David Perdue’s challenge fractures powerful family political machine

Former Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, center, and onetime Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue sit on top of what has been the state's most powerful political machine. But David Perdue's challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp's bid for reelection in the May 24 GOP primary has divided some of the family's leading loyalists.

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Former Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, center, and onetime Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue sit on top of what has been the state's most powerful political machine. But David Perdue's challenge against Gov. Brian Kemp's bid for reelection in the May 24 GOP primary has divided some of the family's leading loyalists.

Credit: EPA

The Perdue network was once the most formidable political operation in Georgia. But former U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp has fractured the powerful family’s longtime loyalists.

At least four key allies of the Perdue family political machine are openly backing Kemp, while many others are pointedly staying on the sidelines ahead of the May 24 matchup between the former friends.

And the highest-profile member of the clan, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, is likely to stay neutral over his first cousin’s challenge after he was appointed the chancellor of Georgia’s higher education system at Kemp’s urging.

The rift showcases the bitter and sometimes emotional fissures within the state GOP after David Perdue challenged the first lifelong Republican governor in state history, sparking an internal firefight that Democrat Stacey Abrams hopes will boost her chances in November.

It also puts on display the friction in a sprawling network that held immense power in both Atlanta and Washington in its heyday.

The machine helped Sonny Perdue win two terms as governor in the 2000s and David Perdue capture a U.S. Senate seat in 2014. And key Perdue loyalists secured high-profile positions in state politics and the White House.

At times, Perdue allies served as leaders of the Georgia GOP, the Republican Governors Association and held prominent roles at the Republican National Committee and in Donald Trump’s administration.

Sonny Perdue and his allies ensured that Trump endorsed Kemp six days before the 2018 Republican runoff, turbocharging his runaway victory over a GOP rival who was once favored to win the nomination.

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Alec Poitevint was Sonny Perdue's campaign chairman, and he helped David Perdue in his two U.S. Senate races. But Poitevint is siding with Gov. Brian Kemp in his showdown with David Perdue in the May 24 GOP primary.

Credit: PAUL VIDELA / BRADENTON (FLA.) HERALD

Alec Poitevint was Sonny Perdue's campaign chairman, and he helped David Perdue in his two U.S. Senate races. But Poitevint is siding with Gov. Brian Kemp in his showdown with David Perdue in the May 24 GOP primary.

Credit: PAUL VIDELA / BRADENTON (FLA.) HERALD

Combined ShapeCaption
Alec Poitevint was Sonny Perdue's campaign chairman, and he helped David Perdue in his two U.S. Senate races. But Poitevint is siding with Gov. Brian Kemp in his showdown with David Perdue in the May 24 GOP primary.

Credit: PAUL VIDELA / BRADENTON (FLA.) HERALD

Credit: PAUL VIDELA / BRADENTON (FLA.) HERALD

Alec Poitevint has long been at the center of the Perdue network. A former Georgia GOP chairman, he was Sonny Perdue’s campaign chairman and an important David Perdue deputy in 2014 and 2020. But Poitevint broke ties with David Perdue when he challenged Kemp.

“These are two people I have great respect for, but I believe Brian has done a very good job and is worthy of reelection,” said Poitevint, who said the governor is following the first-term plan he helped prepare while serving on Kemp’s transition team in 2018.

“This is a difficult situation,” Poitevint added, “but this is my path.”

‘Feeling conflicted’

Perhaps no moment highlighted the network’s divide as much as what unfolded Tuesday, when Kemp’s plan to ensure Sonny Perdue became the next higher education chancellor was finalized just before David Perdue held a rally opposing an economic development deal that the governor championed.

As Poitevint and others in the family’s network celebrated Kemp’s efforts to put Sonny Perdue in the powerful post, David Perdue was in Rutledge accusing the governor of ignoring grassroots conservatives to further his reelection campaign.

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The group of family loyalists who back Kemp include John Watson, who served as Sonny Perdue’s top aide and former Georgia GOP chairman; and Eric Tanenblatt, who was also the chief of staff for Sonny Perdue.

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Nick Ayers, left, and Derrick Dickey are shown working in May 2006 in Gov. Sonny Perdue's campaign headquarters. Dickey later went on to lead David Perdue's campaign for the U.S. Senate and then served as his chief of staff. But he's now working with an outside group that is backing Gov. Brian Kemp over David Perdue in the May 24 GOP primary. Ayers is believed to be siding with David Perdue. (LOUIE FAVORITE/AJC staff)

Credit: LOUIE FAVORITE

Nick Ayers, left, and Derrick Dickey are shown working in May 2006 in Gov. Sonny Perdue's campaign headquarters. Dickey later went on to lead David Perdue's campaign for the U.S. Senate and then served as his chief of staff. But he's now working with an outside group that is backing Gov. Brian Kemp over David Perdue in the May 24 GOP primary. Ayers is believed to be siding with David Perdue. (LOUIE FAVORITE/AJC staff)

Credit: LOUIE FAVORITE

Combined ShapeCaption
Nick Ayers, left, and Derrick Dickey are shown working in May 2006 in Gov. Sonny Perdue's campaign headquarters. Dickey later went on to lead David Perdue's campaign for the U.S. Senate and then served as his chief of staff. But he's now working with an outside group that is backing Gov. Brian Kemp over David Perdue in the May 24 GOP primary. Ayers is believed to be siding with David Perdue. (LOUIE FAVORITE/AJC staff)

Credit: LOUIE FAVORITE

Credit: LOUIE FAVORITE

But the most surprising name in Kemp’s camp might be Derrick Dickey, one of the state’s most influential political consultants.

He was an adviser to Sonny Perdue and helped mastermind David Perdue’s U.S. Senate run. Later, he served as Perdue’s chief of staff in the Senate. Now, he’s helping an outside group devoted to Kemp’s reelection.

“I supported Brian Kemp the first time he beat Stacey Abrams, and I’ll be with him the next time he does it,” Dickey said.

“If I ever catch myself feeling conflicted about sticking with him in the primary,” Dickey said, “I just imagine what Georgia would have been like if Stacey Abrams was in charge during the pandemic, and then I thank God we have a fighter like Gov. Kemp.”

‘Awkward’

There are financial and political reasons for the former Perdue stalwarts to back an incumbent who isn’t reluctant to use his sweeping authorities to stay in power.

“Kemp has been careful not to make enemies unless he absolutely has to do it,” said Neill Herring, a longtime lobbyist and Capitol observer.

ExploreWhy Brian Kemp backs Sonny Perdue's push for chancellor

“That’s made it easier for the Sonny Perdue apparatchiks to side with him. The natural inclination is always to lean toward power, and David Perdue has none of it.”

Several other family loyalists are sticking with David Perdue, including Austin Chambers, a political consultant who once helmed the Republican State Leadership Committee and is now one of the ex-senator’s top campaign strategists.

Nick Ayers, a Perdue cousin and onetime chief of staff to then-Vice President Mike Pence, didn’t comment but is believed to also be supportive of David Perdue.

Kemp’s camp has had defections, too. Heath Thompson, who dreamed up many of the provocative ads that drew national attention during Kemp’s 2018 campaign, is now Perdue’s media guru. Others with close ties to both Republicans insist on staying neutral.

David Perdue has acknowledged the “awkward position” caused by the strained family ties. But he’s framed his campaign as a movement that can rise above the divisions ignited by his candidacy.

“I hated politics. I got in this race because I wanted to change the direction of the country,” Perdue said at a recent stop. “I’m one of you. I’m an outsider in this process. But together, we can take power back.”