“You don’t want to cast a pall over the elections process,” said Cleland, who resigned as secretary of state in 1996 to run for higher office.
Other Republicans said Democrats should be careful what they wish for. State Rep. Buzz Brockway, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Kemp's job, said a vacancy would likely lead Gov. Nathan Deal to appoint state Rep. Brad Raffensperger, the GOP nominee for the office.
“And he could then show the world how well he would do the job,” said Brockway, who scoffed at “election season” politicking. “It’s not like Brian Kemp is sitting there counting ballots. He sets the policy, and the county officials move forward with it.”
The Democratic calls for Kemp to step aside ratcheted up immediately after he trounced Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the July runoff to win the Republican nomination. They often point to both Cleland and Republican Karen Handel, who also resigned to run for higher office.
Those decisions to step down are often made early in the campaign, in part so candidates can avoid restrictions on raising cash during sessions of the Legislature and receive donations from industries regulated by the Secretary of State’s Office.
Though the secretary of state is often seen as a steppingstone to higher ground, that track record is mixed. Three of Kemp’s past four predecessors launched unsuccessful campaigns for governor. Cleland ran a successful campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Not all resigned from office during their bids.
Lewis Massey stayed in office during his 1998 run for governor. He lost in a Democratic primary to Roy Barnes. And Cathy Cox remained in her post in 2006 as she ran in a heated Democratic primary against then-Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, who ultimately prevailed.
Cox said she considered returning her taxpayer-funded salary until she was advised it was statutorily set and thus she “did not have discretion to reduce it.”
Still, she said, she stepped back from any oversight of elections so “as not perceived as gaining information from complaints that were filed or taking any actions” that could favor her campaign.
In her stead, she had her assistant secretary of state lead the State Election Board meeting.
“Of course, I also did not proceed beyond the primary,” she added, “so I didn’t have that call to make for the full year.”
Abrams, who has long sparred with Kemp over voting rights, has largely refrained from criticizing him directly since he won the Republican nomination. She did not echo the calls for him to resign on Tuesday.
But her allies intensified their push for his resignation by circulating petitions on social media that urge lawmakers to adopt restrictions barring incumbent secretaries of state from overseeing elections if they’re on the ballot. Among them was Johns Creek businessman Mike Levin, who said such a move would help “safeguard our elections.”
Others said the stakes were even higher.
“It’s not about who wins or loses, but it’s about the process,” Cleland said. “And lord knows the process is under attack nationwide right now.”
At his campaign office on Tuesday, Kemp flatly rejected any notion that he should distance himself from his oversight role, and he questioned why his critics didn’t raise similar concerns during past elections when he was also on the ballot.
“People lose sight that the counties run the elections. They’re counting the votes, they’re tabulating, they’re uploading them to our site,” he said. “None of them brought this up in 2010 or 2014. So what’s changed now?”
It's a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. AJC stories have included a look at Kemp's fundraising among industries he regulates and Abrams' tax difficulties. Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.