Perdue’s last gasp? Trailing Kemp, his campaign runs short of time

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue talks to his supporters at a campaign event earlier this month at Sell's Mill Park in Hoschton. Perdue, trying to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary, has been trailing by double digits in polls while also lagging well behind in fundraising. His campaign, however, is looking for reasons to be optimistic as it analyzes data from the turnout during early voting. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Combined ShapeCaption
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue talks to his supporters at a campaign event earlier this month at Sell's Mill Park in Hoschton. Perdue, trying to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp in the GOP primary, has been trailing by double digits in polls while also lagging well behind in fundraising. His campaign, however, is looking for reasons to be optimistic as it analyzes data from the turnout during early voting. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

GAINESVILLE — Bonnie Bobb is the definition of a Donald Trump voter. The retired social worker is a devout supporter who believes the U.S. was “in much better shape” when the former president was in charge.

And she’s one of the nearly one-third of Georgia Republican voters surveyed in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll who said Trump’s endorsement makes them “much more likely” to support one of his favored candidates.

But when she casts her ballot in the May 24 GOP primary for governor, she plans to support Gov. Brian Kemp over Trump’s handpicked candidate for the job, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue.

How does she reconcile her support for both Trump and his avowed enemy, a man the former president has branded a traitor for defying his demand to illegally reverse his 2020 election defeat?

“Things are going well under Kemp, and he’s learned over the last four years,” Bobb said. “I really like him, and he’s getting the hang of the job.”

Bobb and other Trump fans who back Kemp illustrate Perdue’s growing struggle to keep alive his chances of an upset.

His only credible shot at unseating Kemp now rests on keeping the governor under the 50% mark in the primary, forcing a June runoff and an unpredictable reset of the campaign.

Even that seems far-fetched. In a race once viewed as a toss-up, Perdue now trails by double digits in public polls that give Kemp a strong shot at an outright victory.

Perdue’s financial report this week showed he has just $900,000 in the bank — less than one-tenth of what’s in Kemp’s coffers — and has only put in $500,000 of his own cash. Even some Perdue supporters privately called it a “death rattle” disclosure.

Combined ShapeCaption
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue reported this past week that he had only about one-tenth as much money in his campaign account as Gov. Brian Kemp. That includes $500,000 of the multimillionaire's own money, which some of his supporters called a "death rattle" disclosure. (Megan Varner/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue reported this past week that he had only about one-tenth as much money in his campaign account as Gov. Brian Kemp. That includes $500,000 of the multimillionaire's own money, which some of his supporters called a "death rattle" disclosure. (Megan Varner/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue reported this past week that he had only about one-tenth as much money in his campaign account as Gov. Brian Kemp. That includes $500,000 of the multimillionaire's own money, which some of his supporters called a "death rattle" disclosure. (Megan Varner/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

His closing strategy relies on targeting Trump die-hards with increasingly urgent messages that paint Kemp as a “RINO” — Republican in name only — and predicting Democrat Stacey Abrams will win in November if the governor is atop the GOP ticket.

Perdue and his aides are optimistic about high early voting turnout that indicates a large number of GOP voters who didn’t participate in the 2018 primary are casting ballots, though it’s impossible to predict whether that hurts or helps his campaign.

ExploreDavid Perdue's campaign predicts a 'MAGA surge' is on the way

He’s picked a fight with Kemp on issues dear to conservatives. He’s attacked a just-signed income tax cut as a half-measure and accused Kemp of election-year pandering by approving a gun rights expansion. He’s blamed the governor for rising crime.

More recently, he’s vowed to ban abortion — including in cases of rape or incest — if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. It’s a step Kemp hasn’t endorsed, given the legislative fight in 2019 over a law that would ban abortions after a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity.

