Georgia’s 2026 election is three years away, but the jockeying is heating up

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a potential GOP contender for governor in 2026, recently released an ad attacking a potential rival in that race, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a potential GOP contender for governor in 2026, recently released an ad attacking a potential rival in that race, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. (Arvin Temkar /

Top Georgia Republicans are already jockeying for position for the 2026 election. But party leaders warn that the early maneuvering for governor and a U.S. Senate contest that’s three years away distracts from next year’s White House race.

“I think it’s a bad mistake — a bad mistake — for Republicans to be focused on anything other than winning in 2024,” said Gov. Brian Kemp, who can’t seek a third term. “Including my colleagues in the state of Georgia.”

The shadow campaign for Kemp’s office heated up this week when Lt. Gov. Burt Jones launched a pointed attack ad against Secretary of State Brad Raffenpserger, a potential rival for the state’s top job in 2026.

The digital ad featured Raffensperger’s image on a milk carton as the narrator asked about his whereabouts — a reference to Raffensperger’s decision earlier this month to skip a Senate hearing on upgrades to the state’s electronic voting system.

The broadside triggered a biting response from Raffensperger’s chief deputy, who said Jones was “all bluster, no substance.” But it was only the latest in an intensifying battle for donors, activists and attention that’s bubbled into plain view.

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, another likely 2026 contender, has also leveled attacks against Raffensperger, criticizing his out-of-state travel as she promotes her growing conservative political organization.

Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler is one of several Republicans who could run for governor in 2026. She recently released a records request slamming a potential rival for the party's nomination, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, for spending only 42 days in his office during the first nine months of the year. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

And Attorney General Chris Carr has told donors, activists and officials that he’s planning to run for governor, though he’s stated publicly that his priority is helping Republicans defeat President Joe Biden and keep a legislative majority next year. Kemp, meanwhile, is seen as a possible candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2026, when Sen. Jon Ossoff is up for reelection.

The attention on 2026 clashes with the party’s more immediate challenge. Georgia is one of few competitive states on the roadmap to the White House, and state and national Republican leaders frame it as a linchpin for GOP hopes of defeating Biden.

The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll shows a deadlocked race in Georgia between Biden and three top Republican hopefuls: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former President Donald Trump.

“The focus right now should be on 2024,” said Don Balfour, a former Republican leader in the Georgia Senate. “Those thinking about 2026 should wisely do it behind the scenes until after Election Day next year.”

‘It all starts with the base’

The intense politicking contrasts with far quieter Democratic positioning for contests in 2026, when Ossoff’s seat and every state constitutional office is up for grabs.

Two-time gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath and DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond are among the potential contenders for governor, but none has taken attention-grabbing steps beyond stoking speculation they could run.

“I spent most of my life trying to maneuver and get to the next election, position myself,” Thurmond told “Politically Georgia” on WABE. “And at some point you have to stop thinking only about the next election and about what’s next for the next generation.”

Even so, it’s routine for prominent politicians to begin planning years in advance for top-tier races — particularly in a political battleground such as Georgia, where recent elections for governor and the U.S. Senate have shattered fundraising records.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle spent the better part of a decade preparing for his 2018 run for office, which ended in defeat in a GOP primary runoff to Kemp. And Abrams never really stopped running for office after her narrow loss in that year’s general election.

“Don’t kid yourself, infrastructure plans are in the works, opposition-research books are being commissioned, donors are being courted like five-star recruits and the inner-circle strategy lunches at Blue Ridge Grill have been happening for some time,” said John Porter, who was a top aide to former Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

“The longer the runway you have to push the preferred narrative about yourself — and your rivals — into voters’ minds, the better it will stick come Election Day,” Porter added. “And it all starts with the base.”

‘Painful’ divides

Carr has positioned himself as a Kemp ally who has touted his efforts to combat violent crime and sex traffickers — along with the demonstrators seeking to derail the construction of the Atlanta public safety training complex.

