Kemp moves to take command of GOP, leaving state party behind

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Governor urges donors to ditch ‘traditional’ party

Gov. Brian Kemp took his most significant step yet to break from the Georgia GOP and bolster his own growing political network, telling high-dollar donors that the 2022 midterm was a sign “we can no longer rely on the traditional party infrastructure to win in the future.”

His remarks came Wednesday at an Atlanta luncheon for the Georgians First Leadership Committee, a fundraising vehicle created by a Kemp-backed law that can tap unlimited contributions. Through his committee and campaign, he raised $71 million for his reelection bid.

With his second victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams in the rearview mirror, Kemp is expanding the committee’s mission. He’s hired veteran staffers to lead the organization and told donors Wednesday that he now wants to “build on our victories” from November.

“While we raised a record amount of money, for some context: Abrams raised over $100 million and (U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock) raised over $130 million,” he said. “And that number is only going to increase in 2024 and 2026.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Kemp’s leadership committee has become a parallel fundraising and voter turnout structure that has rapidly filled the void of the Georgia Republican Party, a once-powerful organization that helped marshal a flood of spending in competitive races.

The state GOP’s clout has waned considerably under embattled Chair David Shafer, who infuriated key leaders and activists by openly siding with Donald Trump-backed challengers to Republican incumbents last year.

Every one of Trump’s candidates in those races was humiliated in the primary, and Shafer recently announced he wouldn’t seek another term amid a brewing revolt from influential party activists. And Kemp’s standing among Republicans has rebounded since he was peppered with boos at a Georgia GOP convention in June 2021.

Kemp’s political organization last year served as a conduit for outside groups that refused to siphon money through the state GOP. The governor told donors on Wednesday that his top financial supporters now have more work to do — “and it starts today.”

The group’s new mission, which includes a focus on both national and local elections, coincides with Kemp’s efforts to gain influence in the 2024 White House race. The law also gives him a tremendous advantage, as Democrats can’t set up their own leadership committee until the party has a nominee for governor or lieutenant governor.

“The governor can raise without a Democratic countermeasure all the way through the 2026 primary when a nominee is elected,” said Fredrick Hicks, a political strategist. “This gives Gov. Kemp the ability to impact races over the next three years while building a huge war chest of unlimited contributions that can be used to launch a 2026 Senate campaign.”

Indeed, Kemp told his supporters that his organization had short-term and long-term priorities in mind.

“It is our goal to replicate the sophisticated data and ground operation we created in 2022 to help down-ballot races and our presidential nominee to win next year,” Kemp said. “And also help win back a Senate seat and keep our state constitutional offices in 2026.”

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

With Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and House Speaker Jon Burns in the audience, Kemp pledged to help Republicans protect their majorities in the Legislature while also engaging in county commission and school board races.

“And we are absolutely going to beat some of these far-left Democrat district attorneys at the ballot box,” he added.

‘Times are changing’

The Kemp committee also released details of an internal poll that echo the results of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey that pegged the governor’s approval rating at 62%.

The internal poll tallied Kemp’s favorability rating at 54% among likely general election voters — higher than any other political figure polled. About 42% of voters have a positive view of President Joe Biden, while only 36% had a favorable image of Trump.

And 44% of voters give high marks to U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, who is up for another term in 2026 — and could face a challenge from Kemp.



The poll, conducted by the Cygnal firm on behalf of Kemp’s political network, also showed support for Kemp’s priorities, including his push to restore funding for the HOPE scholarship and tap the surplus for tax rebates. It’s worth noting that internal polls tend to favor the candidate or organization that paid for them, but they still can provide useful information.

Kemp’s remarks to donors underscored how quickly the leadership committee has transformed Georgia politics.

Currently, candidates have a cap on how much they can raise from a single donor when they raise cash for their main campaign operations. Statewide candidates are allowed to raise $7,600 from individual donors for the primary and again for the general election.

There are no limits on leadership committees, which can coordinate directly with candidates. Abrams’ leadership committee raised $59 million alone in 2022, while Kemp’s amassed $45 million. Some donors gave as much as $5 million at a time.

Tension between top politicians and the state party is nothing new. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal was snubbed by activists in 2011 when they elected Sue Everhart to another term as party chairwoman over his handpicked candidate. Other clashes have dominated the group’s history.

Still, some Georgia GOP leaders say they can coexist and collaborate. Former state Sen. Josh McKoon, whom Shafer endorsed to succeed him as chair, said Kemp is making the “exactly right” move by expanding his political operation.

“Republicans cannot continue to fight with one arm tied behind our backs,” McKoon said, “and our governor’s leadership ensures that will no longer be the case here in Georgia.”

Rebecca Yardley, an influential activist and top rival to McKoon to lead the state GOP, said she can’t blame Kemp for going his own way -- and that it will take hard work to “rebuild the integrity” of the state party.

“Quite frankly, under the current GOP chairman’s leadership, I can understand why a donor would be hesitant to donate and an elected official would be averse to trust the state party,” she said, “especially given the fact many of our own activists do not trust our party.”

The governor, meanwhile, signaled he’s ready to leave the party behind. He called his leadership committee the “tip of the spear” for his priorities.

“Times are changing and we must adapt,” Kemp said. “I am committed to this work because I know how successful this team has been.”

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC