Former president uses rally to push his slate of state candidates to oust Kemp and his allies

COMMERCE — Former President Donald Trump escalated his grudge Saturday against Brian Kemp at a rally in northeast Georgia, urging supporters to oust the incumbent he once endorsed and purge state government of many of the governor’s allies.

Before a crowd of a few thousand supporters, Trump’s rambling speech invoked familiar, false claims that he and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue got “screwed” in 2020 and warned that his backers won’t vote in a general election against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams if Kemp is the nominee.

“Trump voters will not go out and vote for Brian Kemp,” Trump said, adding that the Senate GOP frontrunner will also be damaged.

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March 26, 2022 Commerce - Herschel Walker, front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, speaks as former President Donald Trump looks during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

March 26, 2022 Commerce - Herschel Walker, front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, speaks as former President Donald Trump looks during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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March 26, 2022 Commerce - Herschel Walker, front-runner for the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, speaks as former President Donald Trump looks during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“If Kemp runs, I think Herschel Walker will be seriously and negatively impacted,” Trump thundered from the stage at an old racetrack in Commerce. “A vote for Brian Kemp, RINO, is a vote for Democrat senator who shouldn’t be in the Senate.”

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Trump used much of his remarks to tout his term in the White House and falsehoods about his 2020 election defeat in Georgia. When his attention shifted to Georgia candidates, he mostly doted on Perdue’s attempt to oust Kemp.

”If Brian Kemp is renominated, he will go down in flames at the ballot box,” said Trump.

Perdue, meanwhile, returned the favor. He said for the first time this past week that he also was the victim of a “stolen” election when he lost the January 2021 runoff to Democrat Jon Ossoff. And at Saturday’s rally, he unveiled sharper attacks on Kemp.

“In the state of Georgia, thanks to Brian Kemp, in 2020 our elections were absolutely stolen,” Perdue said, adding that he would make sure that “whoever was responsible goes to jail” if he’s elected.

Chants of “lock him up!” directed at Kemp broke out, as Perdue smiled and flashed a thumbs-up sign.

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March 26, 2022 Commerce - David Perdue speaks during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

March 26, 2022 Commerce - David Perdue speaks during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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March 26, 2022 Commerce - David Perdue speaks during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

With hefty leads in recent polls, Kemp has hardly uttered Perdue‘s name in recent days. His spokesman Cody Hall issued a statement saying that Kemp “is focused on making sure Stacey Abrams is never our governor or the next president.”

The election wasn’t stolen. Three separate tallies of the state’s roughly 5 million ballots upheld Biden’s narrow victory, court challenges by Trump allies were squashed, and bipartisan election officials have vouched for the results.

An audit of absentee ballot signatures in Cobb County found no cases of fraud. Perdue previously didn’t argue his election was “stolen” — in fact, he conceded to Ossoff shortly after the Jan. 5, 2021, runoff.

Other candidates boasted of their close ties to Trump and nodded to Georgia’s role as the most important test of the former president’s influence in the nation.

“This 2020 cycle is so important because it will set the stage for 2024,” said Burt Jones, Trump’s pick for lieutenant governor. “If we don’t have a red wave, it doesn’t play well for us to put Donald Trump in the White House in 2024, but I think we’ve going to have a red wave.”

Former Democrat Vernon Jones, endorsed by Trump for a U.S. House seat to get him to quit the governor’s race, talked of the former president in almost mythical terms.

“I hear them talking about a no-fly zone in Ukraine,” said the ex-state legislator, who switched parties last year. “Let me tell you something: Donald Trump is the no-fly zone.”

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March 26, 2022 Commerce - Former former President Donald Trump enters the stage with his hats during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

March 26, 2022 Commerce - Former former President Donald Trump enters the stage with his hats during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
March 26, 2022 Commerce - Former former President Donald Trump enters the stage with his hats during a rally for Georgia GOP candidates at Banks County Dragway in Commerce on Saturday, March 26, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The only candidate who didn’t invoke Trump’s name in his opening speech was Walker, who is far enough ahead in the polls that he’s trying to pivot toward a November matchup against Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

“I’m not here to be a politician, I’m here to be a warrior,” he said. “That’s what God sent me to do.”

The crowd was smaller and more tepid than many of Trump’s previous Georgia rallies, and many of the former president’s lines were met with light applause or none at all.

Still, some trucked in from hundreds of miles away to get a glimpse of the former president and his Georgia allies.

“I’m just truthfully here to see if he will give us some news about what he’s up to in the future,” said Jeannette Fehr, who drove in from Wisconsin for a funeral a week ago and remained in town to hear Trump. “I want him to run. But I really want him back in office now.”

Chrissy Maxwell of Newton wore a bejeweled denim Trump hat as she lingered with friends around a cluster of food trucks with lengthy lines. She said she’d vote for whomever Trump endorsed — no questions asked.

“I trust him to tell me what to do,” she said. “Jesus and Trump. That’s who I listen to — and sometimes not in that order.”

Once, Trump’s endorsement was the closest thing to a lock in Georgia Republican politics. Few know that better than Kemp, who routed a GOP runoff opponent in 2018 after the then-president endorsed him six days before the election.

But now Trump’s clout is far harder to define — even as more candidates are trying to ride on his coattails. They include several little-known contenders for down-ticket office running against incumbents allied with Kemp.

After a Saturday event in Columbia County with local Republican leaders, Kemp sidestepped a question about Trump’s influence in the race.

“My message to folks is I need their endorsement, their vote on May 24. And that’s what I’m going out there, working to do,” Kemp said, adding that he wants voters to weigh his record. “I can’t control what other people are doing.”

Some of his Republican allies warn that Trump’s take-no-prisoners brand of politics — and his obsession with his defeat in Georgia — will only come back to haunt GOP candidates in November.

“This trip is about him and his grievance-driven brand of politics,” said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, “not the future of the state we all love.”

Trump, meanwhile, issued his own sharp message to Perdue as some in the crowd began filing out.

“I hope, David, you’re going to be the governor,” he said, “or I just wasted a helluva lot a time tonight.”