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Georgia’s Republican Party controls all of the state’s constitutional offices. Yet its primary elections Tuesday are a crowded mess.
The governor is facing a former senator. The secretary of state is besieged by a congressman. The state attorney general and the insurance commissioner are fending off tough challenges and the open primary for lieutenant governor features two state senators spending millions.
All of it traces back to a single chaos agent, former President Donald Trump, who unleashed a hurricane of disruption in Georgia after losing the state in 2020. Republican politics there hasn't been the same since.
The question now is what happens afterwards. Some in the bitterly divided party are already wondering how to heal the divisions fast enough to maintain GOP dominance in November — or whether they can be healed at all.
“When we have primaries, we get our money's worth,” said Chip Lake, a veteran GOP strategist who is not involved with any campaign this cycle. “I really think that these primaries are in many respects an extension of what happened last cycle. And, you know, look after every primary, you have to put Humpty Dumpty back together, which is not easy.”
The issue of reuniting the party is no small matter in what’s become one of the nation’s most competitive states. Trump’s grudge against Georgia officials who refused to overturn the 2020 election results in his favor has already had far-reaching implications — it can be traced to the loss of the state’s two GOP-held Senate seats in 2021. In November, the state will be home to a competitive governor’s race and a Senate contest that will prove critical to GOP chances of winning back the Senate.
The former president has endorsed primary challengers to four different incumbent GOP statewide officeholders, including Gov. Brian Kemp, who is a top target of his ire. The lieutenant governor, a Trump critic, declined to run for reelection to focus on efforts to build a post-Trump GOP. His decision not to seek another term created a four-way open primary in which Trump has endorsed state Sen. Burt Jones over state Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller.
In the Senate race, Trump has also left his imprint. He helped recruit former football star Herschel Walker, thus alienating another Georgia statewide official, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, who was already running.
Many of the campaigns have clashed bitterly on issues surrounding Trump’s false claims that he won the 2020 election. Former Sen. David Perdue encouraged a crowd chanting “Lock him up” about Kemp at a Trump rally. Sitting Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has repeatedly called his challenger, Rep. Jody Hice, a liar for spreading “stop the steal” misinformation. In the race for attorney general, Trump endorsee John Gordon has vowed to open an investigation into the 2020 election and that “we will prosecute the people that are responsible for this.”
State party chair David Shafer’s role has also left hard feelings. While state party chairs typically support incumbents — or, at worst, stay neutral — Shafer, a Trump ally, has actively recruited primary challengers in some instances. He even backed Perdue’s challenge to the governor.
“I think there's widespread concern that Shafer has been … what's the term I'm looking for? He's not been a neutral participant in this process,” said a Georgia GOP operative involved with one of the statewide campaigns.
“I know, he was very involved in helping Perdue and has been helping Trumpworld in the governor’s race, specifically,” the GOP operative said. “I mean, he's pretty blatantly been opposed to Raffensperger publicly. I know for a fact that he tried to recruit candidates in the insurance commissioner race.”
Shafer also sent multiple letters to Raffensperger’s office in the wake of the 2020 election asking him to investigate and review mail-in ballots — at roughly the same time Trump was pressuring Raffensperger and other Georgia officials to change the outcome of the 2020 presidential election results.
Shafer and Executive Director Brandon Moye did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
The prospects of runoffs further complicate efforts to bring the party together. In Georgia, if neither candidate in a race wins at least 50 percent of the vote, the two top finishers go to a runoff. That means some races might be dragged out to a June 21 runoff, extending the intraparty conflict for another month.
Black, who’s been Georgia agricultural commissioner since 2011, has said he has no interest in unifying after the primary. He told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution that he won’t support Walker because of his past instances of domestic violence.
“If Herschel were to be the nominee, people who have endorsed him are going to have to explain why they got behind a guy who choked his wife unconscious and threatened shootouts with police. That would be … uncomfortable for them,” said Dan McLagan, Black’s communications director.
McLagan added that the state party hasn’t contacted his campaign yet about any sort of post primary unity event, “but that’s the answer they’ll get.”
The Kemp and Walker teams are among those still on good terms. They are in regular contact and have talked about both candidates appearing together, including a potential unity rally, according to both campaigns. State party officials have also reached out to some campaigns to gauge interest levels in post-primary events.
“I know there's been mutterings of a unity rally with us and whoever wins governor and potentially inviting some out of state Republican bigwigs down as well. … Herschel would be involved and invite people from all parts of the party,” said Mallory Blount, spokesperson for Walker, while adding the campaign currently focused on winning the primary.
Walker has invited all of his primary opponents to his election night party as a show of a “good faith unity” effort, Blount said. None of them have taken him up on the invitation.
As frontrunners in their respective races, it’s easy for Kemp and Walker to be magnanimous. For many others, there’s too much bad blood to begin thinking about bringing the party back together.
“I don't think that these Trump-endorsed candidates are going to show up at a unity rally, if they lose. And I don't think [Attorney General] Chris Carr and Brad Raffensperger are going to show up at something like that, if they were to lose,” said a person working with several Republican candidates, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
“I don't see John Gordon showing up for Chris or Chris showing up for John Gordon, or Hice and Raffensperger. I don't see Purdue showing up for Kemp,” said the person. “I don't think that this is necessarily a good idea if, the visual is, the people who lose don't show up. And I think that's a distinct possibility.”
Kemp, along with Walker, has said he will support the whole slate of candidates that win Tuesday and would be involved in a unity event.
“The governor would support the nominees and would help the ticket however he could. However they wanted him to help,” said Cody Hall, the communications director for Kemp’s campaign, when asked if Kemp would support Perdue or go to a rally hosted by Shafer.
“In 2018, there was an incredibly rough primary on the governor's side. In 2014, there was a very rough primary in the Senate race, on our side, and each and every time Republicans have come together after the primary to make sure that we elect Republicans in the fall and I don't think 2022 is going to be any different,” Hall said. “Each and every time we've reunited to make sure that we keep Georgia red.”
Perdue has gone as far as saying he will also support Kemp if he loses, because his number one priority is to defeat Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
For now, Georgia Republicans are taking solace from the last governor’s primary in 2018, a hard-fought affair that was settled in a runoff between Kemp and then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. Despite the bruised feelings, the two met for a unity event just two days after the runoff. Kemp went on to defeat Abrams in November with the party behind him.
While the GOP candidates this time don’t have much agreement on what post-primary unity will look like, they do agree it won’t happen that quickly — if at all.
“You had Casey Cagle show up at that rally two days after the runoff and was gracious and did all the right things, and just sort of got them on to the right path,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant who’s aligned with several Georgia campaigns this cycle. “I don't know how much appetite there will be for that this cycle.”