ATLANTA — When Gov. Brian Kemp gathered bipartisan lawmakers a few days ago to celebrate the signing of the state budget, it seemed a prime setting to push for his top priorities in the waning days of the legislative session.
He was surrounded by the state’s most powerful legislators as a bank of television cameras captured his every word. And he had plenty to discuss, with much left on his agenda.
But instead of turning the event into a call to action, Kemp sidestepped aggressive pleas for specific legislation, even when asked about his proposal to boost HOPE scholarship funding that has divided Republican leaders.
“I support the process. And we understand how that works,” he said. “I feel certain that we’ll come to a really good solution for our students and for their families.”
At the start of his second term in office, Kemp has kept a relatively low profile during the legislative session. And that has surprised many under the Gold Dome who expected the triumphant Republican to take a more assertive approach.
He’s rarely used his bully pulpit to advocate for specific pieces of legislation, instead mostly pressing for broader themes such as increased workforce housing, more tough-on-crime crackdowns and a renewed effort to give the state oversight of local prosecutors.
He’s not issuing veto threats or making noisy demands of legislators, preferring to publicly defer to lawmakers even as he and aides work privately to shape the $32.4 billion spending plan and scuttle measures he opposes.
In short, Kemp is not throwing his weight around with bombastic public statements, preferring instead a behind-the-scenes approach with the Legislature.
This is a departure from past legislative sessions, when the governor took center stage to push new abortion restrictions, firearms expansions, an overhaul of election laws and other nationally watched proposals.
But it’s also nothing new under the Gold Dome, where governors often tend to pursue their agenda behind closed doors.
What may be most unusual about Kemp’s strategy this year is that he doesn’t need to tread lightly with lawmakers.
At the start of his second term in office, his popularity has reached a new pinnacle in public opinion polls. He’s at the center of 2024 campaign buzz, with national pundits floating his name as a dark-horse presidential contender.
He is the unquestioned leader of state Republicans after defeating both Democrat Stacey Abrams and a Donald Trump-backed rival within the GOP. And his influence has increased as House Speaker Jon Burns and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, both new in their roles, find their footing.
“They’re getting a feel for our leadership style,” Jones said in an interview. “It’s been really, really smooth. Even on issues we’ve disagreed on — there’ve been very few — we cordially disagree and we move on. We don’t let it cloud the next conversation.”
A rocky history
The governor’s strategy is informed by a rocky start to his first term.
In 2019, Kemp entered office after the closest gubernatorial contest in decades intent on passing one of the nation’s strictest anti-abortion laws. Kemp expended much political capital on ensuring its passage; it scraped by with one vote to spare in the House.
But that tumultuous session took a toll on his relationship with then-House Speaker David Ralston, and the two feuded publicly over the state’s spending initiatives and policy agenda.
The duo set about repairing their ties in 2020, a priority of Kemp’s new top aide, Trey Kilpatrick. The speaker, who died late last year, helped Kemp pass every major initiative in his election-year session — even legislation that banned transgender girls from competing in high school sports that the speaker personally opposed.
Legislative leaders say there are more frequent meetings between Kemp’s top aides and their counterparts this year, and several lawmakers boast of invitations to the Governor’s Mansion and other outreach efforts.
And while Kemp has the clout to impose his will on the Legislature, he’s also mindful allies come in handy during darker times. Cody Hall, a Kemp strategist, said the governor recognizes that GOP wins are a “team effort with the General Assembly and other constitutional officers.”
Jet Toney, a veteran lobbyist and Capitol observer, said it’s “functionally strategic of the governor to allow those Republican-led teams to work through their first sessions without unusual and increased influence and participation.”
A longtime Kemp friend put it another way, saying the governor is purposely avoiding a high-profile style in part because it doesn’t accomplish as much under the Gold Dome and in part because he didn’t want lawmakers to think it’s a “one-man show at the Capitol.”
A prime example of Kemp’s strategy unfolded during the debate over Buckhead’s latest secession movement.
Wary of alienating conservatives, Kemp stayed neutral on the idea through the 2022 midterm even as his chief Republican rival made it a mainstay of his campaign. But it was well known under the Gold Dome that Kemp and his aides were skeptical of the proposal.
And when legislative power brokers balked at killing the breakaway movement, Kemp’s executive counsel dispatched a two-page memo loaded with legal questions that helped seal its defeat. Ten Republican senators voted against the measure, and the secession’s leader threw in the towel.
It was one of several instances where Kemp preferred stealthier movements to a shock-and-awe bluster.
One example of the soft power took place in a recent House Education Committee hearing, where state Sen. Jason Anavitarte rallied support by simply saying Kemp was behind a measure to require school districts to use crisis alert systems.
That happened, too, when state Rep. Will Wade told reporters that Kemp “is going to be ready to sign” a measure to limit how doctors can treat transgender youth. (He later walked back his statement, and Kemp’s office said it wouldn’t comment on the pending legislation.)
Senior officials say Kemp’s office was involved in the revival of sports betting legislation that now appears set for a Senate vote after being left for dead earlier this session.
And Kemp has avoided hammering lawmakers over their reluctance to embrace his plan to tap the state’s bulging budget to undo 12-year-old cuts to the HOPE scholarship.
House leaders are concerned that funding 100% of in-state tuition for all HOPE recipients is a disservice to high-achieving students who now receive the full awards. While Kemp disagrees, he took a milder stance when pressed on the issue at the crowded budget event.
“I stand in support of that, but this is a process that we’re going through,” he said of his proposal. “I know the General Assembly is continuing to have discussions on that.”
(Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.)