LOUISVILLE — The three long, narrow tables were packed with locals: county-level leaders in this part of east Georgia, state legislators, law enforcement officials, shop owners and standout students. A handful of Democrats even joined the buffet line for mashed potatoes, sliced ham and Republican politics.
Outside the downtown Louisville restaurant, a sign welcomed Gov. Brian Kemp with thanks for his support of Jefferson County. Inside, the governor tried not to let his lead over former U.S. Sen. David Perdue in GOP primary polls go to his head.
“I know some are getting pretty confident, which worries me,” he told the crowd. “We’ve got to run like we are 10 points down — and win by 10 points.”
With about five weeks until the May 24 primary, there’s reason for Kemp to be confident. He’s built sizable leads in every public poll and has a huge fundraising edge over Perdue, whose biggest strength is former President Donald Trump’s endorsement.
And Kemp’s allies are increasingly optimistic he’ll avoid a potentially damaging June runoff against Perdue that once seemed inevitable. The other day, a pro-Kemp group leaked a poll that put him on the cusp of the majority-vote mark he needs to avoid overtime.
But who knows better than Kemp how quickly a race can change — and how perilous a Georgia GOP contest can be for a front-runner lacking Trump’s blessing? Kemp needs no reminder that in 2018 he was the Trump-backed contender who routed a party favorite.
That’s why he’s embarked on a vigorous mission to slam the door on Perdue — and use every tool at his disposal to nail it shut so he can face Democrat Stacey Abrams again in November.
Over the winter, he used the power of his office to put an acolyte of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on the state’s highest bench and install Sonny Perdue — David’s first cousin — as the new head of the state’s higher education system.
The spring has brought a new phase of his reelection battle. His campaign has financed fresh volleys of ads almost every week mixing praise for the governor and attacks on Perdue. Outside allies are providing him multimillion-dollar backup.
Perhaps more importantly, he’s traveling the state with a sheath of legislative proposals that he’ll sign into law through early May. Many are designed specifically to appeal to conservative Trump supporters who will decide his primary fate.
At a stop in the North Georgia town of Dahlonega, the governor made clear he was not leaving anything to chance. There’s two ways to run, he said, “unopposed or scared.” Kemp left no doubt which bucket he fits in.
“We’re not taking anything for granted.”
The Trump factor
If Kemp’s biggest worry these days is complacency, Perdue’s might be the potency of Trump’s support.
The former president staged a late March rally for the onetime senator, cut a TV ad promoting his endorsement and held a fundraiser at his Florida estate to help replenish the candidate’s coffers.
And in late March, Trump transferred $500,000 to a pro-Perdue group that promptly aired TV ads promoting falsehoods about election fraud. It was the former president’s first major investment in a midterm race this cycle.
Still, after a smaller-than-typical rally in Georgia, Trump has tempered expectations — and predicted that Kemp will be “hard to beat” in May.
“It’s a real close race. David is a good man. I hope he’s going to win it,” Trump told a conservative radio host. “Maybe we’ll have to do another rally. But it’s a shame. It’s a shame. Not easy to beat a sitting governor. Just remember that.”
Once considered a “golden ticket” in state GOP politics, there are also signs that many of the former president’s supporters are shrugging off his attempts to support Perdue.
A new poll from the University of Georgia tested two groups of GOP primary voters — one that wasn’t told of Trump’s picks in top races and one that was. Perdue’s numbers hardly budged.
“Why Kemp over Perdue? Why change a horse in midrace?” said Harlan Archer, a retired kaolin industry executive. “He’s done a good job. Why change? I don’t see the value I’m going to get out of a new candidate.”
As he’s done throughout his campaign, Kemp hasn’t fired back publicly at the former president, who blames the governor for his 2020 defeat in Georgia. He called Trump’s cash infusion “old news.”
“And it hasn’t moved the needle here,” Kemp said at a stop in Sandersville, where dozens greeted his giant campaign bus at a shopping center parking lot. “But we can’t control that. We’re staying on our message of reminding people I’ve done exactly what I said I’d do.”
Still, there are danger signs for Kemp and his allies.
Up in the foothills of North Georgia, former state Sen. Bud Stumbaugh joked that he has an alter-ego named “Dud” who wants to heed Trump’s advice to back Perdue.
That same weekend, a group of Trump backers heckled the governor at a Fulton County GOP meeting, with one loudly calling him a “liar.”
They served as a reminder that many Republicans are still struggling with their pick. And Perdue has moved to outflank Kemp to capture those wavering voters.
He’s backed Buckhead cityhood, opposed the proposed $5 billion Rivian electric-vehicle plant in east Georgia as a corporate “giveaway” and claimed credit for the rollback of gun restrictions that Kemp signed into law last week.
But Perdue’s tilt toward the GOP’s far right could also backfire. He earned eyerolls for claiming that he didn’t lose a January 2021 runoff to Democrat Jon Ossoff. He was forced to backtrack after cheering Trump fans who chanted “lock him up” about Kemp.
Most recently, he came under fire from Kemp after he suggested the Georgia State Patrol had lost its “elite” status under the governor’s watch. (Perdue later said he wanted to “make sure that these heroes are supported.”)
At a stop in Milledgeville, Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Scott Deason made a beeline toward the governor to proclaim his outrage at Perdue’s remarks.
“I’ve taken the position that I don’t even eat Perdue chicken down here I am so offended by his remarks,” Deason said. “Kemp makes me feel like I’ve got skin in the game.”
‘Where is it, Lucy?’
Almost as soon as he takes the microphone at campaign stops, Kemp pulls out a sheet of white paper that lists his high points during the legislative session, which ended with each of his top priorities reaching his desk.
He ticks through conservative policies, such as a measure to bring “fairness” to high school sports by potentially banning transgender athletes from competing.
The governor also highlights more than $1 billion in tax refunds and an incentive-laden budget that includes long-promised teacher pay hikes.
As Kemp is eager to say, he’s running concurrent campaigns. Not only must he stave off Perdue, he also must prove he’s the best candidate to challenge Abrams, who has enjoyed a freer hand as the Republicans slam each other.
His frequent bashing of Abrams isn’t the only callback to the 2018 race, when he narrowly defeated the Democrat.
Once again, he is traveling the state with his family in an enormous Kemp-emblazoned campaign bus. And he often closes his stump speeches the same way, touting a yellow diesel fuel can that he lugs around to collect campaign donations.
“The good news is we’ve got all the money we need,” Kemp told one group of supporters in east Georgia, letting a pregnant pause build. “Where is it, Lucy?”
His 21-year-old daughter, often along for the ride, deadpanned her answer: “In your pocket.”
Kemp is happy to evoke memories of that 2018 race — a welcome reminder that, unlike Perdue, he won his last tangle with a Democrat.
When a town elder in Milledgeville praised him for his calm presence at a forum there four years ago, Kemp said he was still doing his best to “stay reserved, try not to get mad and keep doing what I’m doing.”
Then he looked over the crowd gathered outside a lakefront restaurant and summed up his argument in five words.
“Don’t fix what ain’t broke.”