Combined ShapeCaption
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, right, has opened debates by falsely claiming the 2020 presidential vote was “stolen,” a narrative former President Donald Trump has pursued in attacking Gov. Brian Kemp for not illegally overturning the results of the election in Georgia. Three recounts and a bipartisan group of officials have upheld the election. (Photo: Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, right, has opened debates by falsely claiming the 2020 presidential vote was “stolen,” a narrative former President Donald Trump has pursued in attacking Gov. Brian Kemp for not illegally overturning the results of the election in Georgia. Three recounts and a bipartisan group of officials have upheld the election. (Photo: Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Combined ShapeCaption
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, right, has opened debates by falsely claiming the 2020 presidential vote was “stolen,” a narrative former President Donald Trump has pursued in attacking Gov. Brian Kemp for not illegally overturning the results of the election in Georgia. Three recounts and a bipartisan group of officials have upheld the election. (Photo: Miguel Martinez/miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

But the core of his case revolves around his loyalty to Trump and his embrace of the former president’s lies about election fraud.

Perdue opened debates falsely claiming the 2020 vote was “stolen” and joined a bus tour last week organized by a far-right radio host who calls himself the “Godzilla of Truth.”

One stop featured Mike Lindell, a financier of right-wing efforts to discredit the 2020 vote. Another in Gainesville drew a sparse crowd that cheered Perdue and other Trump-endorsed candidates who urged their supporters to vote in a system they believed was rigged.

“They’ve finally realized if they don’t vote, they are voting. They don’t have a choice,” Perdue said.

“There are many people in the state who really believe fraud happened. I am one of them,” he added. “What we’re telling them right now is that we’re going to do more to protect against whatever happened.”

Georgia’s election wasn’t rigged; the results were confirmed over three tallies and upheld by bipartisan officials.

Scorched earth

Kemp is doing everything he can to smother Perdue’s chances.

He’s flooded the airwaves with ads, soaked up attention for a spate of bill-signings and executive orders, and even traveled to Perdue’s hometown to trumpet a major tax cut bill with former Gov. Sonny Perdue, his rival’s first cousin.

And his administration hopes to soon announce that Hyundai Motor Corp. plans to build a plant in southeast Georgia that would be the largest economic development project in state history, topping the Rivian electric-vehicle factory deal he rolled out in December.

“When you are the No. 1 state in the country for business,” Kemp said at his ceremonial Capitol office, “you have a lot of great companies looking here.”

The governor’s maneuvering has endeared him to some Trump supporters who were otherwise frustrated at his refusal to buy into the election-fraud conspiracy theory.

“Yeah, Kemp didn’t pay attention to the voter fraud ... but on everything else, he’s doing the conservative stuff,” said Bryan Walker, a Carrollton mechanic and Trump loyalist who preferred the more united Georgia GOP from 2018.

“And you know what I remember: Trump at one time did back Kemp. I’ve seen what he can do and what he’s done, and he seems like the lesser of two evils,” Walker said.

Perdue’s supporters can only hope the polls are wrong — and that the pull of Trump’s blessing is stronger than expected. Many point to the Ohio GOP primary earlier this month in which Trump-backed candidates prevailed. Trump didn’t fare as well in this past week’s contest in Nebraska, where his choice for governor suffered defeat.

“I just trust Perdue more,” said Amanda Ledford, a Rome purchasing department staffer. “I’m backing him through thick and thin — and I’m not paying attention to any polls.”

But even Trump is showing signs of wariness. In the early days of Perdue’s campaign, the former president’s presence was hard to avoid: He headlined a Kemp-bashing rally, filmed TV spots for Perdue, hosted a fundraiser for the candidate and helped finance a wave of ads.

Now, though, Trump talks up Kemp’s advantages in media interviews while downplaying Perdue’s chances. And rather than return to Georgia before the May 24 vote, he held a telephone rally with Perdue last week predicting GOP doom if Kemp is the nominee.

“A vote for Brian Kemp in this primary is a vote for Stacey Abrams,” Trump said. “And I’ll tell you, I don’t believe the Republicans are going to go out and vote in the general election for Brian Kemp.”

While that message motivates some of the former president’s followers, to others it’s just idle chatter. Bobb, the Trump loyalist who backs Kemp, said she viewed the former president’s fury about the governor as “just talk.”

“You kind of have to take it and make your own judgment. That’s the way I look at it. Trump says a lot of stuff, and some of it I take with a grain of salt,” Bobb said.

“I don’t feel like Kemp is a RINO. I feel he’s done a pretty good job,” she added. “And Trump’s chatter doesn’t really mean anything here.”