CUMMING, Ga. (AP) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is projecting strength and gathering endorsements from fellow Republicans on a bill-signing tour ahead of his primary matchup against former U.S. Sen. David Perdue and others, trying to smother Perdue’s chances in the May 24 primary.
The latest example came Thursday as he signed a package of conservative education bills in Cumming, a key Republican suburb north of Atlanta. They would regulate the teaching of race in the classroom and allow the state athletic association to ban transgender girls from playing high school sports. Others would codify parents’ rights, force school systems to respond to challenges of books that parents view as inappropriate and increase tax credits for private school scholarships.
“Standing up for the God-given potential of each and every child in our schools, and protecting the teaching of freedom, liberty, opportunity and the American dream in the classroom should not be controversial,” Kemp said of bills that were intensely disputed by Democrats and teacher groups. “Making sure parents have the ultimate say in their child’s education should not be controversial.”
But the stop in Forsyth County was only the latest favorable backdrop for Kemp. Tuesday, he stomped across “Perdue country” south of Macon, signing an income tax cut and announcing an 800-job factory.
Monday, Kemp signed a bill expanding the power of Georgia’s attorney general to prosecute gang crimes backed by a wall of state troopers in the wealthy Buckhead neighborhood, where Perdue is trying to fan the flames of secession from the city of Atlanta.
The week before, Kemp signed a bill allowing Georgians to carry a concealed handgun without a permit while boasting of the gun he bought his daughter.
Incumbents almost always try to use the power of their office to bolster their reelection bids. And it’s not like Perdue supporters didn’t see it coming.
“He’s doing a really impressive job of using patronage and the session and the budget surplus,” Randy Evans, Donald Trump’s former ambassador to Luxembourg, said in March during Georgia’s state legislative session.
Perdue was personally courted by Trump to enter the race as retribution for Kemp not doing more to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss in Georgia. Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted.
Some of the school bills only came onto Kemp’s radar this year with the broader conservative ferment over education, and may be aimed at protecting Kemp’s right flank from attacks by Perdue. Kemp, for example, ignored calls to ban transgender children from sports in previous years before embracing them in his State of the State speech this year. After prodding lawmakers on the last night of the session, they gave him a watered-down provision that allows, but doesn’t require, the Georgia High School Association to ban transgender girls.
“We put students and parents first by keeping woke politics out of the classroom and off the ball fields,” Kemp said, saying he was building on an education track record that also includes pay raises for teachers.
Democrats view the school bills as Republican campaign fodder, but hope to use the culture war embrace to hurt GOP candidates in November. Besides the transgender bill, they weighed in Thursday against a measure that would make it easier for parents to push school systems to remove books and another measure that would ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” on race.
Angie Darnell, a Forsyth County parent and member of a group that opposes conservative efforts, said at a Democratic news conference that Kemp’s claims that teachers would try to indoctrinate students was a “blatant and false political ploy.”
“It’s outrageous that Brian Kemp is inserting partisan agendas into the classroom just to try and win an election,” said Darnell, a Cumming resident. “Because for him that seems to be what it’s all about. Not parents, not students. Just a reelection campaign.”
Republicans say it’s absolutely necessary to ban critical race theory, a term stretched from its original meaning as an examination of how societal structures perpetuate white dominance to a broader indictment of diversity initiatives and teaching about race.
Republican-dominated Forsyth County was roiled last year by conservative activists who claimed the district was teaching harmful material on race, a controversy that sometimes centered on school district efforts to include nonwhite students in what was once an almost entirely white county. The school system is also examining plans to teach about the county’s history, including how white mobs drove out the county’s entire Black population in 1912.
In February, the district banned eight books from libraries, citing sexually explicit content, including “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. But that wasn’t enough for some parents. The district is now considering letting parents restrict what books their children read or having parents be notified of everything their child checks out.
Becky Woomer, a Forsyth County parent and another member of the group opposing the changes, protested outside the bill signing. She said a noisy minority of conservative activists are restricting others’ freedoms.
“There’s a freedom to read that our students have that needs to be protected, and a freedom to teach that our teachers have that needs to be protected,” Woomer said.
But those may not be concerns for Republican primary voters. For now, Kemp’s strategy appears to be working. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Tuesday found Kemp leading Perdue 53% to 27% among likely voters. That margin means Kemp could avoid a runoff against Perdue, a scenario that could leave the winner weakened in a November faceoff with Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Kemp, usually buttoned up and almost dour in public appearances, has been loose during the tour, laughing, flashing big toothy grins and joking with supporters. Other Republicans are lining up to endorse him. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan called him “Georgia’s most conservative governor in our history.”
“Nothing screams conservative louder than a good old fashioned tax cut,” Duncan said, saluting Kemp for his “bold conservative leadership,” swiping a phrase that Perdue often uses to describe himself.