Republican presidential candidates are coming to Atlanta to seek his endorsement. He’s picking fights with former President Donald Trump on social media. And he’s being talked about as a possible vice presidential candidate — if he doesn’t run for president himself.
(Bloomberg) — Republican presidential candidates are coming to Atlanta to seek his endorsement. He’s picking fights with former President Donald Trump on social media. And he’s being talked about as a possible vice presidential candidate — if he doesn’t run for president himself.
Brian Kemp, fresh off a decisive 2022 reelection campaign for his second and final term as Georgia governor, is emerging as a Republican power broker as the party decides whether to keep Trump as its standard bearer or look for a new challenger to President Joe Biden.
Kemp opened and closed a gathering of conservative activists in Atlanta this week, as conservative radio host Erick Erickson convened a Trump-free showcase of presidential candidates. Kemp co-hosted the event through a $100,000 contribution by Hardworking Americans, the super PAC Kemp has set up to boost his national profile.
Six top GOP presidential candidates attended the gathering, the last major Republican event before next Wednesday’s first debate in Milwaukee.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis met with Kemp for half an hour before speaking to the conference, according to a person familiar with the meeting, who said the topic of an endorsement didn’t explicitly come up.
Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was less coy in a conversation with Kemp on Friday. “He knows I want him to endorse me. I mean, you guys don’t think I’m subtle?” he told reporters Saturday in Atlanta.
“Leadership matters. And the truth matters,” Christie said. “And Brian Kemp has been the leader who tells the truth, and voters rewarded him — from both parties and independents. And so why wouldn’t you want to talk to someone like that?”
Some of Kemp’s growing national influence stems from Georgia’s newfound status as the most hard-fought battleground state in the nation.
Biden won the state by 11,779 votes in 2020, becoming the first Democrat to take Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992. Before that, the last Democrat to carry the state was Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor.
Democrats then won three straight Senate elections, even as Kemp was comfortably reelected last year by nearly 8 percentage points.
But the 2020 election has led to deep rifts within the Georgia Republican Party, which voted out its leadership at a state convention in June in the continued fallout over Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the Georgia race was stolen.
Trump’s indictment in Fulton County, Georgia, this week put Kemp back in the spotlight, as the governor once again defended the integrity of the state’s voting system. Republicans risk losing in 2024 if the election is about what happened in 2020, he said.
“The Democrats want us to be focused on things like that so that we’re not focused on Joe Biden’s record,” Kemp told the Atlanta conference.
His message to presidential candidates, including Trump, is to not get distracted by the indictments: “We can deal with that later, after we win,” he said — which means Republicans first “have to have a candidate that can win the election.”
Kemp, 59, was a home builder, state senator and secretary of state before being elected governor in 2018.
He has often been underestimated, even by Georgia Republicans. BJ Van Gundy, a longtime Georgia Republican activist, first met Kemp 20 years ago and told a Republican donor that he could get elected as state senator but “don’t get your hopes up” for higher office.
Van Gundy now tells that story often — especially when introducing Kemp as the governor.
Kemp’s Georgia-nice persona and conservative credentials would make him a logical choice as a running mate for the eventual Republican nominee, Van Gundy said.
“How does his southern speech and his way about him play elsewhere in the country? I don’t know,” he said. “But for somebody from a northern state, his strong record would be a natural to have him on the ticket.”
A Morning Consult poll this week found Kemp’s approval rating at 60% — the highest of his governorship — with just 33% disapproving. His reelection rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams last year focused almost entirely on pocketbook issues and crime.
Kemp’s folksiness was on display this year in Davos, Switzerland, as he tried to reconcile his growing national and global stature with his Georgia roots. He insisted on wearing his cowboy boots in the Alpine snow, which he said made a bigger statement than his remarks to the World Economic Forum.
Hardworking Americans, the Kemp super PAC, has raised $610,622 in the first six months of 2023, with most of that coming from his state political committee, the Georgians First Leadership Committee. The state entity has brought in more than $5 million this year despite the fact that Kemp can’t run for governor again. Top contributors to the super PAC include Kenneth Slater of Tremont Partners and James Stanard of TigerRisk Partners.
Kemp closed the two-day conference Saturday by appearing with Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, another Republican often discussed as a possible late entry into the GOP presidential field.
“I really wanted to make a joke with them that this is the 2024 Republican ticket,” Erickson said. “It’s not true. They’re not running. They’re not running!”
–With assistance from Stephanie Lai.
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