The Georgia legislature is preparing for a new 40-day session

The 40-day legislative session begins on Monday, and there are some big changes ahead for both chambers.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is underrated.

After defeating both a Donald Trump-backed Republican challenger and Democratic star Stacey Abrams to win re-election, Kemp aims to expand his influence in his second term, free from the caricature of the armed, pickup truck-driving, migrant catching country boys that arose during his first campaign for governor.

A new vision of Kemp steering his party toward non-Trumpian conservatism debuted in his November victory speech after it became clear he had defeated Abrams in their rematch by a much larger margin than in their close 2018 matchup.

“This election proves that if Republicans focus on real solutions that put hard-working people first, we can win now and well into the future,” Kemp said.

Kemp vowed that night to “stay in the fight” and followed up with concrete steps: He kept his political operation going and borrowed it from Herschel Walker’s unsuccessful Senate runoff campaign while he formed a federal political action committee that would influence governorship to take the race leaves Congress and President. He hasn’t ruled out running for the US Senate in 2026 or even aiming for the White House.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp addresses the media during a Get Out the Vote cookout at Hadden Estate at DGD Farms on May 21, 2022 in Watkinsville, Georgia. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Beyond his own rise, Kemp’s victory could provide a blueprint for Republicans in competitive states after voters in 2022 rejected many of the Trump-leaning candidates. It’s a less conspicuous approach, aimed at attracting independents and moderates while achieving conservative political goals.

“If Republicans are focused on winning, a lot of people are going to call Gov. Kemp and get his advice, but also try to reiterate the things that he did here,” said Cody Hall, Kemp’s political adviser.

Kemp, now 59, was a real estate developer and senator before Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed him secretary of state in 2010. Eight years later, Kemp was well on his way to defeating an establishment candidate for the GOP nomination for governor when Trump’s support was overblown for his campaign, which focused on gun rights and opposition to illegal immigration.

After Kemp defeated Abrams by just 1.4 percentage points in the 2018 general election, she accused him of using the secretary of state’s office to improperly purge likely Democratic voters. A federal court later dismissed legal claims challenging Kemp’s actions.

In his first term, Kemp recorded some major conservative wins, including signing strict abortion restrictions in 2019. He also made a variety of appointments and kept his promise of $5,000 raises for public school teachers, moves aimed at cementing his appeal at center an anticipated Abrams rematch.

Governor Kemp delivers victory speech

Gov. Brian Kemp delivers his victory speech after winning the 2022 race for Georgia governor and securing another term. He outlines future plans for Georgia’s economy.

Kemp’s relationship with Trump began to deteriorate after the governor nominated Kelly Loeffler to the Senate over Trump’s preferred choice. Trump later shot at Kemp over his decision to reopen stores early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the president’s anger boiled over when Kemp refused to help Trump and his allies win Joe Biden’s narrow win in Georgia at the Overturning 2020 elections – efforts that are now the subject of investigations by prosecutors.

Trump vowed revenge on Kemp, but the governor pushed forward. In 2021, Kemp signed into law a sweeping Republican-sponsored state election overhaul inspired by Trump’s false claims of fraud in the 2020 election. He also pushed through a law relaxing gun laws.

Trump endorsed former Senator David Perdue as the governor’s main challenger. Kemp, who never publicly challenged Trump or even directly responded to his tirades, crushed Perdue in the primary. Meanwhile, his distance from Trump gave Kemp credibility with independents and even some Democrats.

“It just gave him a gravity that you can’t buy,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican policy adviser.

Even some Democrats are acknowledging Kemp’s increasing political power after his nearly 8 percentage point victory over Abrams. State Assemblyman Al Williams, who has long been close to Abrams, said Kemp is “at the peak of his power” and is entering a second term. His inauguration is on Thursday.

Williams and other supporters say Kemp’s tenure, as well as the billions in federal COVID-19 aid he spent under Georgia law alone, were factors in his victory. “He spent it very effectively and spread the net wide,” Williams said.

As the Senate race went into overtime, Kemp was called upon to help Walker in his runoff against Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. Kemp, who had secured GOP donors and built his own political organization independently of a Trump acolyte-led state party, handed over his voter data operation so the Walker campaign could tailor messages to different factions of Republican voters.

Still, Kemp largely kept his distance from Walker, whose campaign has been plagued by allegations that he paid for abortions, behaved violently towards women and lied about his education, work history and personal background. Shortly before the runoff, Kemp agreed to appear in a television advert supporting Walker, but made sure his own political team wrote the script.

Steven Law, who chairs the political action committee that works with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, said Kemp did what savvy political heavyweights do: He helped his party while building and protecting his own brand .

“We had a party where Trump had a crucial appeal, and here’s a person in Brian Kemp who just stayed out of that orbit, made his own calls, decided things his way — not against Trump, but on the disobey him at the same time,” Law said, calling Kemp’s balancing act “remarkable”.

Kemp’s future political path remains unclear, but he has options.

In Georgia, he was never stated to have overt national ambitions, either for the presidency or for the Senate, and Robinson noted that Kemp “never spoke affectionately of Washington.”

Law hesitated when asked if McConnell or his team had raised the possibility that Kemp could run for the Senate in 2026 if Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff faced voters again.

There is also the possibility of running for vice president or a future cabinet post. Perhaps the most likely is a larger role in the Republican Governors Association: He is now on the RGA’s executive committee and could become chairman in 2025 or 2026.

Hall said Kemp wants to help other states elect conservatives who stand for “liberty and liberty and personal responsibility” while promoting education, a strong economy and good jobs. “Whatever he can do to help more people like this get elected, I’m sure he will,” Hall said.

At home, Kemp is the supreme party leader and undisputed leader of the state government in a new way for him. With a new House Speaker and a Lieutenant Governor leading the General Assembly, Kemp is unlikely to face opposition from GOP majorities.

So far, however, he has offered a minimalist second-term agenda: income tax and property tax refunds, some criminal justice measures and minor educational changes. Its greatest promise is continuity, adding four more years to 20 years of Republican rule in Georgia.

The governor could also take more control of the GOP machine if he supports efforts to oust Georgia Republican Chairman David Shafer, a Trump ally.

“He’s carrying sacks of political capital like the Monopoly man,” Robinson said, marveling at what he calls Kemp’s “clear and very empowering” credentials in the primary and general elections. “Go on, put a monocle and a top hat on him.”