How Brian Kemp’s ‘scorched earth’ strategy burned David Perdue

052422 Atlanta: Governor Brian Kemp reacts to cheering supporters as he take the stage to deliver his election night party speech at the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Atlanta.    “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

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052422 Atlanta: Governor Brian Kemp reacts to cheering supporters as he take the stage to deliver his election night party speech at the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

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David Perdue pledged throughout his short-lived primary challenge that he was only entering the race to unite Republicans. He achieved that goal — except his Donald Trump-backed campaign wound up unifying the GOP behind his rival, Gov. Brian Kemp.

The first-term governor’s blowout victory over Perdue showed the limits of Trump’s influence in Georgia and the perils of challenging an incumbent who unleashed the full powers of his office to bury his GOP adversary.

The results of Tuesday’s primary laid bare how thoroughly Kemp dismantled his rival: He tallied roughly three-quarters of the vote, dominating Perdue in every corner of the state. Not long ago, Perdue scoffed at the prospect of a 30-point defeat. He lost to Kemp by about 50 points.

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Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., takes a selfie with President Donald Trump during the seventh inning of Game 5 of the baseball World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., takes a selfie with President Donald Trump during the seventh inning of Game 5 of the baseball World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., takes a selfie with President Donald Trump during the seventh inning of Game 5 of the baseball World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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Credit: File

By the end of his campaign, even Trump had distanced himself from Perdue as he limped toward the finish line with sparsely attended events featuring fringe GOP figures. Though he’s tried to downplay Perdue’s collapse, it’s a devastating setback for the former president.

Trump did more to support Perdue than any other candidate in the 2022 cycle. He traveled to Georgia for rallies assailing Kemp, directly intervened in down-ticket races to clear a path for Perdue’s challenge, starred in TV and radio ads and approved spending more than $3 million from his PAC to attack the governor.

What happened?

How did Kemp go from getting regularly booed at GOP gatherings to routing his pro-Trump opponent? And how did a name-brand Republican who centered his campaign on allegiance to a former president collapse in such an epic fashion?

The roots of Perdue’s plummet stretch back long before he mused publicly about entering the race. Even as Trump blamed Kemp for his 2020 defeat, the governor and his aides set about rebuilding strained relations with legislators and bolstering his conservative credentials.

Kemp’s advisers got the first inklings that Perdue might run in February 2021, shortly after he lost his U.S. Senate seat to Democrat Jon Ossoff and passed on a comeback bid against U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. When Perdue told Kemp over dinner that he wouldn’t challenge him, the governor’s camp was skeptical.

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Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

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Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

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Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

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Credit: Nathan Posner

It was an awkward moment at the Georgia GOP convention in June that convinced many Kemp loyalists that Perdue’s threat was real. Slated to introduce Kemp, Perdue ended his remarks without a kind word for the governor, who was later heckled by pro-Trump activists.

By the fall, Kemp’s inner circle promised a “scorched earth” campaign against Perdue if he dared launch a challenge. And after he entered the contest in December they delivered on that vow with zeal.

A top priority was to deny Perdue the resources to run a premier campaign. At donor meetings at the Capital City Club and other posh hangouts, heavyweights from Georgia’s disparate GOP factions were pressed to pick a side. Allies of former Gov. Nathan Deal, ex-U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and even Perdue’s extensive family network lined up behind 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 Alec Poitevint, a former Georgia GOP chair and loyal Perdue deputy who broke ties when he challenged Kemp.

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May 5, 2022 Hoschton - Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue talks to his supporters at a campaign event at Sell's Mill Park in Hoschton on Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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May 5, 2022 Hoschton - Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue talks to his supporters at a campaign event at Sell's Mill Park in Hoschton on Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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May 5, 2022 Hoschton - Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue talks to his supporters at a campaign event at Sell's Mill Park in Hoschton on Thursday, May 5, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Without a steady stream of donor dollars, Perdue couldn’t hire veteran operatives, set up sophisticated turnout programs or flood the airwaves with ads. Perdue didn’t help his plight by refusing to dig deeply into a personal fortune worth more than $50 million to finance his run.

A few days before the primary, a senior Perdue aide said the financial woes spelled “game over” for the former senator and described the campaign as running “on a shoestring budget that makes a shoestring look thick.”

‘Unopposed or scared’

But Perdue’s fundraising struggles were just one part of an all-out battle.

Kemp often said that candidates should run either “unopposed or scared” -- and he waged his campaign as if he lived in a haunted house.

The governor quickly set about restoring confidence among conservative voters who, regardless of Perdue’s challenge, fretted about Trump’s claims that Kemp was to blame for his 2020 defeat.

He used Major League Baseball’s decision to pull its All-Star game in protest of Georgia’s election law overhaul to reset the narrative. In the week after that April decision, Kemp conducted 77 media interviews and several in-person events to rally the party faithful.

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Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at a press conference at the Capitol on Saturday, April 3, 2021, as he and his supporters blast Major League Baseball's decision to move the All-Star game from Georgia over the state's new voting law. (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at a press conference at the Capitol on Saturday, April 3, 2021, as he and his supporters blast Major League Baseball's decision to move the All-Star game from Georgia over the state's new voting law. (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at a press conference at the Capitol on Saturday, April 3, 2021, as he and his supporters blast Major League Baseball's decision to move the All-Star game from Georgia over the state's new voting law. (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

It was part of an effort to sharpen Kemp’s image as a conservative warrior, one that was helped by improving relations with legislators.

After an opening legislative session marked by constant bickering with House Speaker David Ralston, Kemp’s new leadership team — including top aide Trey Kilpatrick and deputy Bert Brantley — held weekly meetings with operatives working for Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

The reforged relationship paid off in 2022 with a legislative session that included the entirety of Kemp’s election-year wish list: an aggressive rollback of gun restrictions, an overhaul of education policies designed to energize conservatives, an income tax cut and teacher pay hikes.

The most unlikely of those items was a measure Ralston had long opposed that blocked transgender girls from competing on women’s high school sports teams. The speaker swallowed his opposition to the measure to close off another avenue of attack for Perdue.

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Gov. Brian Kemp, with his wife, Marty, applauds House Speaker Ralston before he signed HB 1013, which aims to increase access to mental health coverage in Georgia on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

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Gov. Brian Kemp, with his wife, Marty, applauds House Speaker Ralston before he signed HB 1013, which aims to increase access to mental health coverage in Georgia on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022.   (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

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Gov. Brian Kemp, with his wife, Marty, applauds House Speaker Ralston before he signed HB 1013, which aims to increase access to mental health coverage in Georgia on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022. (Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com)

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: robert.andres@ajc.com

Kemp used other levers of his office to overwhelm Perdue in the final months of the race.

He maneuvered for a year to help secure the naming of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, Kemp’s political patron and a first cousin of his rival, as chancellor of Georgia’s higher education system in a move that tied himself to the former Trump administration official.

He broke with the conventional process to appoint a protégé of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to Georgia’s highest court. He sealed the two largest economic development projects in state history with headline-grabbing events. He pointedly signed a record tax break in Perdue’s hometown at one of Perdue’s favorite restaurants.

And when Perdue tried to counter Kemp’s announcement Friday of a $5.5 billion Hyundai auto plant in southeast Georgia with his own event in nearby Savannah, the governor’s aides ensured reporters couldn’t cover both by requiring media to check in earlier.

‘Doesn’t mean anything’

By May, the polls showing Kemp with a huge lead also indicated another dynamic: Republican primary voters cared more about beating Democrat Stacey Abrams in November — a feat Kemp had already accomplished once — than supporting Trump.

“I’d do anything to stop Abrams,” said Bryan Walker, a Carrollton mechanic and diehard Trump supporter who begrudgingly backed Kemp. “She’s such a bleeding-heart liberal and so socialist-leaning you can’t help but to hate her.”

