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Trumpism is here to stay in Georgia no matter what happens during Tuesday's primaries

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WASHINGTON – Donald Trump will not be on the ballot during Georgia's primary elections Tuesday. But his presence will still be felt throughout the Peach State – no matter how the elections turn out.

The former president has made it his mission to oust Republicans who did not embrace his false claims of election fraud from office, including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger after they refused to overturn Georgia's 2020 presidential election results.

Yet David Perdue, the Trump-backed former senator running in the GOP gubernatorial primary, lags behind Kemp in polling and fundraising. And Republican Rep. Jody Hice, another Trump acolyte, and Raffensperger are virtually tied in recent polling by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But even if some of the candidates Trump supports lose their primary races, the former president has succeeded in pressuring several Republican candidates to defend the claim that he won the 2020 presidential election not just in Georgia but across the nation. Trump's influence in Georgia can be felt by how many candidates are not disavowing "the big lie" and the voters who continue to support Trump and the politicians loyal to Trump.

And with only two years until the 2024 presidential election, having allies in Georgia could help Trump delegitimize election results if he does run for office again and loses.

Trump has made an endorsement in at least seven Georgia primary races, including backing Herschel Walker, a former star football player, in the GOP Senate primary, state Sen. Burt Jones for lieutenant governor and John Gordon’s primary challenge against Attorney General Chris Carr.

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A Perdue loss and a possible runoff between Hice and Raffensperger will likely muddy the effectiveness of Trump's endorsement just one week after mixed primary results in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky and Idaho. Trump endorsees Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., and Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin lost their races.

But Republicans said Trump's popularity within Georgia and the GOP will not be diminished, irrespective of election results.

"Trump certainly is going to lose some of those races. But still, if he has a winning record of over 65% to 70%, that's a pretty good record," said Alfonso Aguilar, president of the advocacy group Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp leaves his campaign office after an interview on July 7 in Atlanta.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp leaves his campaign office after an interview on July 7 in Atlanta.

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Trump's endorsement matters ... to an extent

Trump's support for a candidate can make a difference in a primary, but not always to the extent that played out in Ohio, when J.D. Vance rocketed to the top of the GOP Senate field after Trump backed him.

University of Georgia professor Charles Bullock told USA TODAY Trump's endorsement will most likely help down-ballot candidates than in the more high-profile races.

His endorsement "really doesn't make much of a difference in the governor's race because Brian Kemp is well-known," Bullock said.

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Similarly, Emory University professor Andra Gillespie said Trump's endorsement in the governor's race may not be as effective in Georgia's primaries.

"There's a reason why incumbents tend to do very well in primary elections," Gillespie said. "They have high name recognition. They have a record with that people are familiar with."

Kemp is ahead of Perdue by nearly 32 percentage points, according to a Fox News poll.

Aguilar points out that Perdue faced an uphill climb regardless of Trump's help. The former senator lost his reelection bid in 2021, after Trump allies urged Georgians not to vote in the Jan. 5 runoff election because of baseless electoral fraud allegations.

"You have a candidate, Perdue, that lost his reelection. That affects your image. You're already a loser, and now you're going to run against a governor that's really successful," he said. "There are races that even if you're endorsed by Trump, you're not going to prevail."

But in the lesser-known contests like the race for insurance commissioner, where there is less money being spent, Trump's influence matters more. Trump supports Patrick Witt, an attorney who worked on Trump's post-election legal team in Georgia, against incumbent John King, a Kemp appointee.

"Sometimes the incumbent as well as the challenger are unknown," Bullock added. "Then if you're told who the Trump endorsee is, it makes quite a bit of difference."

For example, a survey by UGA’s School of Public and International Affairs showed support for Hice in the secretary of state primary doubled from 30.3% to 60.3% when voters were told of Trump's endorsement.

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Trump's symbolic control of the GOP isn't going away soon. Gillespie anticipates that there will be a runoff election between Hice and Raffensperger.

As the chief elections officer, Raffensperger bore the direct brunt of Trump's ire when he refused to find the 11,780 votes needed to overturn President Joe Biden's Georgia win. In retaliation, Trump recruited Hice to run for secretary of state.

"Trumpism is certainly a very potent force, and the narrative about election fraud and the 'big lie' certainly resonates among Georgia voters," Gillespie said. "We already know that from survey data."

But Raffensperger could still eke out a win in a runoff.

