Kemp receives NRA endorsement, source of ‘18 drama

Four years ago, Gov. Brian Kemp complained that the National Rifle Association was bamboozled when it favored his rival with its support. Now the incumbent is celebrating the pro-gun group’s blessing as he faces another tough GOP opponent.

The NRA on Monday rewarded Kemp with an endorsement just weeks after he signed a law that allows Georgians to carry concealed firearms without a permit.

It will surely become a standard part of his campaign stump speech – and the focus of targeted campaign ads – in the final month of the GOP race for governor. Kemp is angling for a knockout blow against former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is trailing in polls ahead of the May 24 vote.

“The NRA and its five million members stand with you,” former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, a member of NRA’s board, said at a brief press conference at Kemp’s Smyrna campaign office.

The NRA’s endorsement amounts to a dose of closure – or a measure of comeuppance – for Kemp, who competed bitterly with then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in 2018 for the group’s support during the GOP primary.

Back then, Cagle outmaneuvered Kemp by blocking a jet-fuel tax break that would have benefited Delta Air Lines. The Atlanta-based airline had outraged some conservatives by ending discounted rates for NRA members because it wanted to remain “neutral” in gun debates.

Shortly after the move, the NRA rewarded Cagle with its seal of approval despite Kemp’s pleas for the group to stay out of the race.

National Rifle Association President-elect Oliver North (right) praises Casey Cagle and his wife, Nita, at the Governors Gun Club on July 14, 2018, in Kennesaw. (JASON GETZ/SPECIAL TO THE AJC)

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“As those of us involved in Georgia politics like to say: You’ve been Casey Cagled,” wrote Kemp, then Georgia’s secretary of state. “He tells you one thing while cutting secret deals to help Delta down the line.”

Though the NRA’s Oliver North campaigned with Cagle, he was vastly overshadowed days later by then-President Donald Trump’s late endorsement of Kemp. Cagle was routed in the 2018 runoff, and the NRA gave a belated endorsement to Kemp over Democrat Stacey Abrams a few weeks before the election.

Delta and other airlines, meanwhile, figured a workaround. The state Legislature voted in November 2018 to “temporarily” restore the tax break for Delta and other air carriers, and state tax officials made clear in 2019 the incentive was to remain in place indefinitely.

Despite the NRA’s initial snub, Kemp has had close ties with the organization throughout his term. In January when he promised to pass the “permitless carry” measure, NRA officials were on hand to announce the group would hold a 2025 conference in Atlanta.

“We shouldn’t have to fight for our God-given right to defend ourselves,” NRA Vice President Willes Lee said at the event, portraying the legislation as a way to fight “anti-American, anti-gun zealots who try to take our civil rights.”

Whether it will influence a significant number of votes is an open question. But Barr and other NRA officials said the group is expected to air TV spots, launch digital ads and send targeted mailers to supporters touting the endorsement.

“We will provide substantial support for his primary,” Barr said.