THOMASTON, Ga. ― Less than two years after he helped deliver Georgia’s two Senate seats to Democrats, Donald Trump is poised to sabotage Republican Brian Kemp and give the state a Democratic governor too.
The former president is doing his best to vilify the first-term governor because of his refusal to help overturn Trump’s 2020 election loss in Georgia, but Kemp has consolidated support all over the state and across the party. Polls suggest he will beat his primary opponent, former Sen. David Perdue, soundly on Tuesday ― in all likelihood with more than 50% of the vote, thereby avoiding a runoff.
Which leaves Trump with three choices: endorse the man he has cast as his top nemesis; ignore the race entirely; or actively hurt Kemp’s efforts to win reelection against Democrat Stacey Abrams.
For one former top Trump aide, the path forward is obvious: sabotage Kemp, even if it means helping Democrats win the governor’s mansion in Atlanta.
“I don’t know if he will do it publicly, but he’ll definitely do it privately,” the former aide said on condition of anonymity. “This is all personal for him.”
Aides to Trump ― who ultimately tried to overturn democracy itself on Jan. 6, 2021, after his other efforts to remain in power failed ― did not respond to HuffPost’s queries.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) greets President Donald Trump as he steps off Air Force One at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta, Georgia, in March 2020.
Georgia Republicans are unsure what Trump will do, and whether he would risk incurring the wrath of a sizable segment of the party by tanking a governorship to satisfy his need for vengeance.
“I like Trump. I’m a Trump supporter. But he’s got to give up his vendetta against Kemp,” said Dave Slade, a 73-year-old retired Delta Air Lines pilot who attended a rally for Kemp last week at a brewery in Canton. “I think Trump is blowing it.”
James Gisonna, chair of the party in heavily pro-Trump Hall County, said he was impressed that Trump had not attacked Kemp quite as aggressively during his rally in Georgia in late March. “If Kemp does take this, Trump will hopefully back him up,” he said.
That hope, though, ignores Trump’s history of putting his grievances ahead of the interests of the party, such as two years ago when his false claims that Georgia elections were rigged and could not be trusted wound up costing Republicans two key Senate races in Georgia and gave control of that chamber to New York Democrat Chuck Schumer.
What’s more, telling Georgians that Abrams would be an improvement over Kemp would not even break new ground for Trump. He has already said precisely that.
“We might have been better if she did win for governor of Georgia, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said in Ohio on June 27, 2021, at his first rally since leaving office. “We might have had a better governor if she did win.”
He repeated that analysis three months later, this time at a rally actually in Georgia: “Having her, I think, might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know the truth. Might very well be better.”
And last week, after learning that several GOP governors and former governors were endorsing Kemp, he released a statement again disparaging the legitimacy of Georgia’s elections. “That tells you all you need to know about what you are getting in Georgia ― just a continuation of bad elections and a real RINO if you vote for Brian Kemp,” he said, using the acronym for “Republican in name only.”
Georgia Is A Focal Point Of The ‘Big Lie’
Ever since state officials finished their recounts and declared Democrat Joe Biden the winner of Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in November 2020, Trump has effectively made the state’s subsequent elections all about himself.
In December 2020 and the first days of January 2021, Trump loudly spread the message that the state’s election system was riddled with fraud, even as he campaigned for the two Republican incumbents facing Senate runoffs. As a result, GOP turnout lagged and Democrats picked up both seats.
Then, as now, his rage was directed at Kemp and GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, whom he accused of betraying him by refusing to overturn Biden’s win. Indeed, Trump could still face criminal charges in Fulton County based on the recording Raffensperger made of Trump’s phone call demanding that he “find” him 12,000 votes.
As both men sought reelection, Trump recruited challengers to run against them in the primary. Against Raffensperger, Trump got Rep. Jody Hice, who had already been repeating Trump’s lies about a “stolen” election. And against Kemp, Trump persuaded Perdue ― one of the two senators Trump sabotaged in January 2021.
During the actual runoff campaign, Perdue had frequently complained that Trump was essentially telling GOP voters to stay home and that it was hurting his chances, according to a top Republican familiar with the campaign.
But as he got Trump’s support to challenge Kemp, Perdue adopted Trump’s election lies as his own, and the “stolen” election has been the singular focus of his campaign. “First off, folks, let me be very clear tonight, the election in 2020 was rigged and stolen,” he said in his opening statement during an April 25 televised debate between him and Kemp.
Perdue’s lawn signs declare he is “Endorsed by Trump.” His campaign website features an enormous image of him standing beside Trump, both smiling with thumbs up. At his campaign events, Perdue spends a majority of his time pushing long-debunked conspiracy theories about the election, including the notion that tabulation machines from Dominion Voting Systems were somehow part of the plot to defeat Trump.
