Oct 21, 2022 - Business

The Making of Brian Kemp

Photo illustration of Georgia Governor Brian Kemp with abstract shapes.

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: Anadolu Agency, Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Gov. Brian Kemp is a much different candidate now than he was four years ago — and also a much wealthier man.

The big picture: Kemp's political rise, from state senator in 2003 to incumbent governor leading the polls despite relentless attacks from former President Trump, has been due to playing the long game. That’s in many ways the same approach he’s taken in a long and winding business career.

Why it matters: In four years, Kemp and Democratic rival Stacey Abrams have become two of the most prominent figures in Georgia. While it's been in different circles and with different strategies, they've both cultivated political influence and personal wealth along the way.

  • Abrams has long been open about her presidential ambitions, but some have begun asking Kemp, too, about a possible 2024 candidacy (which he has sidestepped).

Yes, but: His opponents see his wealth as a weakness. Abrams is running an ad campaign calling him "Kickback Kemp," accusing him of enriching himself while in office and of passing an income tax cut, which proportionately benefits the state’s highest earners.

  • Kemp’s own attack ads have dubbed Abrams "Celebrity Stacey."

Catch up quick: Kemp, 58, counters his financial success is the culmination of decades of "grinding away." He has cited his small business experience as what pushed him into politics in the early 2000s.

  • And while Abrams decries the tax cut, some Democratic state lawmakers voted for it.

By the numbers: Kemp saw tough financial losses thanks to the Great Recession. He had to take out a second mortgage on his house and reported a negative net income of almost $60,000 in 2009, albeit a net worth of more than $6 million in investments.

  • But Kemp, who earns a $175,000 salary as governor, has also seen his investment portfolio increase in value recently: from $5.2 million in 2018 to $8.6 million in 2022.

The other side: Abrams, who was in debt in 2018, has also seen her wealth increase by millions in the last four years, much of it from book royalties and speaking fees.

Go deeper: The Making of Stacey Abrams

Data: Axios reporting; Table: Jared Whalen/Axios
Data: Axios reporting; Table: Jared Whalen/Axios

"A pickup truck and a shovel"

Kemp often tells the story of starting his first business, Kemp Development and Construction Company, in 1993 with a pickup truck and a shovel.

  • But after entering politics two decades ago, the former homebuilder moved out of construction. He reduced but diversified his portfolio, which now ranges from a stone supply business to multifamily rental properties and a row crop farm in Colombia, South America.

Driving the news: Kemp attributes the increase in his net worth to a three-decade business career paying off, as well as dropping unprofitable investments.

  • "After surviving for 30 years in the business world, especially when you're in real estate, a lot of things survive and you hang on, you start getting them paid off," Kemp told Axios.

Why it matters: Kemp has said his experience “fighting for his financial life” during the recession drove him to make the controversial decision to reopen the state's businesses earlier in the pandemic than most — a policy choice he's now campaigning on.

  • In his 2021 State of the State address he said: "I can tell you those memories [of the recession] came to me often in the early days of the pandemic: the phone calls, texts and emails I received from folks holding out for a miracle.”

Catch up quick: As a real estate investor with an estimated $2 million worth of property holdings in 2006, Kemp was left particularly vulnerable during the Great Recession, he told Axios: "I was broke. I mean, we were borrowing money to live. I'm still paying for my house a second time."

  • Kemp said they ran up credit lines and leveraged revenue across businesses like his rental properties to cover the bleeding in other areas, like the stone supply business.
  • "We were just robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said.

Zoom in: He told Axios his more than $3 million in gains in the last four years happened from offloading investments — including a few that had “really hurt me pretty bad.” (The Abrams campaign has criticized him for profiting off real estate transactions during the pandemic.) Since 2018 Kemp has sold...

  • Property along Clarks Hill Lake in Lincoln County that lost value after the recession and a drought hit the lake’s levels. He sold it at a loss in 2020.
  • He profited from the sale of First Madison Bank & Trust in 2019, an Athens-area bank he first invested in (and served as founding board member of) back in 2006. Over the years Kemp took out loans from First Madison for property, vehicles and some of his other businesses. Kemp pushed back on past criticism from Democrats for “insider deals” by pointing out the bank was only one of his lenders and the loans were audited and backed.
  • Kemp also sold off an 8% stake in Hart Agstrong, an agribusiness investment which had been both a drag on his bottom line and his reputation.

The intrigue: Hart Agstrong plagued Kemp during the 2018 election. Two lawsuits targeting Kemp for debts owed became an attack point for Democrats, but he settled both suits early in his term.

Brian Kemp's net annual income
Data: Financial Disclosure Statement with the State of Georgia; Note: Kemp’s income stems from various investments in farming, banking, utilities, rental properties and real estate investment. At times some of these investments yielded annual net losses as well as non-cash income. The negatives are reflected against his income the year they were reported. Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios

What they're saying: Kemp's childhood friend and college roommate Daniel Dooley told Axios Kemp's entrepreneurialism was evident early on. Kemp would sometimes refuse to go out at night in college to save money for his first investment property — a house he rented out to fellow students his senior year.

