By Tom Baxter

With a flurry of checks and a rally for the governor, the 2022 campaign got off to the closest it will come to an official start last week. It seems early still, but we’re less than a year away from the May 24 primaries and the June 24 runoffs.

There were a lot of impressive campaign financial reports filed by last week’s quarterly deadline for state races, signaling another bonanza year for the recipients of campaign spending. A lot of people on both sides of the ball have been able to raise competitive war chests.

I credit this not to the quality of the candidates, or the temperature of the political debate in this off year. I think it’s the pandemic. A lot of people came into this year with a lot of unspent money and energy from last year’s election. The internet has made it easier for them to express that energy in dollars.

There was a noticeable Trump effect. Vernon Jones reported $650,000 in his challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp. That’s peanuts next to the $9.2 million Kemp has raised, but indicative of a lot of what you might call believer money sloshing around in this batch of reports. U.S. Rep. Jody Hice reported $545,000 in his challenge to Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who reported having raised only $249,000.

That’s ominous for an incumbent, but Labor Secretary Mark Butler has even more troubling warning signs. Butler, whose performance during the pandemic has come in for criticism, raised $65,000, compared to his Republican primary opponent, Sen. Bruce Thompson, who has raised $251,000.

Remember that nearly all these dollars will be spent in the primaries, bashing rivals within each party, not in the fall when the parties square off against each other. On the Democratic side, the attorney general’s race is shaping up to be a well-funded primary battle. State Sen. Jen Jordan has raised $673,000, and Charlie Bailey, the party’s nominee for attorney general in 2018, has raised $573,000.

The numbers also indicate a competitive Democratic primary race for secretary of state, but those numbers are still in question. State Rep. Bee Nguyen reported $387,000, while author Manswell Peterson reported $319,000. Questions have been raised about Peterson’s filing, however, and the state ethics board is reviewing it.

These are much bigger numbers, by the way, than the filings for any of the four Democrats running for lieutenant governor, which with the departure of Geoff Duncan is an open seat. In contrast, Republican Sen. Butch Miller has in a short time raised more than $2 million, sending a powerful message to potential rivals in his own party and laying down a marker for his general election bid.

Donald Trump hasn’t wavered in his animosity toward Kemp, but if he’s done real harm to his reelection chances, you wouldn’t know it from the nearly $12 million war chest Kemp has amassed. Although Rudy Giuliani has raised money for Jones, Trump hasn’t endorsed the former Democrat. The former president reportedly failed
to convince state Sen. Burt Jones to challenge Kemp.

Kemp, meanwhile, has resolutely avoided arguing with Trump and stuck to a crime and cancel culture message. You know it’s a tough time to be in politics, he told the crowd at his kickoff rally at the state fairgrounds in Perry, “when you get people trolling you on Twitter when you do an Easter morning post.”

He didn’t say that level of anger came from within his own party, but you can see lots of that on social media. Kemp has an until-now unique problem, with limited means to move to the center at the same time he’s being ostracized by the leader of his party’s base on the right.

This isn’t, however, a problem that’s necessarily going to keep him from getting re-elected. He’s not going to appease all the pro-Trump trollers, but he’s not likely to have a serious problem with Vernon Jones, either. And although a close general election race is expected, it still lacks a key component: a serious Democratic candidate.

Stacey Abrams’ reticence about next year’s governor’s race has so far not been much of a story because she’s so widely expected to announce eventually. It becomes a progressively bigger story from here forward.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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