David Perdue steps up appeals to GOP’s right flank

CUMMING — Inside a massive, airy barn in the Republican-friendly exurbs north of Atlanta, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue locked arms with the eldest son of his most important political ally.

Before a midday crowd of hundreds of Republicans, Donald Trump Jr. praised his father’s political legacy and framed Perdue as the only conservative who “will actually fight” Gov. Brian Kemp and the political establishment.

“Do not sit out the primaries,” Trump Jr. said, exhorting Republicans to rally to his father’s favorite candidates. “Because we will end up with a slate of proper RINOs like Brian Kemp and (Wyoming U.S. Rep.) Liz Cheney. We might as well have Democrats.”

With polls showing that many Republicans are unaware that Donald Trump endorsed his campaign for governor, Perdue is in a race against time to remind voters of the former president’s support before the May 24 primary.

But in a quiet moment after the rally was over, Perdue struck a slightly different tone. Even as he celebrated earning Trump’s blessing, Perdue tried to emphasize that his campaign agenda went beyond the former president’s grievances about his 2020 defeat.

“It’s not just the election. It’s the whole Buckhead city issue, the Rivian issue,” Perdue said. “It’s the corruption that you’ve seen on a national level brought home here in Georgia.”

Trailing in the polls and in fundraising, Perdue’s strategy for winning is taking on a different shape as he tries to pick off wavering conservative voters who were once loyal to Kemp.

His approach starts with winning over conservative Trump supporters who value the former president’s endorsement above all else. That’s why Trump’s visit to Commerce on March 26 — and any future help he delivers to Perdue — is so crucial.

Trump helped get Perdue into the race, and then the former president persuaded a long-shot rival, former Democrat Vernon Jones, to give the ex-senator a clearer shot by quitting the contest.

But now that Perdue has played his ace card, he’s racing to show he’s got other tricks up his sleeve to separate himself from Kemp, whose conservative record as Georgia’s first lifelong Republican governor offers the challenger little wiggle room.

Perdue, who won election to the Senate in 2014 based in part on his corporate background, has promised to repeal Georgia’s income tax, which accounts for $14 billion in state revenue.

He’s embraced the stalled attempt to carve out a new Buckhead city from Atlanta. And, most recently, he’s attacked the $5 billion proposed Rivian plant as a financial boondoggle.

Perdue’s efforts to contrast himself with Kemp go beyond the policy realm. He’s embraced Jones, now running for a vacant U.S. House seat with Trump’s blessing but considered a pariah by much of the GOP establishment.

Vernon Jones, a former Democrat whose record in the state Legislature on issues such as abortion make some Republicans wary, has gained support for his bid in the 10th Congressional District from former U.S. Sen. David Perdue. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

And when U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker and other well-known Republicans pulled out of U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s pro-gun rally earlier this month after she headlined a white nationalist rally that featured cheers for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, Perdue pointedly decided to keep it on his schedule.

“This event is about highlighting the need to protect the Second Amendment and expand our God-given right to bear arms,” Perdue spokeswoman Jenni Sweat said. “Given the invasion in Ukraine, we see the need to protect it more than ever.”

‘I’m mad at both of them’

Perdue doesn’t have much room to run to Kemp’s right. The governor leads Perdue in every recent major poll, including a survey conducted by GOP pollster American Viewpoint that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained this week.

Kemp will be able to command attention with a spate of bill signings throughout the state, when he’ll sign measures meant to energize the base along with a record-setting $30.6 billion budget that’s expected to include raises for teachers. He has already signed a midyear budget that gave raises to state employees, plus a tax refund for many Georgians.

And he’s set to flood the airwaves with roughly $5 million worth of airtime through the May 24 primary. That’s about five times more money than Perdue has collected since entering the race in December, though his campaign coffers could soon get a boost.

Trump hosted a Wednesday fundraiser for Perdue at his Mar-a-Lago estate that’s expected to bring in more than $600,000 for his campaign. Entry to the reception started at $3,000 a person. A pro-Perdue outside group recently reserved about $500,000 worth of airtime to help his campaign.

And aides to Perdue say the former senator, who listed his net worth at roughly $50 million, will disclose in his next campaign filing that he’s written himself a check.

Kemp, shortly after qualifying for office, made remarks that were notable for bypassing any mention of Perdue.

“The road ahead with not be easy,” the governor said. “The media, Hollywood and the elites will all be against us. But they’ve come after us before, and together we stood strong and won.”

Many Kemp allies have demanded that Perdue drop out of the race, calling his candidacy an “in-kind donation” to Democrat Stacey Abrams, who faces no primary opposition in her second run for governor.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have chosen not to mention former U.S. Sen. David Perdue during recent campaign appearances.

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

Some senior Republicans worry that the Kemp-Perdue feud will haunt the eventual nominee. Walker, the leading GOP contender in the Senate race, told a group of students that he doesn’t “support either one of them.”

“I’m mad at both of them,” Walker told an audience at the University of North Georgia in a recording obtained by the AJC, adding that he’s worried that “sour grapes” over the outcome could hurt his bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

“And I want to say whoever loses that race — whether it’s Gov. Kemp or Sen. Perdue — he needs to tell his people to go out and vote for the other,” Walker said. “It’s time for you to stop having sour grapes and think about this party.”

Expect Perdue to escalate the fight against Kemp. A recent pro-Perdue survey obtained by the AJC offered a glimpse at his new potential routes of attack.

It tested messages that promised to “take the handcuffs off our police” by boosting law enforcement funding, accused the governor of trying to “rig this year’s election” with a campaign finance overhaul and blasted him for presiding over “highest in the nation inflation.”

His message is intriguing to some former Kemp supporters. Carol Bradshaw, a retiree from Dacula, said Perdue is “winning me over” with his allegiance to Trump.

“To me, this is the start of the 2024 election, and I want to support Trump 100%,” she said.

Likewise, Lynn Garwood of Sandy Springs predicted that Trump’s endorsement will pack a bigger punch than even many of his supporters might expect.

“It’s a stamp of approval for Perdue — like certifying an election,” Garwood said. “Perdue is appealing to conservatives, and it’s going to pay off. It unites us.”