  • That consistency, Dooley said, is reflected in Kemp's political strategy, too: "Once Brian locks in on something, it's go."

Details: Today Kemp lists a dozen business entities on his financial disclosure statement. Nearly half are rental property companies, including two residential complexes in his hometown of Athens near the University of Georgia.

  • He has also invested in a corn and soybean row crop farm in Colombia, a commercial stone supply yard in Hoschton and a directional drilling company which lays utilities — and is co-owned with Kemp's former deputy chief of staff Charles Harper.

Of note: Kemp has not put his investments into a blind trust, because they don't interact with the state, a spokesperson told Axios. While one of his businesses received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, none are listed as state vendors.

  • Abrams, on the other hand, has promised to put her holdings in a blind trust out of an abundance of caution.

A political rise

It was his experience as a small businessman "frustrated with government regulation," that Kemp says pushed him into politics. But though the state had been dominated by Democrats, he was determined to run as a Republican.

How it started: Kemp, whose grandfather and father-in-law served in the legislature as Democrats, won his first state senate race in 2002 by less than 500 votes, flipping a seat as part of the statewide Republican sweep.

  • Kemp (who also served as a Capitol page in middle school) told Axios he won in part by calling roughly 6,000 swing voters in the district.
  • He said he also reached out to the Black community. "I was riding in parades with my Black concrete layers in all-Black communities,” he told Axios. “I was going to a lot of Black churches where I had friends that I’d known or grew up with in Athens.”
  • That outreach, he said, helped them "peel off" 1% more in the Democratic-stronghold of Clarke County than the Republican who'd run two years prior.

How it's going: It’s also not unlike "what I'm doing now," Kemp said. A recent AJC poll shows him with 8% support among Black voters, and his campaign has been directly targeting voters of color and suburban voters during his re-election — a shift from his 2018 race.

Flashback: Kemp lost his first statewide bid for agriculture commissioner in a 2006 primary. But he got his chance at a constitutional office thanks to an appointment as secretary of state from then-Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2010.

  • The role helped him build a statewide network, traveling on bus tours with the top of the ticket.

The intrigue: Kemp would decide to remain as secretary of state overseeing elections during his 2018 gubernatorial race, which would become a major vulnerability in his race against Abrams. She accused him of voter suppression, which Kemp has denied.

  • Abrams' attacks zeroed in on, among other policies, a surprise announcement on the eve of the 2018 election that the secretary of state's office was investigating the state Democratic party for a "failed hacking attempt.” Abrams cried foul and said at the time Kemp had "abused his power."
  • The Georgia Bureau of Investigation later found no evidence of such a hack.
Brian Kemp gives a thumbs up while talking to Donald Trump
Brian Kemp with then-ally President Trump before a Macon rally on Nov. 4, 2018. Photo: John Bazemore/AP

A political resurgence

But it wasn't until after taking office that Kemp faced perhaps his greatest political challenge — from within his own party.

What happened: For months, former President Trump levied withering attacks on his former endorsee because Kemp certified Georgia’s 2020 election results. Afterwards, many Republicans wondered if the governor would politically survive to 2022.

  • Kemp later recalled that between COVID and "ridiculous and harmful conspiracies," 2020 brought "more challenges than any year in my lifetime."

Why it matters: His ultimate defeat of his Trump-backed primary challenger, former Sen. David Perdue, with 74% of the vote has been crucial to his current position of strength where polling averages show him with a statistically significant lead.

How it happened: Kemp's political strategy evolved behind the scenes, according to conversations with half a dozen Georgia Republican operatives.

1. Fundraising: In 2021 Kemp began ramping up a national fundraising operation. Plus, by the time Perdue entered the race in December 2021, Kemp had already secured support from most of Georgia's top GOP donors, which left the former senator with anemic campaign finance totals.

  • Kemp spent $15 million on his primary and has since come closer than ever to matching Abrams' blockbuster fundraising, though his out-of-state donations remain far behind hers.

2. Making the case: Kemp did not shy away from the Republican base influenced by Trump’s attacks. He spent hours at the 2021 state party convention where he was booed and refuted election fraud conspiracy theories with attendees one-on-one.

  • Cody Hall, current campaign communications director who has worked for Kemp since 2018, told Axios that the governor “knew he had the truth on his side, so he was not going to back down.”

3. Staffing: Kemp's 2022 team also pulled in operatives — even some former Perdue allies — from across the state's Republican circles. These were operatives who, once hired, weren't available to work on any challenger's campaign.

State of play: According to one Georgia News Collaborative poll in October, Kemp enjoys 94% of Republican support, back on par with his October 2018 numbers.

What they're saying: His political survival reflects his ability to put his head down and stay focused, his friend Daniel Dooley said.

  • "That's the approach he took with Trump,” Dooley told Axios. “[He] never said anything bad, just 'You know what, I’ve got to worry about Brian Kemp. I can’t worry about anybody else.'"

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