The Georgia GOP ‘civil war’ in 2022 might be over

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Just a few months ago, Gov. Brian Kemp’s biggest political challenge might have hinged on whether he could win over the fractious Republican base amid an onslaught of insults from former President Donald Trump.

Now the bigger question might be whether he’ll earn more votes from Republicans than just about any other candidate on the ballot.

With the governor facing steady and heavy criticism from Trump and a formidable primary challenge from David Perdue, Kemp’s loyalists prepared for a drawn-out battle for GOP votes that they feared would weaken whoever emerged in a general election matchup against Stacey Abrams.

But after humiliating Perdue in May, the Trump-fueled rift within the state GOP appears to be on the mend. The former president has eased off his attacks against Kemp at the urging of intermediaries close to both the governor and Trump’s inner circle.’

And the governor’s plea to circle the wagons and unite against Abrams has gained traction among conservatives.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released last week is the latest to confirm that trend. It showed about 93% of Republicans support Kemp’s reelection bid — roughly the same proportion that Abrams, perhaps her party’s best-known figure, tallied from Democrats.

It was only the latest in a string of polls and data that showed Kemp with a small lead over Abrams after a bruising primary against Perdue that some Republicans worried would leave Kemp weakened in a rematch against the Democrat.

The dynamic sets Georgia apart from other states, where Trump-fueled divisions are raising concerns that otherwise vulnerable Democrats may fend off challenges from far-right candidates backed by the former president.

In Georgia’s governor race, by contrast, Kemp has a single-digit advantage over Abrams in most public polls, leading the Democrat’s campaign to position her as an underdog despite a whopping financial advantage and name recognition on par with the incumbent.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused Trump’s demand to reverse the election, has an even bigger edge over state Rep. Bee Nguyen, his Democratic opponent.

And GOP leaders in Georgia and Washington are more worried about the fate of Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, who narrowly trails U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, than Kemp.

“The civil war is over,” said John Beville, an east Cobb County Republican who was a key Perdue ally in the Atlanta suburbs.

“I’m coming back to support our candidate,” Beville said. “He’s 10,000 times better than Abrams. I’ve seen nothing in her agenda or history that would give me any reason to want her to be governor.”

‘Lockstep’

If the trend holds, it could vindicate the governor’s approach to a former president who once made defeating Kemp one of his top priorities — and whose angry attacks once sparked activists to shower the governor with boos at party gatherings.

Careful not to alienate die-hard Trump supporters, Kemp avoided bashing the ex-president even as Trump dragged his name through the mud and blamed him for his 2020 defeat.

“Kemp slayed the giant by not fighting it,” said Dan McLagan, a Republican consultant. “He focused on doing the job rather than yelling on cable TV and Twitter. That’s what people want in a governor: results.”

Senior Georgia Republicans don’t expect Trump to suddenly bury the hatchet and endorse Kemp, whom he has wrongly blamed for his election defeat in Georgia since 2020. But Kemp’s aides have pushed for a détente to scale down the vitriol.

Among the emissaries was Derrick Dickey, a longtime Perdue aide who later helmed a pro-Kemp outside group. He and others trusted in Trump’s circles pointed to Kemp’s repeated pledge that he “never once said a bad word” about the former president.

So far, the tightrope act is working. The former president hasn’t issued any recent condemnations of Kemp or the other statewide contenders he sought to defeat a few months ago.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Nor has he issued plans to rally in Georgia for Walker and state Sen. Burt Jones, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor, who both were among the rare candidates in contested races who won with his endorsement.

State Rep. Houston Gaines, a close Kemp ally, said that “between a dominating primary win and the thought of Abrams as our next governor, it’s pretty clear that Republicans are in lockstep.”

And Jake Evans, an unsuccessful Trump-backed U.S. House candidate, said Abrams has galvanized conservatives.

“A Stacy Abrams’ governorship would destroy Georgia,” he said. “Republicans must — and are — unifying behind Brian Kemp to keep our economy thriving, our communities safe and our values protected.”

A peace treaty

Will fractious Republicans remain united?

Though a diminished force in Georgia — Republicans rebuffed his picks in four statewide races and two U.S. House runoffs — Trump remains influential among a core group of die-hard supporters.

He could break the peace treaty at any moment and cause headaches for Kemp. And his lies about election fraud could again dent GOP turnout, as they did in the 2021 U.S. Senate runoffs when thousands of reliable Republicans stayed home.

Democrats expect the GOP infighting to ramp up. Jake Orvis, a Democratic strategist, predicted that the Trump-fueled fissures in Georgia Republican politics will only deepen.

Credit: Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

“While candidates solidifying their base after a primary is normal,” he said, “the GOP civil war resulted in Perdue repeatedly insulting the governor and the nomination of a football player turned atmospheric scientist.”

And after hardly uttering his name in 2018, Abrams has begun to invoke Trump to mobilize Democrats — a trend that might ratchet up as the former president nears a likely decision to run again in 2024.

She told hundreds of supporters in Dalton on Friday that she’s proud of her support for President Joe Biden, despite his plunging approval rating in Georgia, because he’s someone “willing to stand up for the values of democracy.”

“And because of his leadership, we have an American Rescue Plan that has poured billions of dollars into the state,” she said, nodding to signature pieces of Biden’s legislative agenda. “Because of his leadership, we are about to have for the first time a true climate action plan.”

With economic uncertainty adding to an already challenging political climate for Democrats, Jodi Diodati said she’s not worried about fissures within the GOP that would threaten their November chances.

“Everybody had their favorite, and I backed David Perdue. But I have to say the policies Brian Kemp signed into law speak to Republicans,” said Diodati, who is running for an Atlanta-based state House seat. “There’s no use for the infighting anymore. We are looking at what unites us, not divides us.”