After crushing defeat, David Perdue wants to heal GOP rifts

220309-Atlanta-Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue files paperwork to qualify to run for governor Wednesday, Mar. 9, 2022 at the Georgia State Capitol. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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220309-Atlanta-Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue files paperwork to qualify to run for governor Wednesday, Mar. 9, 2022 at the Georgia State Capitol. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

If former U.S. Sen. David Perdue has regrets about the collapse of his Donald Trump-backed challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp, he’s not keen to explore them.

In his first extended interview since he took a 52-point thrashing in the May primary, Perdue told podcast host Ben Burnett he’s focused on getting his life “back in order” and helping Kemp defeat Stacey Abrams in the race for governor.

Throughout the interview, Perdue makes no apologies for his ill-fated decision to challenge the incumbent Republican. Nor does he express any animosity toward the governor for using all the levers of power to deliver a beating that likely ended Perdue’s political career.

“I was giving the Republicans a choice. That’s all it was. I didn’t say anything that was untrue in the primary,” he told Burnett, a former Alpharetta councilman and contributor to Xtra 106.3. “And right now my only focus is making sure Stacey Abrams is not the next governor of Georgia.”

Perdue promoted lies and conspiracy theories throughout his campaign, including falsely claiming that the 2020 election was “absolutely stolen” because of Kemp. He also egged on Trump supporters as they chanted “lock him up” about imprisoning the governor at a rally this year.

The interview with the Ben Burnett Show, a part of the Dickey Broadcasting Company’s podcast lineup, posted earlier Tuesday. It traces Perdue’s path to politics and then pivots to the 2020 campaign, his defeat in the 2021 runoff and his ill-fated challenge to Kemp this year.

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In the interview, Perdue treaded lightly with questions involving Trump. Perdue said he didn’t blame the former president for his 2021 runoff loss to Jon Ossoff, but noted that “a lot of people lost confidence in the system” during the campaign.

Trump and his allies falsely claimed throughout the runoff the Georgia election system was tainted and the outcome was “rigged.”

It was not. Three separate tallies upheld Joe Biden’s narrow victory, an audit of absentee ballot signaturesin 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.

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Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., takes a selfie with President Donald Trump during the seventh inning of Game 5 of the baseball World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Credit: File

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., takes a selfie with President Donald Trump during the seventh inning of Game 5 of the baseball World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Credit: File

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Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., takes a selfie with President Donald Trump during the seventh inning of Game 5 of the baseball World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Credit: File

Credit: File

The former president, Perdue said, initially encouraged him to challenge U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in the 2022 election. But he opted against a comeback bid because the “party was split” and would suffer at the ballot box in November.

Perdue met privately with Kemp in early 2022 and also informed him he had no plans to run for any office. But he reneged on his word, he said, after an outpouring of GOP voters turned to him and his wife Bonnie to “pull the party together.”

“The only reason I ran was to give the Republicans a choice in the primary to see who they thought would be the better candidate,” said Perdue.

His challenge did, indeed, unite Republicans – but behind Kemp. The governor captured nearly three-quarters of the vote and carried every county in Georgia. The most recent public poll of the November race, conducted for AARP Georgia, showed Kemp with the support of 95% of likely GOP voters.

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July 13, 2014 Atlanta - U.S. Senate Republican candidates David Perdue (left) and Jack Kingston answer questions from panelists as Dennis O'Hayer moderates during the Atlanta Press Club's Loudermilk-Young Debate Series. AJC/Jonathan Phillips

Credit: Jim Galloway

July 13, 2014 Atlanta - U.S. Senate Republican candidates David Perdue (left) and Jack Kingston answer questions from panelists as Dennis O'Hayer moderates during the Atlanta Press Club's Loudermilk-Young Debate Series. AJC/Jonathan Phillips

Credit: Jim Galloway

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July 13, 2014 Atlanta - U.S. Senate Republican candidates David Perdue (left) and Jack Kingston answer questions from panelists as Dennis O'Hayer moderates during the Atlanta Press Club's Loudermilk-Young Debate Series. AJC/Jonathan Phillips

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

Perdue said he learned a lesson from former U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who quickly pledged his support after losing the 2014 Senate runoff. Perdue said he was similarly devoted to helping Kemp defeat Abrams in this year’s contest.

Still, it’s unclear how Perdue is aiding Kemp’s reelection bid. The two have not campaigned or appeared in public together since Perdue conceded defeat hours after the polls closed in May.

And Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said the governor’s primary win proved Republicans are united behind the incumbent’s “strong leadership and successful record of fighting - and winning - for hardworking Georgians.”

Perdue referenced a recent private lunch with a Kemp skeptic and told Burnett of conversations with others wary of voting for the governor. He urged Republicans to “put any animosities aside, any differences aside and any concerns about the voting system aside” and back Kemp.

