AJC Interview: Inside Perdue’s plan to defeat Kemp in 2022

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue wasn’t planning to jump in the race for Georgia governor so soon. But Democrat Stacey Abrams scrambled his schedule when she made the leap last week, presenting the Republican with a gut-check moment about whether to also challenge Gov. Brian Kemp.

“When Stacey Abrams announced, it forced my hand, honestly. I was conflicted,” Perdue told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview.

The last thing I want to do is run a campaign,” said Perdue, who just lost his reelection bid in January. “But on the other hand, I can’t see the state go down this road that Stacey Abrams wants to go down. Kemp has failed to unite the party, and he can’t defeat her.”

Since Perdue announced this week that he would mount a primary challenge against Kemp, his candidacy has divided Republicans and sealed Georgia’s place as one of the most consequential and captivating battleground states in the 2022 election.

In the interview, Perdue endorsed the idea of a referendum to allow Buckhead to split from the rest of the city of Atlanta, an issue that has generated intense debate across the region and the state. It also creates a divide with Kemp, who has stayed publicly neutral.

“I trust the people of Buckhead,” Perdue said. “I think the city of Atlanta has tremendous problems, just like every other Democrat-run city in the nation.”

He also added more context to his claim that Kemp “caved” to Democrats in the last election cycle by not catering to the demands of then-President Donald Trump and other Republicans who promoted false claims of widespread election fraud.

Perdue said he wouldn’t have certified the results, a step Kemp has long said he was bound by law to carry out.

And Perdue said he privately pressed Kemp to call a special legislative session to address concerns from Trump supporters about absentee ballot fraud before the Jan. 5 runoffs, which ended with a Democratic sweep that tossed him and then-U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler from office.

“I told him we needed a special session to look at it to make sure it was fixed before January. The Legislature could have made sure that signatures were verified. The governor was not interested. He didn’t call a special session. And the secretary of state didn’t help,” Perdue said.

Kemp has said a special session would have led to endless litigation and distracted attention from the runoff elections. But his refusal to call legislators back to the Capitol intensified Trump’s wrath, culminating this week in the former president’s endorsement of Perdue.

Kemp’s spokesman Cody Hall said Perdue never made such an appeal to the governor disputed and described him as a “desperate, failed former politician who will do anything to soothe his own bruised ego.”

There’s no evidence of rampant election fraud in Georgia’s election, and three separate tallies have upheld Biden’s victory. More than a dozen pro-Trump lawsuits seeking to overturn the Georgia election results were tossed by judges or withdrawn by the former president’s loyalists.

Perdue also offered more detail on his pledge to eliminate the state’s income tax, saying he’s aiming to lay out “high ground” with his proposal and, if elected, he’ll work with the Republican-led Legislature to hash out the details of how to account for the $14 billion in revenue that the tax generates.

And he outlined his approach to his campaign, signaling that he intends to keep a focus on Abrams while also taking shots at Kemp throughout what is sure to become an ugly and expensive internal feud.

“That’s going to happen in any race. This election isn’t going to be won by spending money on TV,” he said. “It’s going to be won out in the trenches talking to people. And this is a referendum on who they want to stand up to Stacey Abrams.”

Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity:

On how running against an incumbent governor will “unite” the Republican Party:

“This is something I’ve been dealing with all year, with the governor and with President Trump: The state is divided. I’ve been all over the state this year, trying to unite the party. And it’s sorely divided. I don’t think Kemp will pull it together. The party is already divided.

“I’m trying to run a campaign not based on Trump and the past, but on the future. And the No. 1 objective we have on our side is to make sure Stacey Abrams doesn’t use Georgia as a steppingstone to the White House.”

On his decision to run:

“This isn’t personal. I like Brian. He’s done an OK job on certain things. But he’s had this whole year to bring the party together. As I travel the state and hear him booed and hear the outcry from Republicans who have lost confidence in him, that’s what pulled me across the line.”

On what he would have done differently if he were the governor in November 2020:

“Over my dead body would we have turned the election over to Stacey Abrams. I would have fought that consent decree to my last breath. That led to imbalanced processes across the state. The secretary of state waived certain things in the Georgia voting law.

“I went to the governor and asked for a special session to address the signature issues — we need this fixed. I told him we needed a special session to look at it to make sure it was fixed before January. The Legislature could have made sure that signatures were verified. The governor was not interested. He didn’t call a special session. And the secretary of state didn’t help.”

On whether he would have certified the election:

“Look, this is common sense — any issues should be investigated and audited before an election is certified. Get the answers, then certify. How can you certify something with so many questions around it? Not just in 2020, but in general. I have never called to overturn an election, but certainly we should have gotten to the bottom of the issues of alleged fraud and irregularities, dealt with them, and had a special session to fix them before the January election. That’s what I said at the time, but Brian Kemp refused.”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution note: A legal settlement in March 2020 required voters be quickly notified when election officials reject their absentee ballots and encouraged election staffers to double-check with their peers before rejecting ballots because of potential signature mismatches.

Neither Abrams nor Kemp was involved in the settlement, which was between the secretary of state’s office and the Democratic Party of Georgia.

After the settlement, the rejection rate of absentee ballots in 2020 because of mismatched signatures was similar to the previous two general elections, and signatures on absentee ballot envelopes were verified by county election offices.

The secretary of state’s office audited 15,000 absentee ballot signatures in Cobb County before the runoff and found no cases of fraud. There is no verified evidence that county officials have failed to verify signatures.

On his plan to eliminate the income tax:

“I’m laying out the high ground here. I’ve lived in Texas and Tennessee, and I’ve certainly seen how Georgia is falling behind competitively. This is my wheelhouse. We’ve got to be more competitive. There are ways to pay for it, and other states have accomplished that. I’ll work with the Legislature on it — instead of fighting with them — to make this a reality.”

On his approach to defeating Kemp:

“The governor has already broken the line there and showed he’ll pull out all the things the Democrats talked about last year. He’s attacking me with all the lies the Democrats used. That’s what politicians do. How can you trust someone like that? In my case, that’s not in my nature.

“I’m going to talk about, in the primary, what Stacey Abrams wants for Georgia. Then we’ll talk about (President Joe Biden’s) failures. It’s scary to think he’ll have another Democratic governor in Georgia supporting this madness today.”

On whether he’d support a referendum that would create the city of Buckhead:

“I trust the people of Buckhead. I think the city of Atlanta has tremendous problems, just like every other Democrat-run city in the nation. …

“I would support the referendum. When enough people put before elected officials something of this magnitude, I think they should get a vote. There are a lot of variables, like questions about taxes. But crime is the No. 1 issue in Atlanta, and the issue with Buckhead proves it continues to be a major concern.”

On the role that Trump will play in his campaign:

“Donald Trump gave us the greatest economic recovery in American history. In the state of Georgia, people appreciate the economy and where it came from and how it was generated. …

(He talked about how Trump reconciled with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and other critics.)

“That same opportunity was afforded to Brian Kemp. He fought him at every turn. I don’t understand it, but that’s the way it is. The president is welcome here any time to get the vote out and explain the dangers of Stacey Abrams. This is not the old-line Democratic Party. She wants to radically change the nation.”

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS