ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp looked as if he was in trouble a few months ago.
Former President Donald Trump had finally prevailed on former Sen. David Perdue, helping to convince him to run against Kemp in the Republican gubernatorial primary, and endorsing him as soon as he announced his candidacy in early December.
But something funny happened on the way to Trump’s first rally for Perdue, which takes place this Saturday outside Athens, Kemp’s hometown. The sitting governor has steadily pulled ahead of Perdue in the polls, despite Trump’s support for his opponent. In the latest Fox News survey, Kemp led Perdue by 50% to 39%. Meanwhile, Kemp has opened up a huge fundraising lead heading into the May 24 Republican primary.
"When Perdue entered the race, you thought he could win it. But now it's clear that Kemp will have to lose it. He has flat-out executed,” Zack Roday, a Virginia-based Republican consultant with Ascent Media, told Yahoo News. “Perdue is going to need him to make a mistake, and you don't see him doing that.
“Clearly, the [Trump] endorsement wasn't enough,” Roday added.
Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist who served as an aide to former Gov. Nathan Deal, said Trump’s rally with Perdue this weekend will be a key test.
“If we get into the middle of next week, and the polling shows Kemp is still up by 10 points, that's going to send a strong signal that Brian Kemp is in a very good position,” Robinson told Yahoo News.
That scenario would raise serious questions about the durability of Trump’s political power, not just in Georgia but around the country.
If Kemp were to turn back the Trump-backed challenge, “Republicans around the country will look at this and say: It's not essential for a successful career to have Trump's endorsement," said Charles Bullock III, the Richard B. Russell Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs.
A Perdue defeat in Georgia would also signal to other Republicans who want to run for president in 2024 that Trump’s brand may be weaker than it once was. After all, Trump has already seen two high-profile endorsees stumble badly. Pennsylvania Senate candidate Sean Parnell suspended his campaign late last year after allegations of domestic abuse came to light. And Trump rescinded his support this week for Alabama Senate candidate Mo Brooks, who was trailing another Republican candidate in polling and fundraising.
Trump himself has turned Georgia into a crucial test of his relevance, driven in large part by his grievance that Kemp refused to overturn the legitimate election results in 2020. Trump lost the state to President Biden but has continued to insist without any proof that Biden's victory can be attributed to cheating.
Georgia Republicans have seen this movie before. Trump’s refusal to move on from his 2020 defeat is widely believed to have cost the party both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats in runoff elections, handing control of the chamber to Democrats. So when Trump endorsed Perdue, Republicans fretted that it would unleash a bloody primary fight that would leave the Democratic nominee, Stacey Abrams, with a much easier path to victory.
Kemp is not the only high-profile Republican Trump is trying to throw out of office. He’s also backing a Republican challenger to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who repeatedly rejected Trump’s attempts to overturn the election results. The former president pressured Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” in a much-scrutinized phone call. (Trump is under criminal investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis for solicitation of election fraud and related charges stemming from the phone call.)
In all, Trump has endorsed seven candidates up and down the ballot in an effort to fashion the state’s politics in his image, while exacting revenge on those he believes have betrayed him. He’s even trying to oust the state’s Republican insurance commissioner, simply because he was appointed by Kemp.
To some Republicans, the former president’s crusade looks petty and self-defeating.
“'They stole the election' has gone from an outrage-motivating statement to sounding pretty whiny,” said Mike Hassinger, a Republican political consultant based in the Atlanta suburbs. “I think the chrome is peeling off the Trump bumper.”
Kemp, meanwhile, has insulated himself from attacks by Perdue and Trump by governing in a way that has pleased conservatives, in part because of criticism he has received from Democrats and the media. Kemp came under fire for lifting pandemic restrictions early, and for signing a voting law that pushed Major League Baseball into moving the All-Star game out of the state.
“Conservative Republicans love nothing more than being criticized in the press, because every conservative voter nods their head and says, ‘Yeah, they're saying bad things about him. That's my guy,’” Hassinger said.
Kemp has also refused to respond in kind when Trump has attacked him in personal terms.
"I will give Kemp and his team credit for the enormous amount of restraint they've shown under the enormous amount of criticism they've taken from the former president,” said Chip Lake, who worked on the campaign of Casey Cagle, Kemp’s opponent in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary. “The former president has called Kemp every name in the book, and instead of fighting back, the governor has avoided fighting back, because he knows he can't win that way.
“The way [Kemp] is trying to win is with patience and time. Judging from polling numbers, it looks like he is having some success,” Lake told Yahoo News.
Kemp’s discipline probably masks his true feelings about Trump. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Kemp steadfastly but politely resisted Trump’s efforts to browbeat him into overturning the results. But Trump was relentless. According to an account in Greg Bluestein’s new book, “Flipped: How Georgia Turned Purple and Broke the Monopoly on Republican Power,” Trump called Kemp again on the day he was heading to Georgia for a rally ahead of the Senate runoff elections. At the time, Kemp was in mourning, devastated by the death of his middle daughter’s longtime boyfriend, as he told Trump. But the president was not in a mood to relent, repeating his demands that Kemp use his office to overthrow the election. Once again, Kemp said no. Trump grew angry and told Kemp that his refusal to comply would cost him his reelection. The call ended abruptly. Later, Kemp told friends and family he was not affected by Trump’s diatribe. “I don’t give a shit about what he had to say,” Kemp said, according to Bluestein, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter.
In a notable show of defiance toward the former president, Kemp has received support from the Republican Governors Association, which has so far run two TV ads for the incumbent.
For his part, Perdue is struggling to articulate a message that is his own. He touts himself as “the only Trump-endorsed candidate for governor.” But his dependence on the former president’s endorsement has left voters wondering what he stands for, observers in the state said.
Perdue has argued that Kemp “cost us two Senate seats” in 2021. But Perdue himself was one of the losers in those campaigns, defeated by Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Trump has said Kemp “betrayed the people of Georgia, and betrayed Republican voters,” but those criticisms ring hollow to many Republicans in Georgia, Lake said.
Kemp has "been a solid conservative,” he said. “If you're just looking at his record, it's tough to make an argument with a straight face that he's not governed the way he's campaigned."
Perdue has resorted to appearing at rallies with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., days after the freshman lawmaker, known to her detractors as “Empty G,” appeared at an event hosted by a white nationalist.
Simply put, Perdue can’t seem to convince mainstream Republicans or hard-core Trump supporters that he should have the job. One reason he may not have crafted a distinctive message that would differentiate him from Kemp is that he didn’t think he had to. At the time he entered the race last year, many, including those in the Perdue camp, believed an endorsement from Trump could be decisive in the race. “There was the assumption that a Trump endorsement was what it would take. Period,” said Robinson, the Georgia-based Republican strategist.
The Perdue theory of the path to victory, Robinson said, was “Trump comes in, gives his blessing, attacks Kemp, and the numbers are going to flip.”
Hassinger, the Republican consultant in the Atlanta suburbs, joked that Perdue — who was CEO of Reebok and then Dollar General — doesn’t seem motivated to leave his vacation home and meet voters. “It's hard to get the word out from behind two fences on an island,” Hassinger said.
Saturday’s rally could lift the fortunes of Perdue and Trump, or it could confirm to voters that both are mired in conspiracy theories and grievances. It could also decide the future of the MAGA brand.