Kempstakes: The race for Georgia governor’s 2024 blessing is underway

Gov. Brian Kemp has downplayed talk of a late 2024 bid for president. But a competition is underway for his endorsement in next year’s White House race.

A conservative conference this weekend that drew six of Donald Trump’s top rivals to Atlanta doubled as an all-out effort to court the governor’s favor.

Several presidential hopefuls showered Kemp with praise to hundreds of conservative activists, and a pollster unveiled a survey commissioned by the governor’s political action committee that pegged him as the state’s most popular Republican.

Off the stage of the Grand Hyatt Buckhead, the courtship kicked into a different gear. Kemp spoke by phone with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and met privately with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and ex-Vice President Mike Pence.

Christie wasn’t shy about his motive behind the call.

“He knows I want him to endorse me. You guys don’t think I’m subtle,” Christie said with a laugh.

“But I’ve known Brian for a long time,” he said, “and I’ll tell you exactly what I said to him: I’m not asking for your endorsement now. I have to earn it. And so I’ve got to go out there and earn it, and I hope I’ll get it.”

‘Say hi’

Whoever wins Kemp’s blessing will land more than a prominent ally in a must-win state for Republicans in the 2024 election.

The governor won another term in 2022 despite being atop Trump’s revenge list — a feat each of his White House rivals is trying to pull off on a national scale. And senior Republican strategists speak wistfully of replicating his playbook by forging an alliance of conservative and swing voters.

For Kemp, the courtship is nothing new. It was his second recent sitdown with DeSantis, who visited Kemp for a lengthy closed-door meeting at the state Capitol in March. He has also recently spoken privately with former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, two other presidential hopefuls.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, shown campaigning with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp in November, spoke to Kemp by phone over the weekend while he and five other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 were in Atlanta for a conference. “I’ll tell you exactly what I said to him: I’m not asking for your endorsement now. I have to earn it," Christie said. "And so I’ve got to go out there and earn it, and I hope I’ll get it.” (Audra Melton/The New York Times)

Credit: Audra Melton/The New York Times

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Credit: Audra Melton/The New York Times

Kemp’s advisers say he’s not likely to confer his blessing for months, and it won’t be an easy decision. Though he has close ties to several of the White House contenders, he has perhaps the warmest relationships with Christie and Pence.

Both broke with Trump last year by endorsing his reelection over former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who was backed by the former president. But both are also long shots; the poll Kemp’s PAC unveiled showed the two in the single digits.

Kemp has spoken regularly for years with DeSantis, and they have avoided clashing in public despite a long-running legal battle over water rights that inflamed tensions between the states for their predecessors.

And he’s gotten to know Haley and Scott, thanks in part to their recent campaign visits to stump for GOP Senate candidates.

And then there’s business executive Vivek Ramaswamy, who has yet to get significant face time with the governor.

“I don’t chase people down for closed-door meetings,” Ramaswamy said Saturday at the conference, “but if he’s here, I’d like to say hi.”

Gov. Brian Kemp, right, and former Vice President Mike Pence have a close relationship. Pence broke from former President Donald Trump last year to back Kemp's reelection while Trump supported his challenger in the GOP primary, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Now, Pence would like to have Kemp's endorsement in next year's race for the Republican nomination for president. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Senior Republicans stress Kemp is open-minded about the contenders, though they acknowledge there’s dim possibility that he would endorse Trump after he blamed the governor for his 2020 defeat — and then relentlessly tried to oust him.

At the conference, Kemp spoke of “stupid” distractions that divert attention from President Joe Biden’s record. He said Republicans must focus on ensuring the party has a “candidate that can win the election.”

We can deal with that later, after we win,” he said of the legal cases.

Kemp also may try to time his endorsement close to the March 12 primary, when Georgia is expected to get the lion’s share of national attention. Christie framed a Kemp endorsement as a game-changer for whoever lands it.

“Leadership matters. And the truth matters. Brian Kemp is a leader who tells the truth,” Christie said.

“And voters rewarded him, from both parties and independents. And so why wouldn’t you want the endorsement from someone like that?” he said. “I’d love to have it, but I haven’t earned it yet.”