This morning I had the privilege of speaking with Gov. Brian Kemp of my home state of Georgia. I’ve been a fan of his since he was Secretary of State, and his conservative record has made him the best governor Georgia has had in my lifetime.
During our conversation, we talked about his record, his race against Stacey Abrams, his plans for a second term, and (of course) college football. I’m excited to share that conversation with you.
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.)
Chris Queen: This year has been a banner year for conservatives across the nation, but especially here in Georgia. What do you think are the most important victories for conservatives in this state?
Brian Kemp: Oh man, well, I think for me personally, it’s not just this year, it’s really been my whole record. From my own personal political standpoint, I think conservatives appreciate that I actually did what I said I was gonna do when I was running in 2018. You know, I talked about cutting taxes. I talked about strengthening rural Georgia, including rural broadband.
I was talking about going after street gangs and drug cartels, when literally the Atlanta media was making fun of me saying, “Oh, there’s not a gang problem.” And I knew there was because I visited every county in our state. I talked to law enforcement, prosecutors, and, you know, people were fed up; it was starting to get out of control. And now we’re seeing that play out. I mean, Atlanta media is writing about that every day. And so I created the Gang Task Force at the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation]. We’ve been going after those folks; we’ve given resources to state agencies and supported local governments.
You know, we passed the strongest pro-life legislation ever in our state; at one point it was the strongest bill in the country. And so they just know that I’ve fulfilled my promises, and I think, you know, on the heels of that, there were some conservatives that obviously got a little mad after the 2020 election because they felt like I hadn’t done this and the other, but the fact is, you know, they were just not being told the truth about what my duties and powers were. And the longer that that played out, people realized that, but they also realize, you know, I was the one that went back and fixed the problems that were caused by others in the 2020 election because of the pandemic.
We got the strongest Election Integrity Act in the country passed, and then, you know, I was the guy that stood up and pushed back against Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola, two of our largest employers in the state, and also against Major League Baseball when they pulled the All-Star Game [from Atlanta] and never wavered on that, and I never wavered after we passed the heartbeat bill and Hollywood was going to cancel us and move the industry out of state.
I never got down; I just held my position and held my ground on what I campaigned with, so to me, I think that’s one reason that conservatives really rallied around me in the primary because they knew I had that record. They knew who the real Brian Kemp was. And, you know, they quit listening to outside forces telling them anything different because you just can’t argue with that record.
I mean, we suspended the gas tax. You know, I stood up to a lot of pressure when I reopened the economy here during the pandemic, the first governor in the country to do that. I call it the most grief by far for doing that. But because of that, we’ve had incredible revenue, so we’re sending money back to the taxpayers and suspended the gas tax to help them fight 40-year high Biden-Abrams inflation, as I call it, and I just think conservatives appreciate that.
And also, I just believe that conservatives are like me; they’re really motivated to right the ship here in Georgia. They saw what staying home got us. They saw it got us an extreme agenda. That Joe Biden — whatever’s happened to him — he’s not the person that’s going to unite the country. I mean, he’s being [dragged] to the left by Schumer and Pelosi and AOC and Stacey Abrams and a lot of the radicals, and they know we have to fight back against that here, and we’re not a blue state. We’re not necessarily a purple state, you know; we’re a 52-48 red state. And that’s what we got to preserve this year. This is where ground zero is for sure.
CQ: What accomplishments are you most proud of from your first term as governor?
BK: Well, listen, I have a lot of things that I could point to with my record, you know, the economy being one of them, strengthening rural Georgia being another. You know, just our fight for life, not just with the heartbeat bill, but we’ve done adoption reform, foster care reform; we’ve done more than anybody in the country at the state level, thanks to the leadership of my wife and our First Lady Marty Kemp, to end human trafficking and support the victims. We passed seven pieces of legislation in four years, every single one of them with unanimous support.
But you know, I tell people that what I’m most proud of is leading a state of such resilient people. Georgians really fought hard through the pandemic to protect lives but also fought to protect livelihoods because we knew it wasn’t just about fighting the virus. It was about fighting for livelihoods, like getting our kids back in the classroom, which I fought for, making sure that people had economic viability, making sure that we were recognizing the ill effects of mental health issues and physical health issues that nobody was really thinking about or talking about during the pandemic, and it did affect everybody.