“I want to be a help and not a hindrance. (There’s) a lot of people who are really upset with the governor, I’m in a position to help salve that over. That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m trying to tell people, you’ve got to look at the bigger picture,” Perdue said.

“Look, Gov. Kemp and I have differences,” he added. “There’s no doubt about that. But on the other hand, I understand who is going to be the better governor of Georgia. And it’s not Stacey Abrams.”

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The race between Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is the biggest battle on Tuesday's primary ballot. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

The race between Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is the biggest battle on Tuesday's primary ballot. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

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The race between Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is the biggest battle on Tuesday's primary ballot. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Here are other Perdue remarks:

ON POLITICS: “I hate politics. I hated it before, I hate it now. I don’t have a high opinion of most politicians. I don’t. I don’t. Even now, I can tell you. There are certainly men and women who are doing this for the good of the country, the good of the people. But there are also a lot that are doing it for self-interest.”

ON TRUMP: “He was an outsider like I was in Washington. He would always tell me, ‘You and I were the only ones that really come from a different world. These guys have either been here for too long or they don’t have a similar background.’ He just came from a background where you get things done or you go out of business.

“… I give him full credit for running the government like a business. He was so singularly focused on results. He didn’t care about how we got there, and that got him in trouble sometimes. But he got more done in two years there.”

ON HIS 2021 LOSS: “If you run as a U.S. senator in a presidential year, what I learned is that nothing you say has much to do with your outcome. Particularly because of Donald Trump. A presidential race takes all the air out of the balloon. The second point is I still ran as an outsider to the establishment … We got pulled into a runoff and then Trump was making a lot of noises about the election, and a lot of people lost confidence in the system and a lot of people didn’t come back out and vote in January. That’s all history.”

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Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, center, walks with President Donald Trump, right, and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga) as Trump arrives for a rally Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, in Macon, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, center, walks with President Donald Trump, right, and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga) as Trump arrives for a rally Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, in Macon, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

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Georgia Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp, center, walks with President Donald Trump, right, and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga) as Trump arrives for a rally Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, in Macon, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

ON WHETHER TRUMP IS TO BLAME FOR HIS RUNOFF DEFEAT: “I don’t think so. I really don’t. I honestly believe that what he was doing was genuine in terms of complaining about anomalies that nobody would answer. The hyperbole of some of his supporters outside the state that came in created confusion around the facts. … But he never said don’t come out and vote. And there were other outsiders that did.”

ON TRUMP’S ROLE IN HIS DECISION TO CHALLENGE KEMP: “President Trump wasn’t involved. He wanted me to run for the Senate against Warnock in that seat, in January and February after the runoff. And I was concerned because the party was split. There were a number of people in the party who normally vote Republican who had lost confidence.

“… I told Trump and Mitch McConnell I was not going to run for the Senate. I had no plans to do anything, and I actually told Governor Kemp at that point I had no intention to do anything …

“Our phones, our emails, our texts – I couldn’t go anywhere without people talking to us about pulling the party together. The only reason I ran was to give the Republicans a choice in the primary to see who they thought would be the better candidate.”

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David Perdue concedes the primary Republican Governor’s race to Brian Kemp during his election party on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

David Perdue concedes the primary Republican Governor’s race to Brian Kemp during his election party on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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David Perdue concedes the primary Republican Governor’s race to Brian Kemp during his election party on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

ON HIS PRIMARY CHALLENGE: “I was giving the Republicans a choice. That’s all it was. I didn’t say anything that was untrue in the primary. And right now, my only focus is making sure Stacey Abrams is not the next governor of Georgia.

“And I encourage everybody that’s listening to put any animosities aside, any differences aside, any concerns about the voting system aside – whatever – and look at the bigger picture long-term. If we lose the state of Georgia to a Democrat governor, no matter what you think about the election process, we will not get it back in the short term. That means we could have a totally different situation nationally.”

ON KEMP: “I’m doing everything I can to help. I just had a lunch trying to help behind the scenes. I want to be a help and not a hindrance. (There’s) a lot of people really upset with the governor and I’m in a position to help salve that over. That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m trying to tell people, you got to look at the bigger picture. … Look, Gov. Kemp and I have differences. There’s no doubt about that. But on the other hand, I understand who is going to be the better governor of Georgia. And it’s not Stacey Abrams.”

ON WHAT’S NEXT: “I have some personal things in my own business life that I need to take care of after nine years of not participating in probably the greatest economic boom in humankind history. We are spending more time with family, and that’s something I was not able to do in the Senate. I don’t know what’s next, but I’ll tell you this: I’m not done helping the state and the country.”