Gov. Brian Kemp demolished former U.S. Sen. David Perdue to score a GOP primary victory that showed the limits of Donald Trump’s endorsement in Georgia and set up a rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.

The first-term Republican easily fended off a challenge from Perdue, who entered the race with Trump’s blessing but struggled to win the former president’s ardent supporters despite a campaign message that centered on his falsehoods about voter fraud in the 2020 election.

The governor leveraged the powers of incumbency to thwart Perdue, who echoed Trump’s efforts to paint Kemp as insufficiently conservative. Kemp signed legislation atop the GOP wish list that cut taxes, rolled back gun restrictions and brought culture wars to the classrooms.

And Kemp drew support from establishment figures and Trump’s former allies in the closing weeks of the race, culminating with a Monday pre-primary rally headlined by former Vice President Mike Pence. Even some of Perdue’s most trusted deputies when he was in the Senate sided with Kemp.

“I want to be crystal clear with all of you here tonight: Our battle is far from over,” Kemp said. “Tonight the fight for the soul of our state begins to make sure Stacey Abrams isn’t going to be our next governor or our president.”

It was an epic collapse for Perdue, a former CEO who scaled back his campaign as chances of squeaking into a June runoff in the five-candidate race narrowed. Even Trump downplayed Perdue’s chances while warning the Georgia GOP is doomed with Kemp atop the ticket.

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David Perdue concedes the primary Republican Governor’s race to Brian Kemp during his election party on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. Perdue waged a challenge to unseat the governor at the urging for former President Donald Trump. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

David Perdue concedes the primary Republican Governor’s race to Brian Kemp during his election party on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.  Perdue waged a challenge to unseat the governor at the urging for former President Donald Trump. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
David Perdue concedes the primary Republican Governor’s race to Brian Kemp during his election party on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. Perdue waged a challenge to unseat the governor at the urging for former President Donald Trump. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

During a short speech while surrounded by dejected supporters, Perdue conceded defeat and pledged to support Kemp in the November election.

“I am fully supporting Brian Kemp,” he said. “Tomorrow morning you are going to hear me going to work, to go to work to make damn sure Stacey Abrams is not the next governor of Georgia.”

It was also a blow to Trump, who put Kemp atop his revenge list after blaming the governor for his 2020 election defeat in Georgia to Democrat Joe Biden. He pleaded with Perdue to challenge Kemp, saying at a September rally in Perry that he’d rather Abrams win than see the governor reelected.

A November redux

The governor will now focus on a rematch with Abrams that he has expected since the end of a 2018 campaign that culminated with the Democrat’s refusal to concede to Kemp even as she acknowledged that the Republican would be governor.

Since that famous nonconcession speech, Abrams has prepared to tangle once more with Kemp. She built the powerful Fair Fight Action political organization that promoted voting rights, lobbied for Medicaid expansion, and courted donors and key political figures to advocate other policy priorities.

And she refused entreaties from senior Democrats to run for the U.S. Senate so she could take another shot at toppling Kemp. Now a fundraising dynamo with a national following, Abrams quickly narrowed Kemp’s financial edge after entering the race in December.

The Democrat has revived many of her core issues from the 2018 campaign, starting with a vow to work with the Republican-led Legislature to expand Medicaid. She also promised to increase school funding, enact new gun restrictions and build a more equitable economy.

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Stacey Abrams talks at a press conference Tuesday at Israel Baptist Church in Atlanta. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Stacey Abrams talks at a press conference Tuesday at Israel Baptist Church in Atlanta. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Stacey Abrams talks at a press conference Tuesday at Israel Baptist Church in Atlanta. (Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

And she’s brought more attention to a pledge to protect abortion rights after the leak of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion suggested the impending demise of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

The party’s successes in Georgia’s last election, when Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state since 1992 and Ossoff and Raphael Warnock swept runoffs that flipped control of the Senate, has only solidified her ambition.

“When people win, they start to believe that winning is not a fluke, it’s inevitable,” Abrams said in an interview. “And what I’m seeing on the ground as I go around the state is more people who believe we can win, who believe that Democrats are on the ascendancy.”