Since her 2021 defeat to Democrat Raphael Warnock, Loeffler has launched a conservative political organization and traveled the state promoting local Republicans as she aligns herself closer to Trump.

But Jones may have turned the most heads with his outspoken ambitions for higher office.

His sparring with Kemp was a running subplot of his first session as the Georgia Senate’s leader. He recently traveled to Iowa to cement his endorsement of Trump, making him the highest-ranking Georgia Republican to back the former president.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who could run for the Republican nomination for governor in 2026, has tried to cement his ties to Donald Trump. He recently traveled to Iowa to endorse the former president's bid to gain back his former job. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

And Jones has taken aggressive steps to court his party’s base, unveiling recent proposals to pay teachers $10,000 to carry weapons at schools, roll back business regulations and require kids to get their parents’ permission to create social media accounts.

There are risks to his assertive action, too, beyond alienating Kemp and other state leaders. The intraparty attacks also sharpen the divides among state Republicans already fractured among Trump-forged fault lines.

Garrett Ashley, the former chair of the Clayton County GOP, has floated resolutions to other Republican activists that seek to condemn Jones’ attack ad and demand that he deliver a public apology for rebuking Raffensperger.

“We need to stay focused. Republicans are just helping Democrats by leveling these attacks,” Ashley said. “It furthers the narrative that the party is divided, and it’s painful for me to watch.”

‘No path’ without Georgia

For Raffensperger, the GOP slings and arrows are nothing new — though the timing is.

Raffensperger has been targeted by fellow Republicans since 2020, when Trump and his allies blamed his election defeat on the secretary of state. Loeffler and then-U.S. Sen. David Perdue took the extraordinary step of calling on Raffensperger to resign.

While Raffensperger’s rejection of Trump’s demand that he “find” enough votes to overturn the election made him a hero to some Georgia voters, polls indicate it also cemented him as a villain to some of the former president’s loyalists.

And even before Jones claimed the secretary of state had gone “missing,” Loeffler released a records request slamming Raffensperger for spending only 42 days in his office during the first nine months of the year.

Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a potential candidate for governor in 2026, has drawn attacks from at least two other possible GOP contenders for the state's highest office. (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

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Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

But the Jones ad marked a new level of vitriol between two Republicans on opposite sides of a Trump dividing line.

In a statement, Jones said his focus was squarely on next year’s election — even as he took another jab at Raffensperger.

“Of course, nothing is as important as winning in 2024. On that we all agree. We cannot repeat the mess we saw in 2020,” Jones said. “To avoid that, and have safe and secure elections, we need a secretary of state who is interested in showing up to do his job and working alongside the Legislature.”

Jordan Fuchs, Raffensperger’s top deputy, said Jones is “exactly what’s wrong with politics.”

“All bluster, no substance. Brad works every day for the people of Georgia,” she said. “Unlike Burt, Brad believes he works for the people of Georgia, which is why he spends his days around the state helping to solve real issues. That’s why Georgia has the most secure elections in the country.”

The war of words between the statewide Republicans has chafed advisers close to Kemp, who is not only seen as a potential challenger to Ossoff in 2026 — but a possible presidential contender down the road.

Gov. Brian Kemp, center, has chided fellow Georgia Republicans for focusing too much of their attention on the state's elections in 2026 at the expense of the 2024 presidential election. “I’ve tried to caution them that we need to stay focused on winning our state,” Kemp said. “And there’s no path to a Republican win in the White House if we don’t win Georgia in 2024.” (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Kemp has clashed with Ossoff over credit for the green energy jobs boom in Georgia. And the governor’s allies gathered last weekend at Barnsley Resort to discuss his agenda — and pore over polling that showed his strengths and vulnerabilities.

But the governor deflects talk about his own political future.

“I am focused on 2024. Anybody who says anything different than that, then they are not hearing what I’m saying,” Kemp told the AJC.

And what of Republicans who are already making public moves?

“I’ve tried to caution them that we need to stay focused on winning our state,” Kemp said. “And there’s no path to a Republican win in the White House if we don’t win Georgia in 2024.”