Last week, when Donald Trump endorsed Brian Kemp over Casey Cagle in Georgia’s Republican-gubernatorial-primary runoff election—which takes place on Tuesday—it looked like the President was simply choosing the candidate who was running as the self-proclaimed “politically incorrect conservative.” But, in fact, there is very little political distance between Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, and Cagle, the lieutenant governor: both are avowed right-wing Christians who extol the blessed trinity of school choice, the elimination of abortion rights, and the primacy of the Second Amendment, and both are vocal supporters of Trump. They are so closely aligned politically that the New York Times called the President’s endorsement “unexpected.” And, though it’s possible that Trump split the difference by focussing on the candidates’ most significant policy disagreement—Kemp is a vociferous critic of the Affordable Care Act, and Cagle wants to expand Medicaid in Georgia—he also happened to endorse a candidate whose views on election hacking and Russian meddling most reflect his own.
This issue of election security became newly relevant for Georgia on July 13th, five days before Trump tweeted his endorsement of Kemp, when Robert Mueller, the special counsel, issued an indictment accusing twelve Russian military-intelligence officers of hacking the computers and e-mail accounts of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff and Democratic Party operatives during the 2016 election. The indictment also revealed—for the first time—that the Russians had targeted county Web sites in Georgia, looking for election-related vulnerabilities. (The indictment said that the hackers also looked at county Web sites in Iowa and Florida.) In one sense, this was an unremarkable fact: the top cybersecurity official in the Department of Homeland Security, Jeanette Manfra, told Congress in April that Russians hackers had likely targeted every state’s systems in 2016. But, for the past two years, Kemp has been contemptuous of efforts by the D.H.S. to shore up election systems nationally. And, though not going so far as to say that Russian interference is “all a big hoax,” as Trump has, Kemp has been an outspoken advocate of not taking the whole thing so seriously.
In August, 2016, when the scope of the Russian hacking effort was becoming clear to President Obama—and as he and his advisers struggled to find a response that would not undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming elections, or provoke the Russians to do more damage, or appear to confirm Trump’s assertion that the election was rigged—Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, suggested designating the American election system as “critical infrastructure,” a category that includes bridges and the power grid. This designation would enable D.H.S. to offer cybersecurity support to individual states. And this inflamed Brian Kemp.
Labelling elections as critical infrastructure, Kemp declared, opened the door for the federal government to “subvert the Constitution to achieve the goal of federalizing elections under the guise of security.” Georgia is one of only five states that uses voting machines that create no paper record, and thus cannot be audited, and the Center for American Progress has given it a D grade for election security. But, when D.H.S. offered cybersecurity assistance, Kemp refused it.