Kemp was also helped by unforced errors from a challenger who had no room to blunder. Perdue drew harsh backlash when he characterized a teacher pay raise as “disgusting” and questioned whether the Georgia State Patrol was still an “elite” unit.

And he wagered wrongly that parochial issues, such as a much-maligned push to split Atlanta into two municipalities and local angst about the $5 billion Rivian electric-vehicle plant, would resonate with a wider Republican audience.

His appeals to the far-right turned off even die-hard Trump supporters. Struggling to gain traction, Perdue one-upped Trump’s lies about election fraud by wrongly claiming he defeated Ossoff in 2021. And he egged on Trump supporters as they chanted “lock him up” about imprisoning Kemp.

“I don’t feel like Kemp is a RINO. I feel he’s done a pretty good job,” said Bonnie Bobb, a retired social worker and devoted Trump supporter who nonetheless backed Kemp. “And Trump’s chatter doesn’t really mean anything here.”

As polls and other metrics showed Perdue’s fortunes dimming, Trump tiptoed away from his ally. He downplayed Perdue’s chances in interviews and decided against returning to Georgia for another in-person rally.

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March 26, 2022 Commerce - Herschel Walker, front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, takes a selfie with supporters during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

March 26, 2022 Commerce - Herschel Walker, front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, takes a selfie with supporters during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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March 26, 2022 Commerce - Herschel Walker, front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, takes a selfie with supporters during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Instead, Trump held a conference call that might have done more harm than good to GOP fortunes: He predicted that Republican U.S. Senate nominee Herschel Walker, another Trump-backed candidate, would be doomed if Kemp was at the top of the ticket.

“I don’t believe Republicans are going to go out and vote for Brian Kemp,” he said. “And if they’re not voting for Brian Kemp, they’re not going to be able to vote for Herschel Walker.”

He didn’t ‘take that bait’

As Kemp scaled up his campaign, determined not to give Perdue a glimmer of hope, he became an unlikely savior of old-guard Republicans disgusted by Trump’s sway over the GOP.

In 2018, he was an insurgent Trump-backed challenger scorned by the GOP establishment. Now he was a hero to Trump’s enemies.

Former President George W. Bush donated to his campaign. U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney belittled Perdue’s “absurd” election fraud lies. Former Vice President Mike Pence headlined a primary-eve pro-Kemp rally in Cobb County.

Ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who stumped with Kemp across north Georgia, marveled at the governor’s ability to ignore Trump’s frequent taunts rather than risk further antagonizing him.

“It would be real easy to take that bait,” Christie said at a stop in Canton. “And he has not done it.”

Indeed, Kemp took pains not to further antagonize Trump and often noted he “never said a bad word” about the former president.

“I’m not mad at him. I think he’s just mad at me. And that’s something that I can’t control,” Kemp said. “But I know this I’m inviting anybody out there that wants to help my campaign and help us defeat Stacey Abrams.”

Now Kemp readies for a rematch against Abrams hardened by a primary fight that might have helped him more than it hurt him.

Compared with Perdue, Kemp might now seem more moderate to middle-of-the road voters, said veteran Republican operative Chip Lake.

“As painful and as expensive as this has been for Brian Kemp, it will end up being helpful for the Republican Party,” Lake said.

“It will be impossible for Stacey to blindly tie him to Trump. And it makes him more mainstream in an election cycle that already favors Republicans.”

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10/23/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams and Republican candidate Brian Kemp greet each other before a live taping of the 2018 Gubernatorial debate for the Atlanta Press Club at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studio in Atlanta, Tuesday, October 23, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

10/23/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams and Republican candidate Brian Kemp greet each other before a live taping of the 2018 Gubernatorial debate for the Atlanta Press Club at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studio in Atlanta, Tuesday, October 23, 2018.  (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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10/23/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams and Republican candidate Brian Kemp greet each other before a live taping of the 2018 Gubernatorial debate for the Atlanta Press Club at the Georgia Public Broadcasting studio in Atlanta, Tuesday, October 23, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer