In Georgia, Pence and Trump split dominates final clash over governor race

Former Vice President Mike Pence headlines the get-out-the-vote rally with Governor Brian Kemp on the eve of Georgia’s primary at the Cobb County International Airport on Monday, May 23, 2022, in Kennesaw.    “Curtis Compton /”

Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

Former Vice President Mike Pence headlines the get-out-the-vote rally with Governor Brian Kemp on the eve of Georgia’s primary at the Cobb County International Airport on Monday, May 23, 2022, in Kennesaw. “Curtis Compton /”

Georgia’s Republican battle for governor between incumbent Brian Kemp and David Perdue headed for the finish line Monday with an emerging proxy battle between Donald Trump and his former running mate that played out in Atlanta’s northern suburbs.

Trailing badly in the polls, Perdue lashed out at the “fake news media,” Republicans who refuse to back his campaign and Democrat Stacey Abrams in a final pre-primary press conference at a Wild Wing Café in Dunwoody as Trump predicted a “big, big surprise” Tuesday.

“David is the only candidate who can beat Stacey Abrams because I don’t believe Kemp can do it,” said Trump, who blames the governor for not doing enough to overturn his 2020 defeat in Georgia. “He’s got too many people in the Republican Party that will refuse to vote. They’re just not going to go out after what he did to two senators and to a presidential election.”

A confident Kemp arrived to rally with hundreds of cheering supporters at an airfield in Kennesaw, where former Vice President Mike Pence proclaimed that the governor is the “only candidate in this race who has defeated Stacey Abrams — whether she knows it or not.”

And both candidates united to condemn the Democrat, who over the weekend told a gathering of Gwinnett County supporters that Georgia was “the worst state in the country to live” before referencing high incarceration and maternal mortality rates.

The dueling political events on the eve of Tuesday’s primary show how Georgia’s campaign for governor is also deepening divides within the GOP that could echo throughout the 2024 campaign for the White House.

Pence’s endorsement of Kemp is his most significant break yet with the former president and another signal that he’s laying the groundwork for a presidential run — potentially against his former boss.

And Pence’s public proxy war with Trump comes as Kemp threatens to derail the former president’s revenge tour against Republicans who refused to overturn the election results.

Perdue tried to end on a feisty note, sparring with reporters over coverage of Trump’s role in his campaign. He challenged polls conducted by Fox News and other outlets and said he won’t necessarily accept the results of the election.

“Depends on if there’s fraud or not,” Perdue said, shortly before joining far-right radio host John Fredericks in a live interview with Trump before a cramped crowd of supporters at the Dunwoody eatery.

Later, he accused Abrams of “demeaning her own race” because of a push to broaden economic opportunities for struggling Georgians.

Trump also urged his most loyal backers to ignore the polls and acknowledge that the race is “much closer than the fake news wants you to believe.”

He said he would continue to work to unseat Kemp, who sits atop a lengthy list of GOP officials the former president blamed for his defeat to Democrat Joe Biden. And he said he was “disappointed” in Pence’s decision to endorse his political enemy.

Pence is one of a wave of Trump critics who have flocked to Kemp’s banner to punish the former president. Once an insurgent outsider, the governor has become an unlikely hero to old-guard Republicans disgusted with Trump’s sway over the GOP.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie traveled the state with Kemp last week. Former President George W. Bush is among the donors to Kemp’s campaign this month.

Saying he was “with Brian Kemp before it was cool,” Pence invoked a friendship with the governor that dates to 2018. And he warned repeatedly of a “tidal wave of left-wing policies” that Abrams and Biden have promoted.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” he said. “And Georgia has an opportunity to set the course for America back to freedom and opportunity.”

In an interview before the rally, Pence downplayed talk of a budding rivalry between him and his former political patron.

“This is all about making sure that we keep Georgia on the track of growth and opportunities and that Georgia has the kind of leadership that says no to the radical left policies that are dominating Washington,” Pence said.

As he typically does, Kemp delivered his stump speech heavy on references to his conservative track record — and no mention of Trump.

At an earlier press conference, Kemp maintained he has no beef with the former president, whose supporters would form the backbone of a GOP coalition he’ll need to win in November.

“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.”