Why Brian Kemp isn’t shutting the door on 2024

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

At the end of a three-day Sea Island retreat for Gov. Brian Kemp’s top donors, attendees couldn’t help but detect a change in the Republican’s messaging.

Where Kemp had once seemed to definitively rule out a 2024 run for the White House, he wasn’t as unequivocal at a Sunday evening briefing with dozens of supporters. Instead, he said his final decision will be up to him and his family.

Kemp’s aides and allies still don’t expect him to mount a presidential run. But his ability to stay in the national mix underscores his clout after overcoming both Donald Trump and Stacey Abrams in the same midterm cycle.

As one senior Kemp adviser put it, the governor can only benefit by engaging with a national audience — boosting his chances for a slate of offices, from the White House to the U.S. Senate to high-level party posts.

“He deserves to be considered for a lot of things. To be in other conversations, it’s helpful to be in this conversation,” said the adviser, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about internal discussions.

And Kemp has taken a series of steps to remain in the nation’s running dialogue. He’s launched a federal PAC and maintained a Georgia-based “leadership committee” with the power to raise unlimited funds — resources that Kemp is marshaling to promote himself and his causes.

On Thursday, he’s headed to New York to raise money for his initiatives -- and to headline a GOP dinner in Connecticut where he plans to urge Republicans to heed his warnings about President Joe Biden’s agenda.

In a spate of public and private appearances, the governor has vowed to channel his political machinery to help Republicans capture Georgia next year after Trump became the first GOP presidential nominee since 1992 to lose the state.

And he’s maintained that his party should end its obsession with the election fraud lies swirling around the 2020 vote and embrace a nominee who can appeal to a broader swath of voters.

“To voters trying to pay their rent, make their car payment or put their kids through college, 2020 is ancient history,” Kemp told donors at a recent Republican National Committee meeting. What voters don’t care about, he pointedly added, is “anyone’s sour grapes.”

To some senior Republicans, Kemp boasts a combustible mix that could launch him to the White House with the right catalyst. Veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy said Kemp is “sitting on dynamite and doesn’t seem to know it.”

“There’s rocket fuel there if he’s willing to put on an astronaut suit and take a chance,” said Murphy, who has advised John McCain, Jeb Bush and other White House contenders. “What has he got to lose?”

Ossoff or Biden?

Kemp has been guarded on his next step, though he’s made clear his top priority is nominating a Republican candidate who can win a general election. In a recent interview, he steered clear of overt mention of Trump.

“I’m looking for somebody that can win,” Kemp said. “You can’t govern if you don’t win.”

Many of Kemp’s confidants see his most likely option as a potential 2026 challenge to U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, whose every vote, visit and venture is being tracked closely by the governor’s deputies.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Just as U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock did during his 2022 reelection campaign, Ossoff has emphasized his bipartisan work, which Democrats hope will resonate with swing voters.

But Kemp’s advisers also see him as a strong contender for a running mate to any GOP nominee aside from Trump, who tried to oust Kemp in last year’s GOP primary and then quietly endorsed his reelection bid when his challenge failed.

And despite Kemp seeming to reject a run for president earlier this year, he’s now apparently leaving the door cracked open as a break-the-emergency-glass candidate if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or another alternative to Trump badly falters.

“His performance as governor in the last election has earned him the right to be in the conversation,” said John Watson, a former Georgia GOP chair who is a close Kemp ally.

“He’s proven there’s a lane for success even with Donald Trump as a complete antagonist,” Watson said. “Because of that, a lot of people are listening to what Kemp says.”


Murphy envisions a clear path for Kemp that hinges on his image as a “Trump-proof conservative” who defied the then-president’s demand to overturn the election and swept to another term despite Trump’s relentless efforts to bury him.

He said Kemp could enter the race this summer, make a splash at the GOP debate in August and tap into the fears of skittish high-dollar donors worried about the prospects of a resurgent Trump returning to power.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

“He’s probably a little intimidated by the big show, but if he spent a few days in New York, he’d find that a bunch of the DeSantis people would jump to him,” Murphy said. “I don’t think he knows what an opportunity he has if he’s willing to be a swashbuckler and just try.”

Aside from this week’s trip to the Northeast, Kemp is not taking many other steps that would indicate he’s on the verge of a run for national office, such as building an infrastructure in early-voting states or going on prolonged media tours across the nation.

And he notably didn’t push Georgia to join the ranks of early-voting states — a move that would bolster his influence at the earliest stage of the nominating process — instead backing a March 12 primary date.

Still, Republicans say the weekend retreat sent a powerful signal of Kemp’s influence in the GOP’s mainstream wing, complete with well-received appearances from former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and veteran strategist Karl Rove.

Ensconced at the Sea Island Resort, some of Kemp’s most loyal supporters played rounds of oceanside golf, listened to national operatives delve into what went wrong for the GOP in 2022 — and wrote checks to Kemp-backed committees worth $1.2 million.

Count Republican consultant Stephen Lawson, who attended the retreat, as one of the GOP voices urging Kemp to continue to “keep every option on the table.”

“If you’re looking for someone who has taken on Donald Trump head-on and won, there’s one person in the nation who has done it effectively. And that’s Brian Kemp,” Lawson said.

“Whether that means he uses his own blueprint or shares it with others,” he added, “that’s the best avenue for Republicans if we want to win in 2024 and beyond.”