Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is seriously considering mounting a Republican primary challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp, according to a number of GOP activists and operatives, which would set up a divisive showdown between two of Georgia’s biggest political figures in the 2022 election.
In recent weeks, Perdue has called donors and other allies to float the idea, according to eight people who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters. Several of them said he’s “conflicted” about a run, while others say he’s leaning toward a challenge.
Perdue has kept quiet publicly about his plans, and he declined to comment. But he remains close to former President Donald Trump, who encouraged the former U.S. senator to run at a rally in Middle Georgia in September. Trump’s allies also recently leaked polls that show Perdue in a strong position.
The biggest question is whether the 71-year-old is motivated to take on Kemp after narrowly losing a January U.S. Senate runoff to Jon Ossoff. Perdue ruled out a comeback bid against Democrat Raphael Warnock but hasn’t yet backed Kemp’s reelection after initial indications he would do so. Meanwhile, he’s building a new estate in coastal Georgia.
Perdue has played into the speculation he would run for governor by appearing at a range of recent grassroots events. His allies have also leaked word of visits with Trump, including a two-day trip to Florida last weekend that involved a round of golf.
A close ally of Perdue’s said he hasn’t yet made up his mind but that he is open to the idea.
“There are always rumors. The only thing that has changed is a whole lot of people are reaching out and asking David to run, and President Trump is of course very supportive of the idea,” the Perdue confidante said.
“Right now, David and Bonnie are enjoying their life, but they are praying about the future and not closing any doors,” the confidante said.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
The former president has remained one of Kemp’s loudest critics, even saying at his Sept. 25 rally that he regretted endorsing the governor in 2018 and that he wished Democrat Stacey Abrams had won the tight race instead. If Perdue runs, his allies say, Trump is expected to quickly endorse him.
Kemp’s campaign has closely monitored the latest rumors about Perdue, mining activists and operatives for hints about the former senator’s decision. Kemp has also told supporters he will stay in the race regardless of Perdue’s move.
Kemp campaign spokesman Tate Mitchell said in a statement that the governor and his wife, Marty, “proudly campaigned hard” for Perdue throughout the 2020 election cycle and suggested a primary challenge would be a betrayal.
“Both the governor and the first lady were honored when Sen. Perdue told them personally that he would fully support their campaign for reelection earlier this year,” he said.
The governor already faces Republican challenges from several pro-Trump contenders, including former Democrat Vernon Jones. But none would present the threat that Perdue would pose to his reelection chances.
“There are many Georgia Republican voters looking for another candidate for governor. And this will give those wavering Kemp supporters an out,” said Brian Pritchard, a conservative activist and commentator in North Georgia.
“Many people are telling me they want someone else,” Pritchard said. “And Perdue could be that candidate.”
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 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.
He is also 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.
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 recently had positive words for Kemp, telling a crowd of activists in Perry to show the governor “respect and honor because it’s a tough job.”
Kemp will be a formidable 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 raising nearly $12 million for his re-election bid in July, the most recent financial deadline, and posted about $9.2 million in cash on hand. And legislation he recently signed allows him to set up funds that can collect unlimited contributions from donors for a 2022 campaign.
A Perdue campaign would raise alarms in both Atlanta and Washington about deepening a divide in the state GOP ahead of a tough 2022 election for Republican candidates. Georgia voted Democratic in a presidential race last year for the first time since 1992 and flipped two U.S. Senate seats.
Abrams has built a powerful political organization since her defeat, and she’s expected to mount a rematch against Kemp next year with a united Democratic Party behind her. No other Democrat has yet entered the contest.
One Perdue ally familiar with his thinking said Abrams is a motivating factor in his decision. That person said Perdue would only run if he felt Kemp was so politically damaged that he couldn’t defeat Abrams in November.
The Republican Governors Association indicated it has no such concern. In a statement, spokeswoman Maddie Anderson said the powerful group would defend Kemp.
Said Anderson: “The RGA supports its Republican incumbents”