‘Lock him up!’ Perdue promotes election conspiracies to boost struggling campaign

March 26, 2022 Commerce - David Perdue takes on the stage during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

March 26, 2022 Commerce - David Perdue takes on the stage during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

COMMERCE — The crowd at former President Donald Trump’s rally hardly stirred when David Perdue claimed that Gov. Brian Kemp “sold us out” in negotiations for a $5 billion Rivian plant in east Georgia. He was met with stony silence when he reinforced his support for the stalled Buckhead cityhood effort.

But cheers rang out Saturday when Perdue turned to Trump’s obsession by falsely claiming the 2020 “elections were absolutely stolen” thanks to Kemp.

And when he promised to ensure that those “responsible for that fraud in 2020 go to jail” if elected governor, loud chants of “lock him up!” erupted from Trump supporters gathered at the old dragway in Commerce.

Perdue responded to the demands to imprison Kemp, his former political ally turned primary rival, by flashing a smile and a thumbs-up sign to the crowd.

It was perhaps the most vivid example of how pro-Trump Republicans are escalating election fraud conspiracy theories to rally conservatives ahead of the May 24 primaries. But it wasn’t the only one.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene called Kamala Harris the “supposed” vice president. State Sen. Burt Jones, who is running for lieutenant governor, promised to ban ballot drop boxes and get rid of “cursed Dominion machines.”

And John Gordon, a little-known challenger to Attorney General Chris Carr endorsed by Trump this past week, told the crowd that the first step he would take after defeating the “do nothing” incumbent would be to open an investigation into the 2020 election.

“We are going to uncover the facts, we will expose the truth and we are going to hold the people responsible accountable,” said Gordon, who earlier declared Trump won the election. “It will never happen again.”

The election wasn’t stolen. Three separate tallies upheld Biden’s narrow victory, an audit of absentee ballot signatures in Cobb County found no cases of fraud, court challenges by Trump allies were squashed, and bipartisan officials — including Trump’s attorney general — have said the election was fair.

But the pro-Trump slate’s deepening focus on 2020 mirrors the former president’s obsession with overturning his humbling defeat, which made him the first GOP presidential candidate to lose the state since 1992.

Apart from Herschel Walker, who seeks to pivot to a November matchup against Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock thanks to an enormous lead in primary polls, the rest of Trump’s group of endorsed candidates used the rally to profess their unerring loyalty to the former president and amplify his conspiracies about election fraud.

Trump’s rally, which drew a smaller and less enthusiastic crowd than other Georgia events, was primarily designed to damage Kemp, who Trump claims didn’t do enough to illegally overturn his election defeat. He pressured Kemp in 2020 to call a special legislative session to reverse his loss and pushed him to refuse to certify the results, both moves that would have violated Georgia law.

Amid a whipping wind, Trump told the crowd that before Republicans can beat liberal Democrats “we first have to defeat the RINO sellouts and the losers in the primaries” in May, using a favorite attack line to disparagingly describe Kemp and his political allies as “Republicans in name only.”

And in recent weeks, Trump has expanded his slate of endorsed candidates from proven vote-getters such as Perdue and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice to more obscure candidates running for insurance commissioner and other down-ticket offices against Kemp loyalists.

Republicans close to Kemp have warned that the pro-Trump fascination with 2020 will drag down the entire GOP ticket and give Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Warnock an edge with exhausted voters.

Ahead of Trump’s visit, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s “GOP 2.0″ group ran TV ads battering Republicans who would “rather talk about conspiracy theories and past losses” than broader issues. He predicted Trump’s reputation was so damaged that his blessing was more of a curse.

”Elections are always about the future rather than the past, and after the circus leaves town and the dust settles, Georgians have a clear choice,” said Duncan, framing the race as a head-to-head contest between Kemp and Abrams. The rally, he added, was about Trump‘s “grievance-driven brand of politics, not the future of the state we all love.”

But Trump sent an ominous warning to his allies last week by suddenly yanking his endorsement of Mo Brooks, a struggling Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama, after he called on voters to move beyond Trump’s defeat.

And even Trump’s Republican political opponents are willing to play into his disproven complaints about election fraud. A year after Kemp put his signature on a broad rewrite of election rules, the governor appears likely to sign into law another effort to overhaul the process.

Some Trump-first voters have put the mythology that the 2020 vote was tainted at the top of their agenda. The listless crowd at Trump’s rally in Commerce seemed to come alive each time the former president or another candidate invoked the phony narrative.

“I’m doing my research, but I know I’m backing Perdue. Kemp threw Trump under the bus after the election,” said Dale Branham, a Sandy Springs educator. “Everyone else who watched what went on knew what was going on. And David Perdue never doubted what happened.”

March 26, 2022 Commerce - David Perdue walks in during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Perdue’s rhetoric has shifted dramatically. He begrudgingly conceded defeat to U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff shortly after the Jan. 5, 2021, runoff. But this past week, for the first time, he falsely claimed that his election was also “stolen.” With Trump looking on Saturday, he sharpened that lie.

“Let me be very clear. Very clear,” Perdue said to the crowd. “In the state of Georgia, thanks to Brian Kemp, our elections were absolutely stolen. He sold us out.”

Kemp, he added, “kicked sand in the face of the president the last two years and said ‘no’ every time the president asked for anything.”

With double-digit leads over Perdue in recent polls, along with a hefty fundraising advantage, the governor now rarely responds directly to his GOP opponent. His spokesman Cody Hall said Saturday that Kemp was focused on battling Abrams in November.

At a campaign stop in Columbia County early Saturday, the governor effectively shrugged off Trump’s visit.

“My message to folks is I need their endorsement, their vote on May 24. And that’s what I’m going out there working to do,” he said. Then he added: “I can’t control what other people are doing.”

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