“Perdue’s only reason for running is to soothe his own bruised ego, because his campaign for U.S Senate failed to inspire voters at the ballot box — twice,” said Kemp spokesman Cody Hall, giving a taste of the brutal campaign to come.
Not long ago, it seemed Perdue’s political career might be over. He ruled out a comeback bid against U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and began building a new estate in coastal Georgia. But as grassroots unrest with Kemp dogged his campaign, Perdue months ago began quietly calling donors and activists to sound out a campaign.
He seems assured, too, of winning the endorsement from Trump, who has already backed a slate of Georgia GOP candidates who backed his efforts to overturn the election. The former president has publicly encouraged Perdue to run and recently warned the “MAGA base will just not vote” for Kemp.
And in interviews, Perdue has tried to promote himself as a “unifier” who can rally Trump loyalists more effectively than Kemp, who has been on the former president’s bad side since he refused demands to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia.
“We have a divided party in Georgia right now,” Perdue recently said. “Forget about me. It’s divided. And a lot of people feel like that people in power haven’t fought for them and caved in to a lot of things back in 2020 that didn’t have to be done.”
‘Man of his word’
Kemp finds himself fighting on two fronts, trying to fend off Perdue and other lesser-known challengers from his right flank while Abrams is free to consolidate Democratic support.
Abrams’ top aide, Lauren Groh-Wargo, echoed other Democrats in welcoming the GOP infighting.
“While David Perdue and Brian Kemp fight each other,” she said, “Stacey Abrams will be fighting for the people of Georgia.”
Indeed, an all-out brawl awaits the two Republican rivals. Kemp’s camp has long warned that a Perdue challenge would trigger a “total war.” The governor suggested that it would also be an act of betrayal, pointing to Perdue’s past support for his reelection.
“I hope he’ll be a man of his word,” Kemp said shortly before his former ally announced he is running. “But again, that’s not anything I can control.”
Veteran Republican strategist Brian Robinson put it a different way, harkening back to Gen. William T. Sherman’s ruinous march to Savannah during the Civil War: “Sherman left more standing than this primary will.”
Long before Perdue planned his bid, Kemp was taking the threat seriously. He has reloaded his campaign coffers, sharpened his reelection platform and unveiled volleys of endorsements. The Republican Governors Association has pledged its support. His campaign recently returned to the airwaves with a TV ad touting his agenda.
And he’s calling in favors. The Georgia Chamber, which declined to support Kemp in 2018, recently endorsed his reelection bid. That development was seen as a signal to both Perdue and Abrams about where the corporate crowd is leaning.
A former Fortune 500 chief executive, Perdue defeated a slate of better-known Republican candidates in 2014 by billing himself as an “outsider” who could shake up the Washington status quo. He embraced Trump in 2016 and emerged as one of his most effective champions in the U.S. Senate.
But Perdue, whose plans were first reported by Politico, was also hindered by backlash against the president in 2020. He led Ossoff in the November vote but fell short of the majority needed to win the race.
Nine weeks later, he lost the runoff by a thin margin as tens of thousands of Trump supporters stayed home amid false claims of a “rigged” vote.
During his 2014 run for the Senate, Perdue often sported a jean jacket to portray himself as an outsider. But, in fact, the multimillionaire is part of one of the most powerful political networks in Georgia.
His first cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, was Trump’s agriculture secretary for four years. And many of his political associates are in influential positions in state government and Republican politics.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Complicating matters, Kemp has also backed Sonny Perdue, who appointed him secretary of state in 2010, to lead the state’s higher education system.
Sonny Perdue, who along with his cousin David encouraged Trump to endorse Kemp in 2018, recently had positive words for the governor. He told a crowd of activists in Perry to show Kemp “respect and honor because it’s a tough job.” It’s not immediately clear if he’s still in line for the coveted post.
Kemp will be a formidable primary opponent, despite his falling out with Trump over his refusal to overturn the November election. The governor has the power of incumbency and dozens of endorsements already lined up, along with the bully pulpit tied to being the state’s top politician.
He also reported amassing a small fortune in his campaign coffers. And legislation he recently signed allows him to set up funds that can collect unlimited contributions from donors for a 2022 bid.
Kemp’s campaign has been preparing for Perdue’s challenge for months, and on Sunday one of his top aides gave a preview of the bruising affair to come.
In a lengthy statement, Hall pointed to the issues that dogged Perdue during the Senate runoff, including stock transactions that benefited the then-senator during the pandemic and his decision to skip multiple debates.
”Governor Kemp has a proven track record of fighting the radical left to put hardworking Georgians first, while Perdue is best known for ducking debates, padding his stock portfolio during a pandemic, and losing winnable races.”
A Perdue spokesman fired right back: “If Brian Kemp fought Stacey Abrams as hard as he fights Perdue and Trump, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”