In Georgia, Trump tries to revive a spraying campaign

COMMERCE, Ga., — When Donald Trump recruited David Perdue to run for governor of Georgia, Mr. Trump’s allies boasted that his endorsement alone would fire Mr. Perdue in front of incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. Republicans in Georgia have braced themselves for an epic showdown, fueled by the former president’s personal vendetta against Mr. Kemp, which would split the party.

But two months from the Republican primary election, Mr. Perdue’s campaign has been more disappointing than epic. In an effort to spur Mr. Perdue and put his own stamp on the race, Mr. Trump came to Georgia on Saturday for a rally for Mr. Perdue and the slate of candidates the former president has endorsed. Thousands of Trump supporters flocked to the small town of Commerce, 70 miles northeast of Atlanta and about 20 miles outside Mr. Kemp’s hometown of Athens.

Early polls consistently showed Mr. Perdue, a former senator, trailing Mr. Kemp by about 10 percentage points. The governor has the support of many major state donors and remains far ahead of Mr. Perdue in fundraising. After pursuing a deeply conservative legislative agenda, Mr. Kemp has won the support of most key state leaders and lawmakers, even those who have, thus far, aligned themselves with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Perdue’s hesitant start may hint at a deeper flaw in Mr. Trump’s plan to punish the governor for refusing to work to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results: Mr. Trump’s grievances could now be largely his own. While polls show many GOP voters believe the lies about fraud and irregularities in the 2020 election, there’s little evidence that Republicans remain as election-obsessed as Mr. Trump. The challenge for Mr. Perdue, as well as the other candidates backed by Mr. Trump, is to present a case that goes beyond demanding revenge for 2020.

“When you run against an incumbent governor, it’s a referendum on the incumbent,” said Eric Tanenblatt, chief of staff to former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a cousin of the former senator. “And if the starter has a good track record, it’s going to be tough to beat him.”

Mr Tanenblatt has backed David Perdue’s past senatorial campaigns, including his losing bid last year. But Mr. Tanenblatt is now among Republicans worried that Mr. Perdue is simply distracting the party from its main objective: pushing back the likely Democratic nominee, Stacey Abrams.

“Donald Trump is not on the ballot. And there must be a compelling reason why you would vote against an incumbent,” Mr. Tanenblatt said. “I don’t think there is.”

The seven candidates endorsed by Mr. Trump spoke at the rally. Almost every speaker echoed Mr. Trump’s false election claims, blaming Dominion voting machines and Democratic lawmakers for Republicans’ 2020 losses in Georgia. However, Mr. Perdue went further, blaming himself for his lost Senate campaign and for Mr. Trump’s defeat of Mr. Kemp.

“Let me be very clear. Very clear,” Mr. Perdue told the crowd. “In the state of Georgia, thanks to Brian Kemp, our elections were absolutely stolen. He sold us.

Allies of Mr. Perdue argue that Governor Kemp’s record is forever tainted by his refusal to try to overturn the election results or call a special legislative session to consider them, even though multiple recounts have confirmed his victory. Joe Biden.

“It’s the wound with the salt in it right now that hasn’t healed,” said Bruce LeVell, a former senior Trump adviser based in Georgia. “David Perdue is the only one who can unify the Republican Party in the State of Georgia. Period.”

Michelle and Chey Thomas, a couple from Athens attending the rally, said they were unsure whether they would support Mr. Perdue in the primary or vote to re-elect Mr. Kemp because they knew little about Mr. Perdue before Saturday. Like many participants, they were unsure if they could trust the 2020 election results. And Mr. Kemp, they believe, did not wield the full extent of his power in November 2020.

“A lot of candidates say they’re going to do something and they don’t,” Ms. Thomas said. Mr Kemp, she added, “could have done a much better job”.

Candidates endorsed by Mr. Trump include Herschel Walker, a former Heisman Trophy winner who is running for the Senate; US Representative Jody Hice, candidate for Secretary of State; Vernon Jones, a former Democrat currently running for Congress; and John Gordon, a conservative lawyer who helped Mr. Trump defend his bogus election claims in court. Mr. Trump this week endorsed Mr. