Trump, Trump, Trump: Perdue’s campaign hinges on former president

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue maintains that only he can unify the state's Republicans as former President Donald Trump feuds with Gov. Brian Kemp for not illegally overturning his election defeat in Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue maintains that only he can unify the state's Republicans as former President Donald Trump feuds with Gov. Brian Kemp for not illegally overturning his election defeat in Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue had just arrived at a Wild Wing Cafe in Dunwoody to tell dozens of Republican activists why he was challenging Gov. Brian Kemp, but there was a problem. The video screens trumpeting his most important campaign advantage were on the fritz.

With a laugh, Perdue shrugged off the technical difficulty and described what the video would have shown: an endorsement from Donald Trump that is the centerpiece of his campaign against a sitting Republican governor.

The race, he told the crowd, is crucial to Trump’s likely comeback attempt in two years: “If you’re going to have a Republican president in ‘24, you’ve got to win this governor’s race right now.”

Trump has dominated every step of Perdue’s campaign, a race that has pitted two former Republican allies against one another.

It was Perdue who helped convince Trump that Kemp was the candidate to back in the 2018 GOP primary and then persuaded him to stage a final rally before Kemp’s narrow victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams.

And now Perdue is labeling Kemp as an enemy of the former president for refusing to overturn his election defeat. He tells audiences that only he can piece back together a fractious Republican Party.

“Why do you think I’m not running for the Senate? I looked at the calculus and I said I didn’t know that I can win if I run alongside Brian Kemp with a divided party,” Perdue said. “The whole thing is about unity.”

But it goes beyond mere rhetoric. Since entering the race, Perdue has made clear that his election hopes rely on Trump and his false claims of election fraud.

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Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp were once close Republican allies. It was Perdue who helped convince Donald Trump that Kemp was the candidate to back in the 2018 GOP primary and then persuaded the then-president to stage a final rally before Kemp’s narrow victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp were once close Republican allies. It was Perdue who helped convince Donald Trump that Kemp was the candidate to back in the 2018 GOP primary and then persuaded the then-president to stage a final rally before Kemp’s narrow victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, and Gov. Brian Kemp were once close Republican allies. It was Perdue who helped convince Donald Trump that Kemp was the candidate to back in the 2018 GOP primary and then persuaded the then-president to stage a final rally before Kemp’s narrow victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

State election officials have said there’s no indication of fraud after three ballot counts and multiple investigations. Pro-Trump lawsuits seeking to overturn the election were dismissed or withdrawn from courts.

Perdue criticized Kemp for refusing to call a special session of the Legislature after Trump’s defeat and said he wouldn’t have certified the election as required by law if he had been governor. He filed a lawsuit that mirrored debunked claims from a conspiracy theorist. He called for a new election police unit in Georgia.

And this week, Perdue’s debut TV ad shelved his trademark jean jacket in favor of a direct message from Trump. In the 30-second spot, Trump said Democrats “walked all over” Kemp before the former president praised Perdue’s toughness.

“David Perdue is an outstanding man. He’s tough. He’s smart,” Trump said in the spot. “He has my complete and total endorsement.”

‘Not America First’

Tying himself directly to Trump might be the only path to victory for Perdue, but he’s placing a considerable wager that the former president’s sway still reigns in Georgia Republican politics.

Once booed at some grassroots GOP gatherings, Kemp appears to have steadied himself among conservatives with reminders of his past rightward stances — and promises of more to come.

This legislative session, the governor has promised to enact a broad rollback of gun restrictions, restrict “obscene” books from public school libraries and ban the teaching of critical race theory, coursework that is now not being taught in public schools.

“I’m not worried about what Perdue’s talking about, I’m worried about what I’m doing,” Kemp said. “You know, I’m the governor. He’s running against me. He’s got to tell people what he’s for. And so far, he hasn’t done that.”

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Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, right, says he is challenging a sitting Republican governor, Brian Kemp, because he sees no other option to ensure Democrat Abrams isn’t elected in November.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, right, says he is challenging a sitting Republican governor, Brian Kemp, because he sees no other option to ensure Democrat Abrams isn’t elected in November.

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Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, right, says he is challenging a sitting Republican governor, Brian Kemp, because he sees no other option to ensure Democrat Abrams isn’t elected in November.

Perdue has advocated for many of these issues, too, saying he would have pressed for them sooner than Kemp. The governor’s spokesman, Cody Hall, countered by pointing to Perdue’s record as a corporate executive who outsourced jobs — a contradiction, he said, from Trump’s nationalist agenda.

“That’s not America First,” he said. “That’s David Perdue padding his own wallet on the backs of hardworking Americans.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released last week showed Kemp with a bigger lead over Abrams in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup in November. And it suggested that an allegiance to Trump could haunt Perdue in a general election.

