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Brian Kemp and the Electric Car: A Love Story

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Other Republican governors have heralded expansions from companies in the electric-vehicle supply chain. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine cheered Honda’s announcement of a $3.5 billion battery plant. In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee unveiled plans for a cathode manufacturing facility backed by $3.2 billion from LG Chem. Many more are surely on the way.

Contrary to Kemp and others’ claims, these governors are not just letting the market work. They are deploying billions of dollars in state incentives to lure green-manufacturing business, and getting help from tax benefits and made-in-America rules enacted by President Biden and his party in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Kemp is not convincing as he tries to draw a bright line between his generous development deals and the Democrats’ federal incentives. He criticizes them for “manipulating the market” and compares Biden’s manufacturing agenda unfavorably to Donald Trump’s. Trump, he says, used tariffs to “bring manufacturing back,” while Biden is “paying people to do it.”

Of course, Kemp pays companies in his own way. When I point that out, he adjusts his critique. Georgia offers development deals within the bounds of a balanced state budget, Kemp says, whereas Biden finances his by “running up the country’s debt and deficits.” That bill will eventually come due, he warns.

That Kemp is interested at all in these issues may seem an incongruous turn for a politician who arrived in the national consciousness as a gubernatorial candidate in 2018 with a television commercial showing him seated with a shotgun in his lap, mock-interviewing a young man about dating his daughter. An endorsement from Trump sealed the Republican nomination that year, propelling Kemp into a November clash with Stacey Abrams that Kemp won narrowly. He has governed from the right: loosening gun laws, tightening voting rules and banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Davos Man, he is not.

What Kemp is, is a political survivor. Today he looks like the most resilient conservative politician of the Trump era, with a gift for finding a solid spot on shifting ground and fixing himself there. Seeking reelection last year, the governor faced a spectacular betrayal by Trump, who propped up a primary challenger, the former senator David Perdue, as an act of payback after Kemp declined to sabotage Georgia’s vote count in 2020 when Biden carried the state. Kemp obliterated Perdue, then faced Abrams again and beat her decisively with a message of fighting crime, cutting taxes and growing the economy with help from the electric car.

Perhaps fortified by victory, Kemp speaks more openly about Trump now than he did during their political breakup. He recently addressed a conference in Sea Island, Georgia, hosted by the conservative group Heritage Action, and recalls arguing there that Republicans could not simply be the party of opposing Democrats: “We have to be for something.”

Reflecting on the 2020 election, he tells me Trump blew it in that campaign: “President Trump and his reelection didn’t do a good enough job of telling people what he had done and what he wanted to do in a second term.”

We finally get to the part where I ask him, not quite directly, if he wants to be president. Will he serve his full second term as governor, or is there any other office that interests him?

“My intention is to serve four more years,” Kemp says.

When I observe that’s not exactly airtight language, the governor does not disagree.

The Republican Party still awaits an authentic climate visionary — a leader who will chuck aside its reflex for crude sloganeering (“Drill, baby, drill!”) and persuade American conservatives to accept climate science and rally against a planetary crisis in their own way. Kemp is not that leader. At least not today.

But for once, in his message, you can hear from a Republican partisan faint echoes of the arguments that conservative leaders elsewhere have used to engage the reality of global warming. One memorable example came from Boris Johnson, the climate-conscious British prime minister, who invoked Kermit the frog at the United Nations to proclaim: “It’s not only easy, it’s lucrative and it’s right to be green.”

Brian Kemp is on board with the lucrative part. And that is a start.

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