He framed the ongoing criminal inquiries of Trump in Atlanta, New York and Washington as a “distraction that could cost us dearly next year if we allow it” by shifting attention from voter concerns about the economy, public safety and other pressing issues.
Once close allies, Trump made Kemp one of his top targets in 2022 after the governor refused to illegally overturn Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia. Kemp fended off Trump’s attempt to oust him last year on his way to a reelection victory fueled by support from swing voters.
In the heat of the midterm, Kemp often told voters he wouldn’t say a “bad word” about Trump to avoid alienating his supporters. With a second term safely in hand, Kemp is among party leaders who are pleading with fellow Republicans to move on from Trump.
The governor, who recently ruled out a presidential bid of his own, didn’t mention Trump by name. He drew laughs when he noted that the audience will hear from several 2024 candidates – and that “some of them like me more than others.”
“We lost winnable races in swing districts and states that will be crucial to our success next year if we want to win back the White House,” said Kemp, who said the electoral backlash went beyond infighting over “unproven claims of election fraud” or frustration with the establishment.
Republican candidates who talked about “more freedom, better schools, lower taxes, less government and safer streets” had winning messages, he said. “In the other places where the Democrats pulled out unexpected wins, in my opinion, Republicans got distracted.”
Kemp added: “Voters wanted to hear about what Republicans were doing to help them fight through 40-year high inflation – not months and months of debate over whether the 2020 election was stolen.”
‘We have to be able to win’
Kemp’s speech came ahead of Trump’s scheduled Saturday evening address to the same audience of high-dollar donors and prominent elected officials in Nashville. Several other potential White House contenders also spoke at the event.
Despite Trump’s humbling defeats in Georgia – his handpicked candidates lost almost every high-profile midterm race – the former president could enter the 2024 primary as the heavy favorite among many of the state’s GOP voters.
A poll released Friday by the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs showed Trump with a roughly 20-point lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – and every other GOP candidate or potential contender in single digits.
While Kemp didn’t endorse any rival to Trump - he has said he’s keeping an “open mind” ahead of 2024 - he challenged Republicans to seek out a presidential nominee who gives voters a “reason to like us” and has a vision for the future rather than a focus on the past.
“And third, we have to be able to win a general election,” the governor added. “Because we can’t score points if we don’t have the ball.”