With a pledge to unite fractured Republicans, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue launched a primary challenge Monday against Gov. Brian Kemp that will shape the GOP’s direction in Georgia and define the extent of Donald Trump’s influence across the nation.
The former president soon endorsed Perdue, who cast himself as a reluctant Republican savior who entered the race because he’s convinced Kemp would lose to Democrat Stacey Abrams next year and end the GOP’s 20-year grip on Georgia’s top office.
In a video message, Perdue took aim at the Democratic star, framing himself as the only candidate who can “make sure Stacey Abrams is never governor of Georgia.” His decision to challenge Kemp, he added, “isn’t personal — it’s simple. He’s failed us and cannot win in November.”
The opening salvo also pillories Kemp for his refusal to take steps to overturn the former president’s November 2020 defeat in Georgia, which made him the first GOP presidential candidate to lose the state since 1992. Kemp, he said, “caved” to Abrams and other Democrats.
“Think about how different it would be today if Kemp had fought Abrams first instead of fighting Trump,” Perdue said in the video. “Kemp caved before the election, and the country is paying the price today.”
He added: “It’s time for a change. If our governor was ever going to fight for us, wouldn’t he have done it already?”
It’s a line of attack Kemp has long contested, saying that heeding Trump’s calls for a special legislative session to overturn the election would have violated the law, triggered “endless” litigation and distracted from the January runoffs that decided control of the U.S. Senate.
Trump zeroes in on Georgia
The contest between the two rivals promises to be caustic and costly, dividing the state GOP at a time when Democrats are unified behind Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, a top target of Republicans on a quest to retake control of the Senate.
It will also sharpen the battles that have raged among Republicans in Georgia and across the nation since the 2020 election over Trump’s insistence on payback for officials who denied his false assertions that fraud and a “rigged” election doomed his chances for a second term.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Trump has appeared more intent on reshaping Georgia’s elections than any other state. He’s held three rallies here since his election defeat and backed a slate of Republican candidates who vouched for his groundless claims of election fraud.
That growing list includes U.S. Senate candidate Herschel Walker, a former Georgia football star and long-standing Trump friend; state Sen. Burt Jones, who is competing to succeed Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, an outspoken Trump critic; and U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who is aiming to unseat Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, known for defying Trump’s demand to “find” votes to erase his defeat.
In a statement late Monday, Trump called Kemp a “very weak governor” who has lost the confidence of the GOP base. And he predicted that Perdue and Walker would make an “unstoppable team” in November 2022.
“Trump supporters will turn out to vote for these great leaders in big numbers,” he wrote. “David Perdue has my complete and total endorsement. He will not let you down!”
With his public embrace of Perdue and disavowal of Kemp, the former president is putting his political capital on the line in a race where there’s no clear frontrunner.
Perdue, a former Fortune 500 chief executive, branded himself a jean-jacketed “outsider” businessman during his 2014 run for the U.S. Senate, besting better-known Republican rivals before coasting to victory in the general election.
But he lost a bitterly contested Senate runoff earlier this year to Jon Ossoff, who portrayed the Republican as a corrupt Trump rubber-stamper who was so afraid of his Democratic challenger that he ducked multiple debates.
Kemp’s campaign and its allies have pushed similar attacks this week while also tying Perdue to rising inflation and “runaway spending” that Republicans typically blame on President Joe Biden’s administration. Perdue’s defeat, Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said, paved the way for Biden’s “dangerous agenda.”
Perdue issued little in the way of policy statements, beyond broad plans to “take charge of our schools,” bolster public safety and eliminate the state income tax. About half of the state’s revenue — roughly $14 billion — was generated by personal income taxes during the past fiscal year, and Perdue offered no plan on how to replace it.
He also suggested that Kemp worked with Abrams on a legal settlement that required voters be quickly notified when election officials reject their absentee ballots and encouraged election staffers to double-check with their peers before rejecting ballots because of potential signature mismatches.
Neither Abrams nor Kemp was involved in the settlement, which was between the secretary of state’s office and the Democratic Party of Georgia. After the settlement, the rate of absentee ballot rejections because of signature issues remained similar in 2020 when compared to the previous two general elections.
Several other Republicans are also in the race, including former Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones, who unsuccessfully lobbied for Trump’s endorsement.
Some antsy Georgia Republican leaders predict the infighting will clear the way for Abrams, a national voting rights advocate who has built a sprawling political organization since her 2018 defeat. Abrams entered the race last week, and her announcement prompted Perdue to enter the race weeks before his aides initially expected.
A repeat of this year’s runoffs, they warn, would be ruinous for Republicans desperate to rebound in the next election.
“The time to show concern for the party was during the January runoff,” said Jay Morgan, a former state GOP executive director. “Perdue refused to tell Trump the truth, so why should anyone believe him now?”
Democrats sense an opportunity to exploit the growing Republican divide. Scott Hogan of the Democratic Party of Georgia said the ugly GOP primary will only underscore his party’s unity.
“No matter who emerges from Republicans’ messy, race-to-the-right gubernatorial primary,” he said, “voters know that Democrats are the only ones who will deliver on the issues Georgians care about, like recovering from COVID-19 and expanding access to health care.”
Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com