It was hard on everybody, but our folks have been resilient. And that’s probably what I would tell people: that what I’m most proud of is just being able to lead the state in those tough times because it wasn’t easy to do and you don’t always know if you’re making the right decisions or not, but we made them and we kept plowing and never looked back. You know, we kept looking forward. And that’s what we’re doing now.
I’m very optimistic about where our state is. Being the best state in the country to live, work and raise our children, I think, and I feel like we’re gonna have better days ahead. But if Stacey Abrams becomes our governor, we won’t, you know, and all she wants to do is win this race, so it’ll be a stepping stone for her running for president. Well, that’s what’s the fight that we’re in.
CQ: What do you think your easy victory over David Perdue and the other Republicans in the primary means about the confidence that Georgia’s conservatives have in your leadership?
BK: Well, I wouldn’t say it was easy even though it was a big win. I mean, we had to raise a tremendous amount of money.
We worked really hard to build our ground game in all 159 counties. And I didn’t take for granted that I was an incumbent, that I had a lot of money. I mean, we did it all, ran the whole campaign like I was 10 points down, but I think it justifies that people like the record that we have accomplished. And it’s not just me; we’ve got a great team with the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate in Georgia. We’ve got other great constitutional officers that I’ve been serving with that are all part of that team, making Georgia a great place to live, work, and raise our families.
And I think it just says, “Hey, we like the leadership we’ve got, and also we know that you’re the person that has beat Stacey Abrams, and you know how to do that and you know how to do it again, and better than that, you’ve got a record to run on, unlike the last election when it was an open seat.” I think all those things combined are why people turned out and voted for us in record numbers, I might say even when Democrats said that we were going to suppress the vote with our Election Integrity Act.
CQ: What’s different about this election, as opposed to four years ago?
BK: Well, certainly the national environment is a lot different. It’s probably the best national environment we’ve seen for Republicans in a long time, even compared to when President Trump won the presidential election. So I mean, I think from that perspective, it’s a good environment for us to run in. But I also believe that I think Republicans have realized, number one, we’ve got to work just as hard as the Democrats are on our ground game to register people and to get people to turn out. We know that that worked in states like Texas and Florida in 2020. And we know that we weren’t doing that here in Georgia in 2020. So that’s been a focus of mine, to make sure that we’re doing that, and that’ll help our whole ticket.
But number two, you know, it’s just the issues that are out there and how extreme the Democrats have been. I mean, when you think about Stacey Abrams and all her buddies around the country that thought defunding the police was a good idea and no-cash bail was a good idea. And you look at what’s happened in places like Chicago and in Seattle. And Portland.
And look, we have issues in Atlanta too because of weak local leadership in the past, but our state’s been stepping in with a crime suppressing unit and doing something about that. And so we have to be a party that people want to vote for. We can’t just go out and say, you know, “You want to defund the police and you’re a radical and you’re a socialist” or whatever the buzzword is going to be. We got to say, “This is why you need to vote for me because we’re going to keep cutting your taxes in our state. We’re going to keep our cost of doing business low. We’re going to make sure that we’re providing and training a workforce that will supply the next generation of jobs in our state or the next decade or two of jobs in our state and give you good economic prosperity, but also a great quality of life where you don’t have the government literally making every decision for you.”
You know, Stacey Abrams criticized me when I reopened the economy. She criticized me when we were trying to get our kids back in the classroom. She criticized me for not doing a statewide mask mandate or vaccine mandate. I mean, I’m just in a different boat. I trust the people more than I trust the government. She does not; she wants the government to make every decision for you. And I think Georgia has looked around the country during the pandemic, and they didn’t want to be in a state like California or New York or New Jersey where literally one person decides whether you can go to work, whether your kids can go to school, you know, whether you should get a vaccine or not. To me, that should be a decision you make with your doctor.
CQ: Stacey Abrams has been talking about how she wants to fund the police while at the same time serving on the board of an organization that has called for defunding and abolishing the police. Why does she think she can get away with that?
BK: Well, we’re not gonna let her get away with that. I mean, she’s lying to people. There’s no way that Stacey Abrams can pay for her rampant government spending without raising taxes. I mean, if you look at what she’s saying she would do — from pay raises, whether it’s for criminal justice, law enforcement, teachers, Medicaid expansion — it’s gonna cost over $2 billion to do, and she’s gonna have to raise taxes. And you know, there’s just no way around that, and she won’t answer that question. So, to me, that’s fuzzy Washington, D.C., math. I don’t think Georgians are going to buy that.
