Vernon Jones abandons bid for governor to run for US House seat

The former Democrat endorsed David Perdue

Former Democrat Vernon Jones dropped out of the Republican race for governor Monday to run for an open U.S. House seat, a move that gives ex-U.S. Sen. David Perdue a clearer shot at the state’s top job and provides yet another test of Donald Trump’s influence in Georgia.

Jones punctuated his long-expected decision to switch races with an endorsement of Perdue, a Trump-backed candidate who contends he’s the only Republican who can defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.

An also-ran with no credible path to win the race for governor, Jones trailed both Perdue and incumbent Brian Kemp in fundraising and public polls despite his attempts to rebrand himself as a Trump loyalist.

But even a sliver of support for Jones in the May 24 GOP primary could have weakened Perdue, who is trying to unite Trump’s backers by pointing to Kemp’s refusal to illegally overturn the then-president’s election defeat.

Jones is entering the race for the vacant 10th District, a solidly Republican district in northeast Georgia. The seat was left open after U.S. Rep. Jody Hice announced he would challenge Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger with Trump’s support.

Once the former chief executive of DeKalb County, the state’s most important Democratic stronghold, Jones has recently tried to align himself with U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other far-right members of Congress who have alienated many with their extreme views.

When he was a Democrat, Jones waged failed bids for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House and DeKalb County sheriff.

It’s unclear whether Jones’ run for Congress will have Trump’s blessing, though the candidate’s website claims he’s “Trump Tried Tested and Endorsed.” Ahead of the announcement, Jones visited the former president in Florida and sent tweets advocating for “America First” federal lawmakers.

“I believe that strong conservative voices need to be heard as we lead America into the future,” Jones said. “Because of this decision, I am officially withdrawing my candidacy for governor effective today and will be supporting David Perdue for governor.”

A controversial record

Even if he wins Trump’s endorsement, Jones faces stiff competition in the 10th District, a seat that stretches across a mostly rural slice of northeast Georgia.

About a dozen candidates are already in the race, and the front-runner is Republican Mike Collins, who narrowly lost to Hice in the 2014 GOP runoff. A recent poll showed Collins, the son of former U.S. Rep. Mac Collins, with a commanding lead — and Jones in the single digits.

Other contenders include Patrick Witt, an ex-Trump administration official who recently boasted of winning the endorsement of the former president’s legal team; former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun; state Rep. Timothy Barr, who has Hice’s blessing; and David Curry, a former state revenue commissioner.

Credit: JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

Credit: JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL

He would have found equally forbidding territory if he had entered the race for the 6th District, a mostly suburban stretch north of Atlanta populated by Republicans who remember Jones’ long tenure as a Democrat in the Legislature and in DeKalb County government.

Jones’ GOP opponents are certain to paint him as an opportunist former Democrat with a long liberal voting record as a state legislator and top executive of Georgia’s bluest county.

Among the decisions that could come back to haunt him, Jones voted against the anti-abortion measure that Kemp signed into law in 2019.

Jones could also face questions about allegations of sexual assault that he has denied. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution examination of Jones’ record showed he has been repeatedly accused of intimidating and harassing women in his personal and professional lives.

A political shift

The notion that the former Democrat is even a credible contender for the solidly Republican district is a testament to Trump’s staying power in Georgia GOP politics.

Once a pariah as a Democratic legislator, Jones underwent a political metamorphosis after he endorsed Trump in early 2020. He began rubbing shoulders with state GOP officials who once shunned him, landed a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention and crowd-surfed at Trump rallies.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Jones, too, embraced Trump’s lies about a “rigged” election, appearing at rallies with disgraced attorney Lin Wood and others who promoted conspiracy theories about the vote. Multiple recounts, judicial rulings and bipartisan officials have confirmed Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump in Georgia.

Perdue’s camp welcomed Jones’ flip to a new race, which gives the former U.S. senator a chance to unify Trump supporters behind his banner.

With about 10% support in a recent Quinnipiac poll of the contest, Jones’ devoted core of far-right Trump loyalists could have been enough to hurt Perdue’s chances against Kemp. That same poll showed Perdue trailing Kemp by about 7%.

“Vernon Jones is a conservative patriot who cares deeply about Georgia,” Perdue said. “We need his voice and we need him in the fight. I’m proud to have his support of our Trump-endorsed campaign.”

Staying in the race could have also guaranteed a June runoff by making it harder for any candidate to win the nomination outright. That gave Jones leverage to seek a promise of support from Trump for another contest if he got out of the governor’s primary.

Kemp’s campaign scoffed at Perdue for embracing a “corrupt former Democrat” with a long history of allegations of sexual misconduct.

“Vernon’s support for Perdue makes sense,” Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said. “Both have a history of paying lip service to the America First movement — and putting their own egos and wallets ahead of what’s best for the people of Georgia.”

As Georgia political circles buzzed with the Republican back-and-forth, Abrams and her allies continued a strategy of trying to stay above the fray.

“The Republican primary is now a two-candidate race of David Perdue and Brian Kemp, whose nasty fight will do nothing to help our state,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ campaign manager. “As Kemp and Perdue fight each other, Stacey Abrams will be fighting for Georgia.”