Only about 20% of registered Georgia voters in the poll said they’d be more likely to support a candidate endorsed by Trump, the poll found, while 49% said they would be less likely to vote for someone with Trump’s blessing.

“If he had shut up or got off of Twitter, it would have been much better,” Gail Tabor, a Baxley retiree, said of Trump’s influence, before adding she also “saw a lot of good that he did.”

Still, the former president’s hold on conservative voters remains strong — and his lies about election fraud are potent. The same poll showed that three-quarters of GOP voters believe there was widespread fraud in 2020.

The Perdue-Kemp feud has created what state Democrats — and even privately some senior Republicans — view as a race to the extremes.

Combined ShapeCaption
After facing derision at GOP grassroots events following the 2020 election, Gov. Brian Kemp has steadied himself with conservatives by reminding them of the rightward stances he's taken in the past. And he promises more: pledging during this legislative session to enact a broad rollback of gun restrictions, restrict “obscene” books from public school libraries and ban the teaching of critical race theory, coursework that is now not being taught in Georgia public schools. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

After facing derision at GOP grassroots events following the 2020 election, Gov. Brian Kemp has steadied himself with conservatives by reminding them of the rightward stances he's taken in the past. And he promises more: pledging during this legislative session to enact a broad rollback of gun restrictions, restrict “obscene” books from public school libraries and ban the teaching of critical race theory, coursework that is now not being taught in Georgia public schools. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
After facing derision at GOP grassroots events following the 2020 election, Gov. Brian Kemp has steadied himself with conservatives by reminding them of the rightward stances he's taken in the past. And he promises more: pledging during this legislative session to enact a broad rollback of gun restrictions, restrict “obscene” books from public school libraries and ban the teaching of critical race theory, coursework that is now not being taught in Georgia public schools. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The infighting continues to worry Republicans who say the GOP should be more concerned about unity. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Kemp ally who wants Republicans to put Trump in the rearview mirror, said of Perdue’s first spot, “It wouldn’t surprise me if this ad shows up as an ‘in-kind’ contribution from Abrams.”

‘Pretty sad’

Perdue gets the contradiction of his message.

How can he portray himself as a great GOP unifier if he’s running against the first lifelong Republican governor in the state’s history? Sometimes, he’ll muse openly about violating Ronald Reagan’s famed admonition for Republicans not to speak ill of one another.

“A Republican is running against a Republican incumbent governor,” he said. “You just don’t do that — it’s like the 11th Commandment, right?”

He painted himself at a stop in Alpharetta this week as pained by the decision — “I’m not going to tell you guys he’s a bad guy, and I love his family,” Perdue said of Kemp.

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Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue has tied his campaign for governor closely to former President Donald Trump. He has criticized Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for refusing to call a special session of the Legislature after Trump’s defeat and said that if he had been governor, he wouldn’t have certified the election as required by law. Perdue also filed a lawsuit that mirrored debunked claims from a conspiracy theorist about the 2020 election, and he called for a new election police unit in Georgia. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Credit: File

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue has tied his campaign for governor closely to former President Donald Trump. He has criticized Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for refusing to call a special session of the Legislature after Trump’s defeat and said that if he had been governor, he wouldn’t have certified the election as required by law. Perdue also filed a lawsuit that mirrored debunked claims from a conspiracy theorist about the 2020 election, and he called for a new election police unit in Georgia. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Credit: File

Combined ShapeCaption
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue has tied his campaign for governor closely to former President Donald Trump. He has criticized Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for refusing to call a special session of the Legislature after Trump’s defeat and said that if he had been governor, he wouldn’t have certified the election as required by law. Perdue also filed a lawsuit that mirrored debunked claims from a conspiracy theorist about the 2020 election, and he called for a new election police unit in Georgia. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Credit: File

Credit: File

“If Brian Kemp were capable, if he were ever going to be able to pull the party together, don’t you think he would have done it by now?”

Kemp’s allies see nothing but hubris.

“Must be pretty sad to be unable to make your case on the basis of anything except support from a Florida resident,” said Cole Muzio, a conservative activist.

Perdue isn’t going to change course, particularly not with former Democrat Vernon Jones expected to drop out of the GOP primary, a move that could help Perdue soak up more pro-Trump votes.

His first ad blends both Perdue’s calling card as an insurgent Republican and the former president’s brand: He calls himself an “America First conservative outsider.”

“He spoke for all of us in ‘16, he struck a nerve that none of us really saw coming,” Perdue said. “We see what’s happening when the left gets in charge, and that’s what this race for governor is going to be all about.”

Staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.