"Yes, (Raffensperger) is more vulnerable compared to Kemp because he is the chief elections officer," she said. "But that doesn't mean that you should count him out immediately."

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Walker is the front-runner in the GOP Senate primary and is expected to win the contest Tuesday. He would likely face Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in the fall.

President Donald Trump greets Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., as he arrives at Dobbins Air Reserve Base for a campaign event at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta on Sept. 25, 2020.
President Donald Trump greets Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., as he arrives at Dobbins Air Reserve Base for a campaign event at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta on Sept. 25, 2020.

Establishment Republicans v. Trump Republicans

Trump's fixation with the 2020 election continues to wreak havoc on the 2022 midterm season.

A sign of how much Trump is invested in the GOP gubernatorial primary: His Save America PAC gave $500,000 to a super PAC working to defeat Kemp. It was his first financial foray into the midterms.

The impact of Trump's election claims came to an ugly head in a GOP gubernatorial primary debate last month in Georgia.

Perdue falsely told Kemp, “The only reason I’m not in the United States Senate is because you caved in and gave the elections to Stacey (Abrams) and the liberal Democrats in 2020.”

Perdue lost his Senate bid to Democrat Jon Ossoff during the runoff last year. Several Republican strategists blamed the loss on Trump's election fraud allegations, and a Washington Post analysis showed precincts that supported Trump were more likely to have low turnout.

Abrams lost the 2018 gubernatorial bid to Kemp in a close election but organized successful get-out-the-vote projects that helped Democrats flip Georgia's two Senate seats.

Biden won the Peach State's 16 electoral votes by 12,284 votes after a weeklong recount. “Georgia’s historic first statewide audit reaffirmed that the state’s new secure paper ballot voting system accurately counted and reported results,” Raffensperger said in a statement at the time.

In the weeks since the April debate, Trump's own vice president, Mike Pence, has campaigned with Kemp, as has former Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.

“Brian Kemp is one of the most successful conservative governors in America,” Pence said in a statement. “I am proud to offer my full support for four more years of Brian Kemp as governor of the great state of Georgia!”

Sarah Palin, a pre-Trump firebrand and former GOP vice presidential nominee, is backing Perdue.

If Perdue does lose to Kemp, Republicans said, Trump's influence will continue to be felt.

"He still has an influence, and I think his influence will last for a while. Whether or not it's a positive influence I don't know," said Brittany Ellison, founder and president of Peach State Approach, a political campaign firm in Georgia.

"There are definitely Georgia voters who still want to know what Trump thinks, and they still listen to him."

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Democrats using Trump to knock Republican candidates

Democrats are capitalizing on the internal GOP battle to attack Republicans who support Trump's election falsehoods.

Georgia state Rep. Bee Nguyen, a Democratic candidate for secretary of state, criticized Republicans and Trump allies for attempting to install election deniers across the nation during a press call Friday.

"This is about looking forward to 2024 and really taking their word and their plan seriously," Nguyen said. "And they have told us their plan is to install right-wing candidates who don't believe in the legitimacy of the 2020 election. And that is going to have committed consequences on what happens in Georgia come 2024, when we could very well be the state that decides the presidential election."

Democrats also are accusing Republicans of trying to restrict voting rights in Georgia.

"Next week in Georgia, we could see more extremists win GOP primaries. All of the Republican candidates support MAGA (Make America Great Again) voting restrictions and efforts to put barriers in the way of voters, including Representative Jody Hice, who's running for secretary of state," said Tiffany Muller, president of the political action committee End Citizens United and  Let America Vote, during a press call.

Kemp signed an election law last year that limits the availability of drop boxes and prohibits giving food or water to people standing in line to vote. The law also bars election officials from mailing absentee ballot applications to voters who don't request them and requires voters to provide identification when requesting an absentee ballot.

Vyanti Joseph, organizing director of the progressive Georgia advocacy group the Asian American Advocacy Fund, said Democrats are seeing record turnout in early voting in Georgia because of the state's marquee races.

More than 565,000 people have early voted in the Peach State through May 19, a 189% increase the 2020 primary election and a 153% increase over the same point in the 2018 primary election, according to Raffensperger's office.

The Asian American Advocacy Fund and like-minded groups remain optimistic that Georgia's swing state status will continue to tilt toward Democrats.

"We are working to get candidates that represent our people, that look like Georgia that think like Georgia to the winning race," Joseph said. "And whatever happens in the GOP primary is not going to change what we do here."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As Georgia primary nears, Trump's GOP influence casts a long shadow