Kemp will skip this year’s GOP convention

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp won’t address the Georgia GOP convention this summer, highlighting a deepening rift between the state’s top elected official and a party apparatus that has shifted further to the right after Donald Trump’s defeat.

Kemp turned down the chance to speak to party delegates at the June meeting in Columbus, his aides said, and will instead continue to build his own organization to energize conservative voters and elect GOP officials.

“The governor is going to remain focused on making sure we replicate our successes last November and win at the ballot box in 2024 and 2026,” said Cody Hall, a senior Kemp adviser.

The decision to skip the convention comes amid mounting tension within the Georgia GOP over the party’s direction. At a spate of meetings this year, many mainstream conservatives have been sidelined in favor of fringe activists.

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

One of the most vivid examples is Kandiss Taylor, who promoted conspiracy theories that Republican leaders were closet Communists and that Democrats were secret pedophiles during her failed primary challenge to Kemp last year.

Taylor was elected Saturday as the GOP chair for the 1st Congressional District, giving her an important platform within the party’s infrastructure. She is one of a growing number of far-right conservatives who now hold party posts.

A turnabout

Kemp’s decision was no surprise, given his ongoing efforts to distance himself from a state party that many of his allies see as moribund and ineffective.

But it still marks a turnabout for a governor who was closely tied to the state party and was greeted with cheers at the 2019 convention as he delivered a fiery defense of the state’s new anti-abortion law.

Kemp’s relationship with activists morphed when he refused Trump’s demand to illegally overturn Joe Biden’s narrow victory in 2020. As Trump blamed Kemp for his defeat, the governor was booed by some delegates at the 2021 GOP convention. And throughout last year’s midterm, party Chair David Shafer openly sided with Trump-backed challengers over GOP incumbents.

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

Each of those challengers was humiliated in the primary, and Shafer recently announced he wouldn’t seek another term as he faces scrutiny from Fulton County prosecutors investigating Trump’s effort to meddle with the 2020 results.

Kemp, meanwhile, is the undisputed leader of state Republicans, with approval ratings that have reached new highs and a platform urging party leaders to put Trump in the rearview mirror.

‘Times are changing’

The governor isn’t on new ground with his fraught relationship with the state GOP. Sonny Perdue clashed with party activists during his second term, and Nathan Deal skipped the 2016 GOP convention amid efforts by delegates to sanction his veto of a controversial “religious liberty” measure.

But Kemp has a tool none of his predecessors had at their disposal. He signed a law creating a “leadership committee,” a fundraising vehicle that can tap unlimited contributions. Through his committee and campaign, he raised $71 million for his reelection bid.

Kemp is expanding the committee’s mission by hiring veteran staffers to lead the organization, setting up a parallel fundraising and voter turnout structure to compete with the Georgia GOP.

He told high-dollar donors at a recent luncheon that the midterm election was a sign “we can no longer rely on the traditional party infrastructure to win in the future.”

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