“He’s not really interested in building the Republican Party. He’s interested in building the Trump Party.”
– Charles Bullock, political science professor at the University of Georgia
Yet despite Trump’s appearances on his behalf and continued attacks on Kemp, Perdue has faltered. While a survey released by Trump’s pollster in December showed that Perdue, with Trump’s support, would handily defeat Kemp, the opposite appears to be taking place.
A poll released this week from Fox News found Kemp beating Perdue by a 2-1 margin. Perdue has pulled his television ads off the air and in the final weeks has been scheduling campaign events at county party meetings ― which guarantees at least a modest audience, but at the cost of wasting precious time.
At a gathering of the Morgan County Republicans earlier this week, for example, Perdue found himself standing around and pacing outside the meeting room. Party leaders discussed the summer schedule of events, the plight of two schoolchildren in Wisconsin punished for using the wrong pronouns, and even Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter before inviting Perdue in.
On Thursday, a meet-and-greet at Sutton’s American Grill in Carrollton drew just 11 supporters. Perdue arrived 20 minutes late and left after only eight minutes.
In the closing days, in fact, the likely outcome of the primary has become so evident that Trump critics in the party have made a point of openly backing Kemp.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, whom Trump has similarly attacked for not undoing his narrow loss to Biden there, campaigned with Kemp last weekend. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a likely 2024 presidential candidate, appeared with Kemp on Tuesday.
Trump’s former running mate who is considering his own 2024 campaign, Mike Pence, last week announced that he would appear at an election-eve rally for Kemp on Monday, likely giving the former vice president a high-profile, head-to-head victory over Trump.
An ally of Pence said he and Kemp have been friends for years, and Pence, while generally avoiding getting involved in GOP primaries, made an exception for Kemp. “Brian has perhaps the most conservative record of any governor,” the ally said on condition of anonymity.
Trying To Predict Trump
If public and internal polling is correct, Kemp could emerge Wednesday morning with a 30-point victory margin over Perdue, way beyond the simple majority he would need to avoid a runoff.
At which time, the question will quickly turn to how Trump will respond to what would be an embarrassing loss against the Republican he most wanted to punish.
“It’s kind of hard to think that Trump would come out and endorse Brian Kemp. Maybe he’ll come out and support Stacey Abrams,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “He just might do that. He’s not really interested in building the Republican Party. He’s interested in building the Trump Party.”
Bullock said some percentage of Georgia Republicans, out of loyalty to Trump, will not vote for Kemp come November, although what that percentage might end up being is not clear.
Retired police officer John Strickland, who attended Perdue’s visit to the county Republican meeting in Madison, said he knows “a lot” of people who will sit out the autumn election, including possibly himself.
Keith Wilson, who also attended that meeting, said he too may stay home in November if Perdue is not the nominee. “Brian Kemp has burned a lot of bridges in Morgan County,” said Wilson, 55, who owns a trucking business.
Perdue, for his part, has been making that argument explicitly, saying that even if Kemp were to turn out 90% of “MAGA voters” this autumn, he would still lose, and that Kemp was not going to win over that 90% anyway.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) speaks as President Donald Trump looks on at a campaign rally at Valdosta Regional Airport in December 2020. Perdue is building his 2022 gubernatorial campaign around Trump and veering to the right as he tries to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in the primary.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File
Ironically, Perdue said he would absolutely be part of that 90% and not just endorse Kemp, but actively work to help elect him. “I’ll support him with everything I got,” he told reporters in Madison last week.
He laughed, though, when asked whether Trump would follow suit. “You think I’m going to speak for the president? I’ve got no idea.”
One senior adviser in Kemp’s campaign said that Trump could well decide that the best way to deal with a humiliating loss is to pretend it never happened and to move on to other things. He added that trying to predict Trump’s behavior was likely an exercise in futility. “It’s not something we lose a lot of sleep over,” he said on condition of anonymity.
Andy Chastain, a Kemp supporter who attended his bus tour stop in Thomaston, said he doubted Trump will be able to just let it go. “Trump’s always got something to say about everything, whether or not it hurts the Republican Party,” said Chastain, the tax commissioner for Upson County who said he voted for Trump twice but admires how Kemp refused to go along with Trump’s “antics” after the 2020 election.
Susan Slade, who attended Kemp’s Canton rally with her retired Delta pilot husband, said that Trump might show some humility after Kemp wins and work to help Republicans hold on to the governorship. “Let’s pray he backs down,” said Slade, who is 70 and a retired dental hygienist. She acknowledged that her hope was perhaps far-fetched. “I don’t know. There’s no telling with him.”
The former Trump aide, though, said he is pretty sure the former president will not be in any mood to back down and ultimately doesn’t really care who the governor of Georgia is, so long as it’s not Kemp ― even if that means electing Abrams.
“He needs that final victory,” the ex-aide said.
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