• Commentary

Brian Kemp Sets the Standard

The predicted “red wave” never landed in this year’s midterm elections. Why?

There are any number of theories, many of them focused on the effect former President Donald Trump had on this year’s Republican primaries. In Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, candidates with close ties to Trump lost races that seemed otherwise winnable. Here in Georgia, the top of the ticket featured one candidate associated with Trump in Herschel Walker, and one with some distance from Trump in Gov. Brian Kemp.

Kemp, as you know by now, won his race. Walker ran almost 5 percentage points behind the governor and is headed to a runoff against incumbent U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

How a different candidate might have fared against Warnock is an interesting but ultimately unanswerable question. However, we can explore what would have happened in 2020 if the leading Republican candidates had run as strongly as Kemp.

In fact, we can narrow it to just three large metro Atlanta counties – Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett – and see just how much a difference the margin of losing makes.

First, a little background. It was less than a decade ago that Cobb, Gwinnett and north Fulton were reliably Republican. Given that these are Georgia’s three most populous counties, home to about a quarter of all Georgia residents, piling up votes in these northern suburbs was foundational to GOP victories.

As recently as 2014, the Republicans at the top of the ticket (David Perdue for U.S. Senate and Nathan Deal for governor) won Cobb and Gwinnett and took more than a third of the vote in Fulton. Then in 2016, Trump lost Cobb and Gwinnett and fell below 28% in Fulton. 

The downward trend continued in 2018, and then in 2020 the GOP seemed to hit rock bottom in these areas. Specifically, Trump fell to 42% in Cobb, 40% in Gwinnett and 26% in Fulton.

It was somewhat surprising, and certainly instructive, to see how Kemp turned back the clock this year – partially – in these key counties. He surpassed 47% in Cobb, 44% in Gwinnett and 30% in Fulton.

Those gains of 4 to 5 percentage points, combined with his strength in deep-red parts of the state, allowed him to take the largest vote share of any GOP gubernatorial candidate since Sonny Perdue in 2006. It was also the highest percentage by any top-of-the-ticket Republican, including Senate and presidential candidates, not named Johnny Isakson during that same period of time.

How strongly did Kemp run in the northern suburbs while maintaining his dominance elsewhere? His level of performance would have kept Georgia red in 2020. Here’s what I mean:

Had Trump hit Kemp’s percentages in either Cobb or Gwinnett in 2020, he would have won Georgia’s 16 electoral votes easily. There would have been no thunderous tweets denouncing our election, no parade of Trump loyalists coming through to demand state officials not certify the results, no slate of “alternative electors” nor phone calls to election officials to prompt grand jury investigations.

Had David Perdue also matched Kemp’s performance in either of those counties, he would have won re-election without a runoff.

But let’s say Perdue was forced into a runoff anyway. Had he equaled Kemp’s percentages in both Cobb and Gwinnett, he would have beaten Democrat Jon Ossoff. And if Sen. Kelly Loeffler had run as strongly in Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett as Kemp did this year, she would have bested Warnock in their runoff.

So how can Republicans continue their momentum in Georgia next time? They can think long and hard about which candidates and policy platforms in 2024 would produce a respectable showing in the northern Atlanta suburbs. 

Kemp won’t be on the ballot in 2024. It’s up to GOP primary voters to decide which candidate in a couple of years can meet the standard he set.