Will Georgia’s massive data breach hurt Brian Kemp’s political future?

The political ambitions of Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp may have taken a hit last week with the massive data breach exposing 6 million voters’ personal information, but it’s not clear how badly the blunder will hurt him if he decides to run for governor in 2018.

Much likely depends on how Kemp continues to handle what he dubbed a “clerical error.” He said a now-fired employee inadvertently added sensitive data, including Social Security numbers and birth dates, to a public statewide voter file before it was sent out last month to 12 organizations who regularly subscribe to “voter lists” maintained by the state.

“This situation will not ever happen again,” Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an email Wednesday, in his first comments since a series of statements issued by his office last week.

“I don’t spend too much time worrying about the political future,” said Kemp, long considered a likely Republican candidate for governor in 2018. “I believe one should concentrate on doing the best job possible in the position they hold.

“If you make decisions on what is best for your political future, you are being the opposite of a true leader. I am and will remain focused on keeping Georgians’ personal information safe as well as making sure the rest of the many operations of the Secretary of State’s Office are performing at a high level for our citizens.”

Kemp is not new to the often rough-and-tumble cycle of Georgia politics. Last week, after the foul-up became public, the GOP establishment didn’t rush to defend Kemp. When asked for comment, staffers for Gov. Nathan Deal demurred and referred all questions to Kemp — a standard response last week among Republican leaders who offered few if any statements of confidence or support.

To no one’s surprise, Georgia Democrats pounced, firing off a series of press releases mocking Kemp’s handling of the situation. Separately, lawmakers including state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, called for more accountability and transparency after Kemp said all data discs illegally disclosing the private information had either been recovered or destroyed.

Kemp’s office found out about the data problem on Nov. 13, but it did not publicly acknowledge it until the following Wednesday, when the AJC wrote about a class-action lawsuit alleging a massive data breach in the Secretary of State’s Office. Kemp has since announced an independent audit of his technology department. Anyone registered to vote in Georgia was affected by the disclosure — some 6.2 million people.

“As an elected leader, you have to have the ability to separate the politics from the policy and performance of your job,” Kemp said.

Some conservative activists aren’t so sure the political back-and-forth matters.

“Voters have short memories,” said Bill Fogarty, who leads Georgians for Fair Taxation, a group pushing to replace federal income taxes with sales taxes. “I don’t think it will affect Kemp.”

Having a thick skin could help Kemp in the three years leading up to the next race for governor. A lifelong Athens resident and one-time state senator who maintains a folksy charm and thick Georgia drawl, Kemp has often taken care to display an everyman’s touch independent of established political mores.

Just last month, Kemp held the state’s first-ever “Peanut Poll,” coinciding with the annual state fair in Perry, where people could drop a peanut into jars representing their favorite presidential candidate. With more than 28,000 votes cast, it became — by Kemp’s calculations — the biggest straw poll in the country.

Next year’s SEC primary — a college athletics-themed presidential primary on March 1 that now includes Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — was also Kemp’s idea, garnering him national attention.

Still, both publicly and privately, GOP strategists said they expect that if Kemp runs for governor, possible opponents such as Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Attorney General Sam Olens will highlight the breach.

“Absolutely,” said John Watson, a former chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue. “People will look into his background, and that background will come up in the future.

“In the end, it’s often not the situation itself,” Watson said. “It’s how the person dealt with the situation. That’s what voters measure in the aftermath.”

Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist, said: “I guess we’ll see how some of this shakes out. Right now, in the short term, it makes him look pretty bad. It’s a big screw-up on somebody’s part. It puts the state in a situation of civil liability. It is the kind of thing any politician is going to take some licks on.”

Swint said the Secretary of State’s Office has often been seen as a “traditional launching pad” to run for governor.

However, while five recent Georgia secretaries of state have run for governor, none won.

Part of it may be the secretary of state’s relative obscurity. The office oversees elections and licensing of dozens of professions. Competence can go politically unrewarded, and the office often only makes news when things go wrong or somebody sues.

“There are so many things that can go wrong,” Swint said. “The general public has no idea what (Kemp’s office) does. It’s not really a policy-making job.”

George Hooks, an amateur legislative historian who served with Kemp in the state Senate, said it’s simply too early to tell whether the computer foul-up will affect his political future.

“Brian has been generally pretty popular out there,” said Hooks, who represented small-town South Georgia districts in the House and Senate for more than 30 years. “However, this is a major faux pas. I imagine a lot depends on how he handles it, but I do think it has hurt him.”

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Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.