Georgia races testing Trump’s influence

Former President Donald Trump will hold a rally Saturday in Commerce for a slate of Republican candidates he has endorsed, including U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, left. (Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Former President Donald Trump will hold a rally Saturday in Commerce for a slate of Republican candidates he has endorsed, including U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, left. (Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Donald Trump’s rally in Georgia this weekend forces Republicans to confront a question they’ve struggled with for years: How much is the former president’s endorsement worth?

No state will offer a bigger test of Trump’s sway in 2022 than Georgia, where he’s embarked on a yearslong campaign to refashion the state GOP. He’s endorsed seven candidates and promised to defeat Republicans who didn’t help him try to overturn his election defeat.

His attempt to purge Georgia of his perceived Republican enemies ahead of the May 24 primary takes new shape on Saturday when he holds a rally at a dusty northeast Georgia racetrack near Commerce, in the heart of one of the most conservative parts of the state.

Trump will share the stage with Herschel Walker, the front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination despite mounting questions about his past, and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is racing to gain ground in his primary challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp.

But Trump will also be surrounded by obscure candidates newly added to his slate, selected in part because they help him damage Kemp, whom Trump blames for his defeat in Georgia. After the 2020 vote, Trump demanded that Kemp overturn his election loss in the state, something the governor has no power to do.

They include Vernon Jones, the former Democrat who was persuaded to end his campaign for governor and run for a congressional seat; Patrick Witt, who quit that race for Congress to challenge a Kemp appointee for insurance commissioner; and John Gordon, an unsuccessful state Senate candidate who only recently renewed his law license to compete against Attorney General Chris Carr, another Kemp loyalist.

Once, Trump’s endorsement was the closest thing to a lock in Georgia Republican politics. Few know that better than Kemp, who routed a GOP runoff opponent in 2018 after the then-president endorsed him six days before the election.

But now Trump’s clout is far harder to define — even as more candidates are trying to ride on his coattails. Perdue and other GOP candidates have staked their campaigns on their loyalty to the former president despite signs that his influence is on the wane.

“We would have been better off in the runoffs if Trump hadn’t come,” said Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator with close ties to both Kemp and Perdue, referring to his two visits ahead of the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs that were captured by Democrats.

“And he will not be a help to Trump-endorsed candidates when he comes on Saturday,” Zoller said. “He will be negative and backward looking — and that’s not what voters want.”

‘Blindly follow’ Trump

There are recent polls that back up Zoller’s assessment.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed about 42% of Republicans said they’d be more likely to vote for one of his endorsed candidates, while about 15% said they would be less likely. The remaining 43% weren’t quite sure.

Trump might have also limited his influence by favoring so many candidates, said Chip Lake, a Republican operative. He said Trump’s seal of approval remains coveted, but “with him engaging in so many different races he risks diluting his endorsement.”

Rather than focusing on Walker and Perdue, as some of his allies in the state prefer, he’s reached deep down into Georgia’s ballot to support contenders who only entered the race two weeks ago and have little name recognition or any semblance of a campaign apparatus.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

John Porter is a consultant for state Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, who is running for lieutenant governor against a Trump-backed rival, state Sen. Burt Jones. Porter pointed to internal surveys that showed Trump’s favorability rating dipping slightly between November and March.

“The percentage of voters who will blindly follow his endorsement is starting to recede, and I don’t think that trend reverses in the next eight weeks,” he said. “Voters are having a hard time keeping track of who Trump has endorsed — especially in down-ballot races where Trump has waded in lately.”

‘Golden ticket?’

The legions of Georgia voters inspired by Trump have a different perspective. Interviews with Republicans at Donald Trump Jr.’s rally for Perdue earlier this month found a common thread: They each predicted the former president would be a unifying force.

“Every chance they get, these candidates should remind us of their support for Trump,” said Carol Bradshaw, a retiree from Dacula who puts loyalty to the former president at the top of her priority list.

Burt Jones said he’s hearing from voters “energized by the disaster that’s going on in Washington, at the gas station and at the grocery store“ and worried about rising inflation and economic uncertainty.

“I can only speak for my race — but President Trump’s endorsement has been a huge boost for our campaign,” Jones said. “At every GOP meeting across the state, where there were once 20 or 30 people, there are now 60 and 80 in a room.”

The Trump-fueled bickering means more Republican-on-Republican warfare — and less focus on Stacey Abrams, U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and the other Democrats gearing up for a November run.

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

That’s confounded Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who contends that Trump’s support is no longer a “golden ticket” but rather a distraction that will weaken the eventual nominee and inevitably help Democrats.

Through his GOP 2.0 group, Duncan rolled out TV ads this week criticizing the former president and other Republicans who would “rather talk about conspiracy theories and past losses” than other issues on voters’ minds.

Trump, however, offered a reminder this week of how hard that will be. In an email blast, he yanked his endorsement of Alabama U.S. Senate hopeful Mo Brooks, saying the Republican “went woke” by encouraging voters to look beyond the last presidential election.

The GOP warring has left Democrats with a freer hand to focus on a broader audience.

Abrams has built her campaign around a promise to provide better access to health care to hundreds of thousands of Georgians by expanding Medicaid. Warnock has shifted his messaging to crowd-pleasing efforts to lower gas prices and cap the price of insulin.

Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, one of the state’s most prominent Democrats, echoed many of his allies by egging on the infighting.

“It’s history as it’s happening: What is the influence of Trump in Georgia and does it add to you or take away from you?” he said, with a chuckle. “I’m going to sit back on the side and eat popcorn and watch it all play out.”

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