Georgia 2018: Brian Kemp enters race for governor

Secretary of State Brian Kemp entered the 2018 race for Georgia governor on Friday, declaring he is the conservative Republican who won’t “make empty promises or play political games in the State Capitol.”

Kemp becomes the first high-profile Republican to formally join a wide-open race to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal, and he echoed some of the term-limited governor’s themes in a statement announcing his candidacy.

“As your governor, I will fight to make Georgia No. 1 for small business, treat all parts of our state – including rural Georgia – the same, work to fundamentally reform government and always put the needs of Georgians – not special interests – first,” he said.

The Athens Republican will make his first stop on the campaign trail at the Cobb County Republican Party breakfast on Saturday morning.

A former state senator, the Kemp was appointed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue as the state’s top elections official in 2010 after Karen Handel resigned to run for governor and won his first of two four-year terms later that year.

The 53-year-old has long been considered a potential gubernatorial candidate and has tried to raise his profile by calling on Trump to investigate the Obama administration’s apparent attempt to access his office’s computer system. He’s also attracted national attention railing against left-leaning groups that accused his office of voter suppression.

But a pair of elections-related disclosures will likely be fodder for his opponents.

In 2015, his office accidentally sent confidential voter data to political parties and media outlets. Kemp’s office issued a report putting the blame on a staffer fired shortly after the breach.

And in March the FBI launched an inquiry into a suspected cyberattack after state officials received notice that records kept by the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University may have been compromised. Federal investigators said Friday a "security researcher" was behind the breach and said no federal laws were broken.

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.

Kemp jumped in the race early in part because he needs to start raising significant cash – and soon. He owns stakes in stone supply and construction businesses and has at least $3 million in land holdings, but he doesn’t have the immense wealth needed to finance his own campaign.

The secretary of state has long been a launching pad for higher office. Kemp’s last three predecessors – Lewis Massey, Cathy Cox and Handel – all ran for governor. It’s also an imperfect launching pad: All three of those candidates lost. The office-holder before that, Max Cleland, served a term in the U.S. Senate.

Kemp’s political rise began with an upset victory. He ousted a liberal Democratic incumbent to win his Athens-based seat in 2002, part of a wave of Republican victories that tipped the balance of power in the statehouse toward the GOP. He held the seat two years later in a tough re-election fight.

Itching for statewide office, Kemp launched an unsuccessful bid for agriculture commissioner in 2006, and then returned to the private sector.

When Handel stepped down to focus on her gubernatorial race in 2009, Kemp announced a run for her old gig – and in January 2010 Perdue surprised many in the statehouse by appointing him to the job. He’s since won two re-election campaigns.

It is not immediately clear whether Kemp will step down before his term ends to focus on his campaign. Deal's options for his replacement if Kemp resigns before November 2018 include state Rep. Buzz Brockway, a Gwinnett Republican who has announced he will run for the seat, and David Werner, the governor's executive counsel.

In his gubernatorial announcement, Kemp said he’s seeking higher office because he “knows how to put government in its place.”

“It’s time to fight for Georgia,” he said, “and I am prepared to lead the charge.”

More:   Georgia’s next governor: Who could be running in 2018

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.