Midterms: Takeaways from Tuesday's U.S. primary elections

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By James Oliphant

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The match-ups for a high-profile governor and U.S. Senate race in November's midterm elections took shape in Georgia on Tuesday.

Here are three takeaways from the primary election:

TRUMP TAKES LUMPS

With each election, the limits of former President Donald Trump’s power over the Republican Party have revealed themselves.

Last week, Trump’s endorsement of TV wellness expert Mehmet Oz failed to clearly put him over the top in Pennsylvania's Republican U.S. Senate race, and U.S. Representative Madison Cawthorn lost his re-election bid in North Carolina despite Trump's support.

On Tuesday in Georgia, incumbent Governor Brian Kemp swamped Trump's favored candidate, David Perdue, in the Republican gubernatorial primary - the third primary a Trump-backed candidate for governor has lost this year.

Jay Williams, a Republican strategist in Georgia, said Perdue failed to provide voters with a rationale why they should unseat Kemp, a staunch conservative who worked with the legislature to pass a wide-ranging measure that curbed voting access, among other things.

Perdue’s main argument - that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump - wasn’t enough to convince most voters to make a switch, Williams said.

Williams, however, doesn’t see the result as a barometer of Trump’s popularity in the state. He pointed to the close race between Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and his Republican challenger, Jody Hice, who also has backed Trump’s fraud claims.

Raffensperger has had a more adversarial relationship with Trump over the ex-president’s fraud claims, going so far as writing a book in part about how he stood up to him.

But Raffensperger ultimately pulled out a win over Hice, meaning that both Trump-backed candidates who parroted his election-fraud claims went down in defeat.

Trump's endorsement did help turn the tide in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, where former football star Herschel Walker won easily.

ABRAMS VS. KEMP, THE SEQUEL

Kemp’s victory sets up a rematch in the governor's race with Democrat Stacey Abrams, who was unopposed in her primary.

The two find themselves in a drastically different political environment than four years ago, when Kemp edged Abrams by 1.4 percentage points.

Since then, the once-conservative state was ravaged economically by the COVID-19 pandemic, elected two new Democratic senators and backed President Joe Biden, and passed the new restrictive voting law.

Trump, a key driver of Democratic protest votes in 2018 and 2020, is no longer president. And Biden’s low approval marks have given Republicans hope they can not only keep the governor’s mansion in Georgia, but defeat U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock’s re-election bid.

Abigail Collazo, a Democratic operative who worked on Abrams’ 2018 campaign, said Abrams stands a good chance in the rematch. This time around, she will have even greater financial resources from a national base of donors.

Collazo said Abrams and Warnock will benefit from the threat to abortion rights if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the protections of Roe v. Wade. She expects some white women in the state’s suburbs, including Republicans, to support them, along with traditional Black Democratic voters and other voters of color.

In a possible warning sign for Republicans, Walker had some of his weakest showings in large urban and suburban counties. In the Atlanta suburbs, Walker had 57% of the vote with almost all expected ballots counted. That was well below his 69% share of statewide ballots as counting continued late on Tuesday.

A TURNOUT TEST

Robust turnout numbers had Republicans boasting that Georgia’s much-derided voting reform law, known as SB 202, did not have the draconian impact that some critics said it would.

Raffensperger’s office said a record number of voters – more than 850,000 – cast ballots in the three weeks leading up to Election Day, a 168% increase over the last midterm election in 2018. The state was on track to have record turnout for a midterm primary, he said.

The bill, passed in part because of Trump’s complaints about the 2020 election, restricted mail-in voting and limited ballot drop boxes, along other provisions.

After its passage, Biden called it "Jim Crow in the 21st Century."

Not so, Republicans said on Tuesday.

“The rhetoric is proving false before our eyes. These commonsense Republican laws appear to be achieving just what the American people want: Making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

Elections experts and voting-rights groups say much of SB 202's provisions had to do with limiting absentee ballots, not in-person early voting, as well as allowing for partisan actors to take control of local election boards. They cautioned that the law's long-term effects on access remain to be seen.

(Reporting by James Oliphant. Additional reporting by Jason LangeEditing by Colleen Jenkins and Alistair Bell)