It was one of the stranger venues for a campaign trail event, but in many ways it was fitting.
Secretary of State Brian Kemp was standing smack in the middle of a former jail cell that was recently transformed into a posh coffee shop, telling several dozen admiring supporters of his plan to crack down on illegal immigration.
“I’m all for accountability courts and helping those who need helping,” he told the crowd that gathered to hear him in this northeast Georgia town. “But for those who are here illegally, and not following the rules, we need to send them home.”
Kemp has staked his Republican campaign for governor on law-and-order messages, casting himself as the champion for the “forgotten” man that President Donald Trump highlighted on the campaign trail.
He’s promised to create a new “criminal alien database” to track unauthorized immigrants who have broken the law. He’s pledged to speed deportations. And he’s proposed a “stop and dismantle” program to target gang activity, tweeting news of drive-by shootings and arrests.
It’s part of a broader strategy to move the needle in the crowded GOP race by pitching himself to voters as the most viable conservative alternative to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the party’s front-runner.
Yet despite his relatively high name recognition — he has two statewide victories under his belt — the Athens businessman has struggled to emerge as the top contender to Cagle. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed him neck-and-neck with former state Sen. Hunter Hill for the second-place spot in the May 22 vote.
A convenient foil
For Kemp, underdog status is par for the course.
His political career began with an upset victory, ousting a liberal Democratic incumbent in 2002 during a GOP wave election that tipped the balance of power in the statehouse toward Republicans. With his sights on higher office, he unsuccessfully ran for agriculture secretary in 2006 and then returned to the private sector.
Before Karen Handel stepped down from the secretary of state’s post to run for governor in 2009, Kemp announced he would run to replace her. And in January 2010, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue stunned many in the statehouse by appointing him to the job. He’s since breezed to two re-election victories.
The job, which oversees state elections and business licenses, gave Kemp a robust — if imperfect — platform for higher office. His past three predecessors — Lewis Massey, Cathy Cox and Handel — all ran for governor. All three lost. The officeholder before that, Max Cleland, served a term in the U.S. Senate.
Kemp has had an eye on the state’s top prize for years, and he has tried to leverage his office to curry favor with conservatives every step of the way.
He called on Trump to investigate the Obama administration’s apparent attempt to access his office’s computer system. He railed against left-leaning groups that accused his office of voter suppression.
And he backed strict voter ID laws to prevent what he called the threat of fraudulent voters casting ballots, though his office repeatedly said there are no instances of “illegal votes” in Georgia.
But perhaps his favorite target has been Stacey Abrams, a Democrat and former minority leader of the Georgia House who is running for governor. The two have clashed for years over a voter registration group she launched.
He’s called Abrams and her allies a band of “left-wing agitators” and dismissed the litigation they filed as “brazen bullying, baseless accusations and ridiculous lawsuits.” She’s shot back, telling crowds that “voter suppression is a way of life” for Kemp.
As he tries to wring votes out of conservatives, his rivals aim to remind voters of blunders he oversaw as the top elections official.
His office in 2015 accidentally disclosed the Social Security numbers and other private information of more than 6 million voters to media outlets and political parties. Faced with a lawsuit, Kemp’s office issued a report putting the blame on a staffer fired shortly after the breach.
And he was forced to move the state’s elections work in-house after a private researcher discovered security lapses at a Kennesaw State University center that houses election servers that could have exposed more than 6.5 million voter records and other sensitive information.
As lawmakers debated this year whether to replace the state’s outdated touchscreen voting machines, Cagle’s campaign said he would support the overhaul because conservatives “just don’t trust the current secretary of state to run a competent election — and with good reason.”
Kemp has also faced scrutiny into his private-sector work. He was targeted by two separate lawsuits last year that claim he and other investors in a canola and sunflower oil processor failed to repay more than $700,000 in loans. He’s said he is one of several investors in the company, Hart AgStrong, and that he’s trying to help resolve the issue.
He has tried to sideline the criticism by pivoting to relentless attacks on Democrats and base-pleasing proposals. He plans to put a cap on state spending, adjusted for growth and inflation. He welcomed criticism from left-leaning outlets after he aired a provocative ad that shows him cleaning a shotgun next to a teenage boy trying to date his daughter.
And he made national headlines by pledging to outdo Mississippi’s new abortion restrictions, the toughest in the nation.
A recent forum made that strategy clear. As several other rivals swiped at Cagle and Hill, Kemp stayed largely focused on the other side of the partisan divide. And near the end of the event, when each of the candidates was asked how he would work with Democrats, Kemp didn’t speak of any ways to find common ground.
“As your governor, I am going to implement what I have told you tonight,” he said. “That is more important to me than worrying about working across the aisle. Because the issues that I’m talking about — forget Democrats and Republicans, they are issues that Georgians want to see us do.”
Democrats, he said, won’t vote against business-friendly legislation, new spending limits or “going after criminal illegal aliens” that are targeting children.
“And if they do,” he said, “we are going to be in the majority for a long time.”
2018 governor’s race
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is profiling candidates for governor from the two major parties going into Georgia’s primary on May 22. Stories ran last week about the Democratic candidates, Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans. This week, the AJC is profiling the Republicans in the race.
Monday: Casey Cagle
Today: Hunter Hill
Wednesday: Brian Kemp
Thursday: Clay Tippins
Friday: Michael Williams
Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com.