed him ahead by 3 percentage points over Cagle.

Nonetheless, there are things to watch for in the next five days.

We’re told that Trump is unlikely to make a last-minute trip to Georgia – presidential visits can be logistical nightmares. But he could send a pretty powerful surrogate who also has Georgia (and Perdue) ties.

That would be Vice President Mike Pence, whose top aide – as mentioned above – is a member of the Perdue inner circle. If that happens, if the vice president visits Georgia on Kemp’s behalf, look to see if either of the Perdue cousins stands with Pence.

If that happens, that would be evidence of a major power play at the highest level of Republican politics in Georgia.

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Meanwhile, the Kemp campaign this morning began making hay from the Trump endorsement. Here’s the celebratory TV spot:

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Shortly after the president’s endorsement, former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich publicly lined up behind Kemp’s gubernatorial bid.

Another sign of a building bandwagon: Bruce Thompson, R-White, became one of the only members of the state Senate, over which Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has presided for 12 years, to endorse Kemp.

This morning, the Kemp campaign also pushed out an endorsement from former UGA football coach Vince Dooley and his wife Barbara. (Clearly, there’s an Athens connection there.)

However, Trump’s endorsement does not appear to be pushing more members of Georgia’s GOP congressional delegation into Kemp’s arms. U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, endorsed Kemp long ago, but others we contacted Wednesday said they intend to maintain their neutrality in the gubernatorial contest.

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Just FYI, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball this morning has recalculated its ranking of three races for governor – but Georgia’s isn’t one of them. Democratic odds have improved in Arizona, Illinois, and Iowa, according to the website run by the University of Virginia’s political scientist. Georgia’s race remains “likely Republican.”

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One of the votes that Georgia members of the U.S. House were casting as Trump’s endorsement came down was on a symbolic resolution supporting the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

The resolution, which passed 244-35, was designed to embarrass Democrats -- many in that party have called for the abolition of agency.

The bulk of the Democratic caucus, 133 members, ended up voting “present” rather than “no.” 

Georgia lawmakers voted along party lines, save for centrist David Scott, who was one of just 18 Democrats to back the measure. The Atlanta lawmaker said this about his decision: 

“I do not support abolishing ICE, because these officers put their lives on the line every day guarding against terrorists, drug traffickers and gang members who are seeking to enter our country and do us harm. However, Democrats and Republicans must come together to reform ICE, end family separations and immediately reunite immigrant children with their families. What ICE is being ordered to do by this Administration is immoral, but getting rid of the agency is not the answer.”

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U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point, has been a bit of a mystery when it comes to immigration. The freshman did vote in favor of the above ICE resolution, but was the only Georgia Republican to vote against both immigration bills his party’s leadership brought to the House floor last month, aimed at addressing Dreamers, border security and the family separation crisis.

Those efforts had been endorsed, one more so than the other, by President Donald Trump, but when questioned about the congressman’s opposition, Ferguson’s office said he was working on his own plan.

On Wednesday, Ferguson introduced a bill that would approve construction of a wall along the southern border with Mexico. His “American Border Act” would also authorize the stationing of National Guard troops along the border, and beef up U.S. customs and border patrol’s presence there.

The bill certainly isn’t the only one on Capitol Hill with those goals in mind. House Republicans released the draft of a must-pass spending bill Wednesday that included $5 billion for border security next year.

But Ferguson’s measure is a little more narrowly tailored than others that are circulating.

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On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. John Lewis delivered a fiery rebuke of President Trump’s comments at the press conference that followed this week’s Helsinki meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The key line from his speech on the House floor: “Mr. Speaker, the American house is on fire. It is burning! And if we are not mindful -- if we are not watchful -- this fire will consume us all.”

Lewis and Trump, you may remember, don’t exactly have the fuzziest of relationships.

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Two days after huddling with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh will meet this morning with Georgia’s junior senator, David Perdue. Plaudits are expected to follow.

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The U.S. House today is on track to pass a federal spending bill authored in part by Tom Graves, R-Ranger. Lawmakers on Wednesday approved tacking on an amendment from his colleague Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, that would bar federal funding of EPA regulations on tractor-trailers. Loudermilk said the regulations were harming local trucking businesses and manufacturers.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, rejected an amendment from Jody Hice, R-Monroe, that would have barred federal funding for a small grants program through the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice. The program was created in the ‘90s to “help communities understand and address exposure to multiple environmental harms and risks,” according to its website, and has been on the target list of conservative groups for years. Hice said the grant program has devolved into a “platform for political activism.” Hice’s proposal was rejected last night on a vote of 174-240.

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