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Republicans Hope to Get Gaga for Governors

Two former Republican governors are already running and a handful more could still announce their candidacy. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence will make political ads even worse and does the Supreme Court even care about corruption?

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. (TNS)
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Republicans Hope to Get Gaga for Governors: Donald Trump’s status as the GOP’s presidential front-runner appears only to solidify as the year goes on. A poll from Morning Consult released this week showed the former president leading his nearest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, by a massive margin of 61-18. Still, Trump’s ongoing legal troubles and poor track record as a candidate in 2020 and promoter of weak nominees in 2022 have many Republican donors and at least some voters hoping for an alternative.

When the year began, DeSantis looked like that choice, promising to promote the most appealing parts of Trump’s platform without carrying anything like his personal baggage. Even before officially entering the race, however, DeSantis has struggled, a media narrative forming already that he just doesn’t have the personality to win on the national stage. DeSantis is far from finished – he’s only expected to officially announce his bid next week and has been combining trips to Iowa and New Hampshire with lengthy lists of fresh endorsements from lawmakers in those states – but the party’s anybody-but-Trump wing is casting about for someone else who can step up.

Lately, there’s been a bit of a boomlet for Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. There’s no love lost between Trump and Kemp, who showed he could win big last year even as Herschel Walker, Trump’s endorsed Senate candidate in Georgia, went down to defeat. Kemp has already said he’s not running but lately he’s made some coy remarks suggesting he might just change his mind. Last week, he hosted a Sea Island retreat with donors that raised $1.2 million. Kemp made it clear at that event, without actually uttering Trump’s name, that the party needs to go with someone else.

“There’s rocket fuel there if he’s willing to put on an astronaut suit and take a chance,” Mike Murphy, a prominent Never Trump GOP consultant, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “He’s probably a little intimidated by the big show, but if he spent a few days in New York, he’d find that a bunch of the DeSantis people would jump to him.”

It’s possible that Kemp’s appeal wouldn’t reach outside his own state’s borders. Even there, the Republican electorate remains very much committed to Trump, although Georgia GOP voters were easily able to compartmentalize when faced with the choice between Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Despite earning Trump’s ire by refusing to aid in efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Kemp was able to tout the health of the state’s economy, including announcements last year of a pair of multibillion plants being built by carmakers Hyundai and Rivian. “The further he gets away from Georgia, the more likely Republican voters are going to buy into the Trump criticisms,” says Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.

A series of studies has shown that endorsements from Trump have hurt GOP candidates in recent elections while boosting Democrats, but the GOP avoids mentioning him in its official “autopsy” examining last year’s disappointing elections. Nevertheless, some Republican officials hope for a stalking horse to be available if Trump falters due to potential health problems, legal troubles or any other reason, says Saladin Ambar, a Rutgers University political scientist. It makes perfect sense for them to be thinking about governors, he suggests, both because of their executive experience and their status as Washington outsiders. “The reason why governors matter, particularly on the Republican side, is that there’s been this great desire to have someone who is going to come to Washington and overturn the temple tables,” Ambar says.

Of course, being an outsider has always been the hallmark of Trump’s own appeal. When he last faced a competitive primary, back in 2016, no fewer than nine current or former governors also ran and, well, turned out to be also-rans. Maybe DeSantis or perhaps Kemp can catch fire in the coming year and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu may still enter the race. So far, though, the two former governors already running – South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas – are barely registering, each polling in the low single digits.
Tweet by Jerry Iannelli
Does the Supreme Court Care About Corruption?: Joseph Percoco, who served as a top aide to Democrat Andrew Cuomo while he was governor of New York, was convicted five years ago for soliciting and accepting more than $300,000 in bribes. Last week, the Supreme Court threw out the conviction, along with another case of bid-rigging involving a Cuomo donor.

In the Percoco case, the jury had been given instructions that were too broad, Justice Samuel Alito wrote. At the time Percoco was soliciting bribes, he was not serving in public office – although he was acting as Cuomo’s campaign manager and would return to government service soon after. “At the moment he took the bribe, he wasn’t a public official,” says Richard Briffault, a law professor at Columbia University.

Briffault says that the court made the right call (the decision was unanimous). Still, it’s only the latest in a series of decisions in recent years through which the court has reduced the latitude of federal prosecutors, having thrown out corruption convictions involving two New Jersey officials implicated in the Bridgegate scandal and former Virginia GOP Gov. Robert McDonnell.

Although federal corruption law is broad on its face – the actual charge is often depriving citizens of “honest services” – the court seems to want to limit cases to theft of federal funds or property, as opposed to general abuse of power. “It’s consistent with a trend that has been ongoing for over a decade now, in which the court has what appears to be a concern about a rogue executive branch and Department of Justice, and really seeks to cabin corruption crimes to not much more than quid pro quo bribery, something that is very narrow, transactional and technical,” says Juliet Sorensen, a law professor at Northwestern University.

Corruption cases can be tricky. In government, favors are granted and deals are done all the time, as part of the normal run of doing business. The Supreme Court has given federal prosecutors ample warning that they have to prove a pretty specific set of offenses. Maybe not coincidentally, the number of official corruption prosecutions pursued by the feds has been trending down since the 1990s.

Short of saying that almost everything is fair game, there are two possible solutions. One is for Congress to strengthen or clarify federal corruption statutes. The other is for state and local prosecutors to pursue cases on their own, under the authority of state laws. “There’s no reason why the Percoco case could not have been brought at the state level by the Albany County district attorney,” Briffault says.

No legal reason, maybe. But prosecutors are mostly elected to the job themselves and are often part of the same political culture that involves governors and their aides and other officials. Most states are now under what amounts to one-party rule. That’s why it’s been valuable to have federal prosecutors – who come from the outside and operate under different sets of incentives than district attorneys – keeping their eyes on the henhouse. Thanks to the Supreme Court, that’s going to happen less often.
A screenshot of an AI-generated RNC ad
A screenshot of an AI-generated ad by the Republican National Committee.
AI Will Make Political Ads Even Worse: Political advertising is not exactly well-known for its strict adherence to truth, but at least candidates generally try to back up their claims with roll call vote numbers or newspaper headlines. That may no longer be true. Advertising experts are warning that artificial intelligence will make it cheap and easy to send out misleading but convincing claims.

This can play out in a number of ways. AI can generate fake videos purporting to show a candidate making outrageous statements in a speech. Or it can create convincing robocalls presenting the same type of thing, in what sounds exactly like the candidate’s own voice. And it can do all this on the cheap. “It dramatically lowers the cost of creating compelling propaganda,” says Mark DiMassimo, founder and creative chief of New York-based marketing agency DiGo.

Low cost means AI ads can not only mirror a candidate but create nightmare landscapes, which are often the most resonant types of ads. That’s exactly what the Republican National Committee did last month, when it used AI to create an ad depicting a dystopic future following the prospective re-election of President Biden. “AI makes this style of advertising affordable for political campaigns and for small, not very well-financed groups as well,” DiMassimo says. “So it should have a huge effect on people’s behavior, maybe a revolutionary effect.”

Relatively low-tech misinformation, often involving little more than text, has already had a profound effect on politics. Adding video and audio to the mix will amplify its emotional impact. People will be able to see and feel purported problems caused by candidates. There have already been fake videos showing Biden giving a speech attacking transgender people and kids learning Satanism in libraries.

Foreign actors won’t hesitate to send this kind of stuff spinning through social media. There will be some protection against all this in the commercial sphere, thanks to regulations and trademarks, DiMassimo says, but with fair use and free speech laws, those obstacles will mostly disappear in the political sphere. “I imagine this will have a big impact in 2024,” he says.

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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