“Stacey, would you like to take his place?” the former president said. “It’s OK with me.”
The visit only sharpened the division within a state GOP reeling from losses in November’s presidential race and the Democratic sweep of U.S. Senate runoffs that flipped control of the chamber. Democrats mocked the event from afar, financing a banner from a plane touting President Joe Biden’s agenda.
The biggest name of the trio is former Georgia football icon Herschel Walker, who entered the U.S. Senate race last month with Trump’s blessing but has avoided traditional campaigning since then. He mostly stuck to themes of bipartisanship, embracing the criticism that he doesn’t act like a politician as he competes to challenge Sen. Raphael Warnock.
“What qualifies me to run for this office? I’m an American,” he told the crowd. “What qualifies me to run is I love America.”
His appearance Saturday marked his first campaign speech, and he was met with thunderous applause from thousands of Trump supporters who waited in the heat for hours. Many wore “Run Herschel Run” stickers and flapped fans with Walker’s logo.
U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, Trump’s pick for Georgia secretary of state, was showered with applause when he promised to “get rid of Brad Raffensperger,” the incumbent Republican who refused to heed Trump’s demands to “find” enough votes to overturn the election results.
“He has opened wide the door for all sorts of irregularities and fraud to march into our election system, and it’s time we take charge of this,” Hice said.
And state Sen. Burt Jones, whom Trump endorsed for lieutenant governor, reminded the crowd he supports an audit of the election results and backed a special legislative session that aimed to reverse Biden’s victory in Georgia.
Multiple recounts and investigations have upheld Georgia’s election results, and bipartisan state and federal officials, along with multiple court rulings, have said there is no evidence of rampant fraud. Still, the false conspiracy theories about the election have dominated the state GOP’s messaging.
Plenty of pro-Trump candidates showed up, too, without the former president’s embrace. Vernon Jones, a former Democrat trying to rebrand himself as a GOP conservative, is running against Kemp without Trump’s endorsement. He used brief remarks to bash the governor for refusing to overturn the election results.
Though Trump didn’t promote any rival to Kemp, he made clear he was still searching for an alternative, at one point asking former U.S. Sen. David Perdue if he would run. Trump also made clear that he would continue to campaign against the incumbent Republican — even if it meant an Abrams victory.
“Of course, having her, I think, might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said of Abrams. “Might very well be better.”
Interviews with more than a dozen attendees revealed other concerns, from opposition to Biden’s legislative agenda to fears that his foreign policy leaves the nation more vulnerable.
Nicki Jones drove in from Byron in part to show her disgust for coronavirus restrictions.
“I disagree with mandated vaccines. I see that as too much government intervention,” she said. “It’s about freedom and choice. I thought that’s what we are all about.”
The rally was more of a daylong spectacle than a series of political speeches. Crowds arrived early Saturday to a vast field where two giant screens displayed Georgia’s rout of Vanderbilt and a cover band played 1980s hits. A handful of food trucks hawked ice pops and sandwiches to long lines.
Democrats jeered the event from afar, egging on the internal feuding that helped depress GOP turnout in the January runoffs for U.S. Senate. Aside from the banner, which was financed by Progress Georgia and proclaimed “Tax the rich,” state and federal Democratic officials issued mocking statements about the rally.
“We’re not even going to pretend to be surprised at the incredible waste of time and money Trump is putting into the roadshow he’s bringing to Georgia,” said Adonna Biel of the Democratic National Committee.