Revenge of the establishment? Trump’s GOP critics rally behind Kemp

Gov. Brian Kemp campaigns Saturday with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and members of his family in Sandy Springs. Greg Bluestein/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp campaigns Saturday with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and members of his family in Sandy Springs. Greg Bluestein/AJC

Donald Trump’s name wasn’t uttered by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey as he touted Brian Kemp’s “steel spine” at a weekend campaign stop.

Nor did it come up when Georgia’s Republican governor talked of “very important people” who opposed his decision to reopen the state’s economy early in the coronavirus pandemic.

But the former president has remained an unspoken specter in the closing days of the May 24 campaign, as mainstream GOP figures on Trump’s bad side rally behind Kemp’s final push to defeat former U.S. Sen David Perdue.

And Kemp, who with Trump’s help won his insurgent campaign for governor against a party favorite in 2018, has emerged as an unlikely hero of the GOP establishment four years later as he races to fend off Perdue’s Trump-backed challenge.

Kemp’s stop Saturday in Sandy Springs, a longtime conservative bastion that flipped during Trump’s rise to power, illustrated the party’s internal fissures as the governor surrounded himself with others who have drawn the former president’s fury.

Attorney General Chris Carr, who has drawn a Trump-backed rival, gave a spirited introduction outside the Sandy Springs City Hall. Insurance Commissioner John King, also disavowed by the former president, received an ovation from the crowd. And Ducey quickly picked up on Kemp’s favorite attack line.

“Who better to be the nominee of the Republican Party for the state of Georgia than the only person in this race who has already defeated Stacey Abrams?” said Ducey who, like Kemp, incensed Trump for refusing to illegally overturn Joe Biden’s victory in his own state in 2020.

‘Victory Island’

Many top Georgia Republicans — including several of Perdue’s close allies — sided with Kemp early in the contest. But the rush to back Kemp has accelerated as the governor pulls away in public polls and leverages his enormous fundraising advantage.

“When you’re cruising to Victory Island,” veteran GOP strategist Brian Robinson said, “you find lots of folks wash up on shore.”

The governor’s list of mainline GOP supporters now includes former President George W. Bush, who donated to his campaign this month, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who mocked Trump for his 2020 defeat after the ex-president criticized his plans to campaign for Kemp.

U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, an outspoken Trump critic, told CNN that Perdue’s embrace of Trump’s election fraud conspiracy theory is “absurd.” Locally, House Speaker David Ralston, once a fierce Kemp rival, endorsed the governor last week as he signed the state budget in the speaker’s hometown.

But the biggest symbol of the growing rift between Trump loyalists and the more traditional GOP base came Friday when former Vice President Mike Pence announced a rally for Kemp on the eve of the runoff. It was Pence’s most significant split yet from his former political boss.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, left, became the most recent member of the GOP establishment to back Gov. Brian Kemp. It's Pence's most significant split yet with his onetime boss, former President Donald Trump, who encouraged former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to launch a primary challenge against Kemp. (Photo: JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

Credit: John Spink/AJC

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Credit: John Spink/AJC

There are drawbacks to Kemp’s alliance with Trump’s favorite GOP foes, as some of the governor’s loyalists fret it could risk further antagonizing Trump and his supporters. Polls show likely Georgia GOP primary voters hold Trump in high regard — and many say his endorsement remains influential.

The former president predicted a “backlash” as he blasted Ducey and Christie as phony Republicans. He was more muted in his criticism of his vice president’s decision.

“Mike is trying to get involved, and he’s a very nice man, but he really let us all down. He let us down,” Trump told far-right radio show host John Fredericks hours after Pence’s endorsement emerged.

‘Really surging?’

With double-digit deficits in the polls and no resources for a sustained media blitz, Perdue’s only shot is to keep Kemp under the majority-vote mark in a five-candidate field. That would force a June runoff that would reset the race.

Perdue’s camp is clinging to hopes that early voting numbers indicating higher turnout from atypical midterm voters give him an outside shot of depriving Kemp of an outright win.

Trump, too, maintained that Perdue is “really surging” and promised he’ll “get there early” to a Georgia rally to support the Republican if there’s a runoff. Even Perdue’s closest allies, though, privately acknowledge his chances are slim.

The governor and his supporters, who promised a “scorched earth” campaign against Perdue long before he entered the race, aren’t letting up. Asked whether he worried his intervention could provoke a pro-Trump backlash, Ducey sounded unconcerned.

“This election is about the people of Georgia,” the Arizona Republican said. “Brian Kemp is the incumbent governor. He’s navigated through Georgia through the last 31/2 years masterfully, and I think the people are going to speak out.”

Kemp stuck to his strategy of focusing on Abrams — and avoiding mention of Trump or Perdue — even as he nodded to the former president’s sharp criticism of his April 2020 decision to allow some shuttered businesses to open their doors.

“We’re fighting the whole country in this governor’s race right here,” Kemp said of the help from Trump’s GOP enemies. “Doug Ducey knows that. All these other people know that.”