And it’s very poetic that all these things she’s championed are things that she said I wouldn’t do when I promised them when I ran for governor [in 2018]. But we did. We gave the largest teacher pay raise in state history, a $5,000 raise over four years. You got to remember that two of those were during a pandemic. We’ve done law enforcement pay raises and a lot of other things. We’ve cut taxes three different times in our state, and we have a plan to continue to do that and lower the rate, but there’s no way you can do what she’s talking about doing and continue to cut taxes or even keep taxes the same in our state.
CQ: You’ve been talking to people all across the state; what are they telling you that they want to see in this November’s elections?
BK: Well, they want to see us send some help to Washington, D.C.; I think that’s part of it. And then they also just want to make sure we don’t see Stacey Abrams in the governor’s office. I mean, I think that’s what really motivates the base out there and even middle-of-the-road voters in our state, I believe. I think they believe Stacey Abrams is too extreme for our state. They know her a lot better than they did in 2018. They know she cares more about people in California and New York that are buying her book or people like George Soros that are funding a million dollars to her campaign. Georgians think that she’s more beholden to them than to our own citizens. And I just don’t think people are going to embrace the whole idea of a Biden-Abrams agenda in Georgia.
CQ: What encourages you most on the campaign trail?
BK: I think the thing that’s encouraging me right now is how optimistic people are. They’re engaged. I mean, we had an event last night, where I had people that were helping us financially, you know, in very small amounts, that haven’t been engaged in politics. They’ve never given money before. And I think that’s a good sign that our side’s motivated and people in the middle are like, “We’ve got to step up and get engaged and fight for somebody who has been fighting for us, you know, we got to fight for the guy that kept our economy up and under extreme pressure. We got to get we got to fight for the guy that was trying to get our kids back in the classroom and keep Georgia moving in the right direction and have economic prosperity, but we also want to fight for a guy that’s going to do what he says he’s going to do and stand up and fight for our position and stay,” like I did on election reform. And in pro-life issues and other things. And that’s really what keeps me fired up. It’s been incredible out there on the ground.
CQ: What are your priorities for a second term?
BK: Well, the first one was making sure that Stacey Abrams is not the governor.
I think to me, that’s the biggest issue people are thinking about right now, just the direction of our state. Do you want to keep that direction going like we’re going or do you want to go the way of the country and, you know, have big government spending and higher taxes and have the government telling you everything to do in your life? I mean, to me, that’s the contrast is out there.
So I think that’s probably the biggest issue, but we still have a lot of work to do in regards to my agenda on strengthening rural Georgia. Continuing to push rural broadband to give economic prosperity, educational opportunities, and healthcare opportunities in all parts of our state. So that would definitely be something on a second term.
We’ve got a great plan to continue to lower the tax rate in Georgia, but we got to have some tough conversations on how we do that and how many exemptions we have and whether we’re getting a bang for our book on exemptions, and whether, you know, we’d be better off looking at replacing some of those and then continuing to lower the rate for everybody. And so certainly tax reform is one of those, continuing to make sure we’re educating the workforce of the future and that we have enough of a workforce for the jobs that we have come into our state which is incredible, because we’ve had record economic development success, and I think we’re gonna continue to see that. We’ve had two record years in a row, and you know, we have a lot of stuff, a lot of jobs, and we’ve got to get people in our state to help folks that are building here and expanding here.
And so those are just, you know, a few of the issues that we’ll continue to be working on. I would just like to keep making sure that we continue to move the needle on violent crime and keeping our community safe. And that is probably one of the top issues that we are responsible for in the state constitution. And I’ve been very vocal on that issue. And we’re going to continue to be in that fight. And I think that’s something else people are concerned about.
CQ: I’ve got one last question, and I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you this one. What do you think are the Georgia Bulldogs’ chances for a repeat national championship in football this year?
BK: Well, I think they’re pretty good if we can stay healthy. You know, we had a really good team a few years ago, and we had some key injuries when we were playing big games and got nervous at the end of the season. And thankfully, last year, we had so much depth. Even if we had somebody go down, we had a lot of really good young players step up. Thankfully, a lot of those kids are coming back. And even though we lost a lot of people on defense, we’ve got great folks coming in to replace him, and so I think the chances are good. I mean, I definitely feel like we’re a top-five team, but we gotta go out there and execute, and we’ve got, as you know in the SEC, tough competition. So it’s gonna be fun to watch, but I’m excited.