Brian Kemp launches ‘Georgia First’ campaign for governor

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Bita Honarvar/AJC.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Bita Honarvar/AJC.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp opened his campaign for governor Saturday by borrowing themes from Donald Trump, pledging a "Georgia first" strategy that would crack down on illegal immigration as he took aim at establishment forces and the media.

The Athens Republican pledged to impose an adjustable spending cap on Georgia's growing state budget and return the rest to taxpayers, and drew applause from hundreds at a Cobb GOP breakfast with broadsides against "fake news" and the well-connected political status quo.

He promised his administration would "treat rural Georgia the same way we treat metro Atlanta" and emphasized his background as the owner of stone and construction firms – jobs he continues to hold as a statewide elected official.

“It helped that unlike many, I never ever became a full-time politician,” he said.

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Kemp is the first high-profile Republican to formally join a wide-open race to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal, and he said he would build on the governor's pledge to make the state the top place to do business by focusing on making it the best in the nation for small businesses.

But it was Trump that seemed the real muse for his kickoff speech.

Kemp repeatedly highlighted the need to boost rural Georgia's economy and put agriculture and manufacturing at the forefront of his campaign. It appeared to be a reflection of rural Georgia's importance in the Trump era: The president lost Cobb and the rest of core metro Atlanta, but still won the state by running up huge margins in rural Georgia.

And he talked in tough terms about Georgia’s efforts to block those in the country illegally from voting or receiving state benefits.

“This is Georgia,” he said. “We will be putting Georgia first.”

In an interview after his remarks, Kemp said he did not plan to step down from his role as Georgia’s top elections officer through the campaign. That would give him a statewide platform through November 2018, but also would deny him about three months of fundraising during next year’s legislative session.

He also said outreach to rural voters will be a cornerstone of his campaign.

“I’ve had this mantra for a while. I feel like I understand the state as well as anybody,” he said. “I’ve been to every county in this state, most of them multiple times. Which is why I understand that we’ve got to do something for rural Georgians to get them better paying jobs.”

More: Brian Kemp enters race for Georgia governor

The race to succeed Deal remains very unsettled. Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is all but guaranteed to join the race, but Donald Trump’s victory scrambled the plans of other high-profile GOP candidates considering a run.

Several other Republican candidates are openly considering a bid, including former Reps. Jack Kingston and Lynn Westmoreland, House Speaker David Ralston and state Sens. Michael Williams, Hunter Hill and Josh McKoon. A wealthy businessman running as an outsider is also likely to jump in.

The other side of the ticket is just as uncertain, though Democrats hope Trump's election can help them retake the seat for the first time since 2002. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is seen as a virtual lock to join the race. And former state Sen. Jason Carter, state Rep. Stacey Evans and one-time acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates could also run.