OPINION: A Kemp-Perdue primary? ‘It would be war’

GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp (right) reacts as U.S. Senator David Perdue wishes him a happy birthday in Statesboro on Nov. 2, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



GOP gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp (right) reacts as U.S. Senator David Perdue wishes him a happy birthday in Statesboro on Nov. 2, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A potential primary between Gov. Brian Kemp and former Sen. David Perdue is very possible, and, if it happens, would be an intensely visceral, deeply personal battle between two powerhouses of Georgia Republican politics and their allies.

That’s according to supporters of both Kemp and Perdue, as well as strategists involved in GOP and Democratic races already underway for 2022 with whom I spoke this week.

We’ve been hearing rumors of a possible Perdue challenge to Kemp for months and like many, I dismissed them as off-year gossip.

But last week, my colleague Greg Bluestein reported that he’d spoken with eight people familiar with Perdue’s recent outreach to donors and supporters to seriously discuss a possible run for the governor’s mansion.

What I found in my own conversations with sources close to both Kemp and Perdue were raw emotion, simmering resentments, and certainty from both sides that their man is the only one positioned to win a general election in 2022.

Caught in between the potential battle of the Titans would be other Republican leaders and GOP voters, who would all eventually be required to choose between the two.

John Watson was the chairman of the Georgia Republican Party when Kemp first ran for governor in 2018. But he also has deep ties to both David Perdue and Sonny Perdue.

He’s just one example of a high-profile Republican who supports both Kemp and the former senator and would have to pick one over the other in a primary, which he said he doesn’t want to see happen.

“David is a friend of mine and the state and the country are worse off because of his defeat,” Watson said. “But the prospect of a bloody primary is about as appealing as another COVID surge.”

Other Republicans, also close to both Kemp and Perdue, asked not to be identified to avoid alienating either one.

“It’s going to be a cleansing in Georgia Republican politics. It’s going to be total war,” said one Kemp ally who is also close to the Perdue family. “It’s going to be Donald Trump’s chosen candidates, the-election-was-stolen, blah, blah, blah, versus people that have actually been in the trenches and done things for the people of Georgia.”

While other races on the 2022 primary ticket have created showdowns between Republicans backed by the former president and those without his endorsement, the marquee governor’s race has not. Kemp has enjoyed the field mostly to himself and Trump has not endorsed former state Rep. Vernon Jones, who is running against Kemp.

But Trump has worked to persuade Perdue to take on Kemp, even though a potential Kemp-Perdue contest itself would be the type of bank-account draining bloodbath that Democrats would relish.

“There would be no we-can’t-go-there,” one Kemp ally said of the kind of campaign Perdue should be prepared to face if he does decide to challenge Kemp. All of the former senator’s previous vulnerabilities, including his stock-trading controversies and business dealings, along with his loss to Jon Ossoff, whom one Republican strategist called “a 30-something nobody” that cost Republicans control of the Senate, would be fair game.

Those backing Perdue say Kemp has brought the possibility of a primary challenge upon himself by losing Trump’s support — and they have polling that shows Perdue could defeat Kemp in a head-to-head match and win the state in November.

“Eighty to 90% of our voters care a lot about what (Trump) thinks and his priority is defeating Kemp either in the primary or the general,” one Perdue supporter said. “So even if you love Brian, and even if you think he’s doing a great job, if you have to have an IQ north of 60, you’re probably going to come to the conclusion that he can’t win.”

The dangling Perdue challenge, and the anger Kemp’s team feels at the idea, have been preceded by months of behind-the-scenes finger-pointing among Republicans about who is to blame for Trump’s, Loeffler’s and Perdue’s losses — while state House and Senate Republicans, and other Republicans statewide won their races.

But the betrayal that Kemp world feels at this point, with Perdue actively exploring a primary, is real.

Tate Mitchell, the spokesman for Kemp’s reelection campaign, said that the governor and Mrs. Kemp “proudly campaigned hard- and with- Senator Perdue and Bonnie throughout the 2020 campaign cycle.” He added that Perdue also personally committed his full support for the governor’s election bid to both Kemps.

At the moment, it’s not clear what complaints conservative GOP primary voters have about Kemp— beyond his role in the 2020 elections.

With Kemp as governor, the state’s unemployment rate just dropped to 3.2%, the lowest in recorded history. He also signed the state’s anti-abortion “heartbeat” bill, battled with Democratic mayors over mandates during COVID, and seems to announce a new factory or headquarters deal for the state once a week.

But it’s also impossible to paper over Kemp’s feud with Trump. While Kemp refused to entertain Trump’s accusations of a rigged election, Perdue announced he would vote to challenge the Electoral College results, even though he would not have been in the Senate for the vote.

In a Trump-dominated, post-policy Georgia GOP, refusing to do more for Trump’s election denials may be all that matters to some GOP primary voters. A Trump-backed CEO-turned-senator could be just what the doctor ordered for them.

Perdue’s people also contend that even with a similar policy set, the former corporate leader would simply execute his idea better.

Watching from the sidelines are Georgia Democrats, who are practically popping popcorn. They are wondering if they could really get so lucky to have another high-profile GOP primary in 2022, after enjoying the same good fortune in Sen. Raphael Warnock’s race less than a year ago.

DuBose Porter, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said a Kemp-Perdue battle would be fodder for Democrats in 2022.

“I think they would be a perfect match,” he said of the primary. “David Perdue profited off the pandemic and Brian Kemp never realized there was one.”

Political history is full of heated contests that spawned bitter rivalries. Not unlike a war, friendships end, enemies are born, and few ever forget who was with them — and who was against them — when the time came for choosing.

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