Donald Trump roiled Georgia Republicans with an endorsement in a crowded House primary Wednesday as the former president molds the political landscape in an effort to defeat the state's GOP governor.
On its face, Trump's "complete and total endorsement" of Vernon Jones in Georgia’s 10th Congressional District looked like another case of the former president rewarding “an 'America First' fighter.” Jones, a former Democrat and former state legislator, spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention officially nominating Trump.
But Jones earned his endorsement in another way, as well: Two days earlier, he dropped out of Georgia's high-stakes GOP race for governor — making it easier for Trump’s preferred candidate, former Sen. David Perdue, to beat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in a one-on-one primary matchup.
For months, advisers in Trump’s orbit privately tried to nudge Jones to leave the gubernatorial race after Trump recruited Perdue in December to run against Kemp, who earned Trump’s enmity because he refused to help overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, which helped seal Joe Biden’s presidential win. Jones' decision to switch races capped on-and-off discussions with Trump advisers and allies who described the discussions as friendly, according to three Republicans with knowledge of the talks.
But Jones was already running — and siphoning pro-Trump, anti-Kemp votes from Perdue, according to polls that showed him with little traction statewide. Trump needed him to leave the race, which Jones did Monday while simultaneously announcing his bid for Congress. Jones endorsed Perdue, who in turn called Jones a "conservative patriot."
The race for the seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Jody Hice, who is challenging Republican and Trump foe Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, already featured 11 candidates before Jones jumped in. Most were running as Trump Republicans in the heavily conservative district in eastern Georgia.
“Georgia 10 was a deep and chaotic primary before Vernon Jones’ entry. And now it’s completely off the rails,” Chip Lake, a Republican strategist in Georgia, said. “I don’t have a crystal ball to know what will happen. But I know there’s gonna be a lot more eyeballs on this congressional primary than before.”
Few political observers had expected Jones to win the gubernatorial contest because he raised little money, didn’t have Trump’s endorsement and had a controversial past as a lawmaker that could prove problematic in a primary. Jones’ critics shared an extensive opposition-research file with Trump’s team behind the scenes, two sources with knowledge of the matter said.
With Trump’s coveted endorsement in hand, Lake said, Jones is “going to have an opportunity to at least compete” in the House race.
Robert Cahaly, a Georgia-based pollster with the Trafalgar Group, agreed with Lake’s assessment and pointed to a recent poll he took of the 10th Congressional District that showed 41 percent of Republican voters would be more likely to support a candidate endorsed by Trump.
"Any Trump endorsement is probably going to put the person he endorses — in this case Vernon Jones — into first or second place," Cahaly said. "It’s that powerful."
The poll suggested that one of Jones’ 11 Republican opponents, Mike Collins, was the early front-runner, pulling more than a third of the vote, three times more than the second-place candidate. But that poll was taken before Jones made his announcement and secured Trump’s endorsement, Cahaly told NBC News.
Jones’ opponents appeared to understand the stakes.
The day before Trump’s endorsement, Collins unleashed a website full of opposition research called realvernonjones.com and unloaded on him in a brutal online ad that called Jones “a conman, a carpetbagger and a Democrat with a rap sheet.”
If no candidate can get more than 50 percent of the vote in Georgia, the top two vote-getters have a runoff race. The state also has open primaries, which could allow Democrats and independents to vote in GOP primaries.
That combination of factors, Cahaly said, probably won’t affect the congressional race because the district is so heavily Republican, but it could have had major implications in the May 24 gubernatorial primary if Jones had stayed in the race and forced a Kemp-Perdue runoff.
One Trump adviser, who was not authorized to speak about strategy on the record, said they were still bracing for the race to go to a runoff, but Jones’ absence could make it easier for Perdue to lead Kemp in the initial round of votes, giving him momentum.
Compared to Kemp, Perdue posted relatively lackluster fundraising numbers prior to Jones’ decision to leave the race. The Republican Governors Association announced Wednesday it would officially back Kemp, which could further his financial advantage.
In the 10th Congressional District, Jasper County GOP Chair Mary Patrick said she couldn’t figure out why Trump was getting involved in the primary, aside from the gubernatorial race. She said a group of party chairmen from the district emailed each other over the weekend and said they didn’t see much support for Jones.
“There was no sense that this was a good thing,” Patrick said of Jones’ congressional candidacy.