Trump, turnout and turmoil: What to watch in Georgia’s primary

The race between Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is the biggest battle on Tuesday's primary ballot. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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The race between Gov. Brian Kemp, left, and former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is the biggest battle on Tuesday's primary ballot. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The election cycle kicks into higher gear in Georgia on Tuesday with primaries that will shape the November races and the political future of one of the nation’s most important battleground states.

The biggest battle on the ballot is the Republican race for governor that pits incumbent Brian Kemp against former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who entered the contest at former President Donald Trump’s urging. Once treated as a toss-up, Perdue’s challenge has fizzled, though he’s holding out hope for an upset.

The former president’s attempts to refashion the state GOP will be tested in other ways, too. Trump has endorsed a dozen other candidates down the ballot, some who are shoo-ins and others with uphill battles in open races or against incumbents.

Democrats are spared marquee matchups at the top of the ballot, as Stacey Abrams avoided an intraparty challenge for governor and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock didn’t draw a viable opponent.

But the primary is studded with other competitive statewide, legislative and congressional races, headlined by the contest between U.S. Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux and Lucy McBath for a Gwinnett County-based House district.

Some candidates, including Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, aren’t worried about notching a primary win. He’s so confident of victory that he sent an (unanswered) invite to his rivals to a “unity celebration.”

For others, Tuesday is just the start of the battle. If no contender notches a majority of the vote, the race heads to a June 21 runoff.

Here are key questions:

Will Kemp unify the GOP?

Kemp has held massive leads over Perdue in every recent public poll — and he isn’t letting up. He has also been careful not to antagonize Trump, mindful that the former president’s most fervent supporters will play a crucial role in his November coalition.

The first-term governor hopes to run up the score to show he has a mandate from GOP voters, and polls indicate Perdue is on the verge of a collapse. Still, Perdue’s campaign points to early voting data that shows participation from a significant number of irregular GOP voters that gives him a glimmer of hope.

At the same time, Kemp and his allies acknowledge that Trump is not likely to change his opinion of the governor, who defied the then-president’s attempt to illegally overturn the 2020 election. Kemp is planning to continue to walk that delicate path if he’s the nominee against Abrams.

“I’ve had a great relationship with President Trump,” he said Monday. “I’ve never said anything bad about him. I don’t plan on doing that.”

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Georgia is seen as a test of former President Donald Trump's hold on the Republican Party after he endorsed 13 candidates in races Tuesday. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Georgia is seen as a test of former President Donald Trump's hold on the Republican Party after he endorsed 13 candidates in races Tuesday. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
Georgia is seen as a test of former President Donald Trump's hold on the Republican Party after he endorsed 13 candidates in races Tuesday. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

How strong is Trump’s pull in the Georgia GOP?

A Perdue defeat could be Trump’s most significant political setback since his 2020 defeat. But it won’t be the only contest that puts his influence to the test.

Beyond endorsing Walker — who is widely expected to dominate the GOP primary regardless — Trump also backed several candidates in wide-open races and others aimed at punishing Kemp’s most loyal allies.

His pick for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Burt Jones, has a solid chance of avoiding a runoff in most polls. But other Trump-backed picks face a tougher road.

He endorsed little-known challengers to take on Republican Attorney General Chris Carr and Insurance Commissioner John King who have struggled to gain traction. And his decision to back former Democrat Vernon Jones in a wide-open U.S. House race in rural Georgia could backfire.

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Democrats Raphael Warnock, left, and Stacey Abrams face little of no opposition, which could be tamping down turnout for the party's primary. High inflation, rising energy prices and President Joe Biden’s poor approval rating could also be factors. But Democrats do see some data from early voting that they say is encouraging.

Democrats Raphael Warnock, left, and Stacey Abrams face little of no opposition, which could be tamping down turnout for the party's primary. High inflation, rising energy prices and President Joe Biden’s poor approval rating could also be factors. But Democrats do see some data from early voting that they say is encouraging.

Combined ShapeCaption
Democrats Raphael Warnock, left, and Stacey Abrams face little of no opposition, which could be tamping down turnout for the party's primary. High inflation, rising energy prices and President Joe Biden’s poor approval rating could also be factors. But Democrats do see some data from early voting that they say is encouraging.

Can Democrats rekindle their 2020 energy?

Resurgent Republicans have fueled record turnout for early voting in Georgia, outpacing Democrats in part because of intense interest in the nationally watched races atop the GOP ticket.

Democrats fear other factors could be at play, too, with the tepid turnout. High inflation, rising energy prices and President Joe Biden’s poor approval rating all raise questions about how Abrams and Warnock can rebuild the coalition that powered the party’s 2020 wins.

Still, Democrats point to optimistic data from early voting. Abrams’ campaign says at least 35,000 reliable Democratic voters crossed over to vote in the GOP primary. An additional 42,000 Democrats who skipped the 2018 general election cast ballots in the party’s 2022 primary.

In a memo to supporters on Monday, Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo downplayed the GOP surge in early voting and predicted that Democrats will show “unmistakable interest and enthusiasm in this election that flies in the face of doom-and-gloom narratives.”

Will election-deniers be punished?

Not long ago, even Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s supporters privately predicted he was headed for defeat in the Republican primary. Trump tried to make Raffensperger into a GOP pariah after he rejected his pleas to “reverse” the election.

But now polls show Raffensperger in unexpectedly strong standing as he faces a challenge from U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who has aggressively promoted Trump’s election fraud lies.

Hice is far from unique. Each of Trump’s picks on the GOP ballot has echoed Trump’s falsehoods.

Perdue opens campaign events falsely declaring the 2020 election was “rigged and stolen.” Contenders for attorney general, U.S. House seats and insurance commissioner have centered their campaigns on conspiracy theories about election fraud.

And Walker once suggested that Georgia should recast its votes and refused to say whether Biden was legitimately elected president.

What course will Democrats steer in the suburbs?

The Republican-led overhaul of Georgia’s political maps forced McBath to jump to the neighboring 7th Congressional District, triggering a primary challenge against Bourdeaux that’s also a matchup between two political brands.

Spurred to run for Congress by the murder of her teenage son, McBath has carved out a liberal record advocating for gun restrictions, broader health care access and expanded voting rights. Bourdeaux’s more moderate streak helped her win a closely divided House seat long held by the GOP.

Now the two are squaring off in a race that would help dictate the party’s direction in the vote-rich Atlanta suburbs. So, too, will legislative contests, including a fight for an open state Senate seat between state Rep. Beth Moore and liberal activist Nabilah Islam.

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Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene faces several opponents in the GOP primary who promise not to stir up as much controversy as she has in her first term in office. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene faces several opponents in the GOP primary who promise not to stir up as much controversy as she has in her first term in office. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene faces several opponents in the GOP primary who promise not to stir up as much controversy as she has in her first term in office. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Are Marjorie Taylor Greene and other House incumbents vulnerable?

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has parlayed each of her many controversies into more attention and more fundraising. Now she’s facing a test from more mainstream Republicans who promise to vote reliably on conservative issues without her lightning-rod approach.

Another first-term incumbent in North Georgia also faces a surprisingly strong challenge. U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde, a gun store owner best known for racking up huge fines for defying rules to wear a mask in the Capitol, drew four challengers aiming to drag him into a runoff.

And Democratic U.S. Rep. David Scott is squaring off against three challengers who say the Atlanta-based district he’s represented for two decades has been neglected.

Election 2022: Georgia election guides

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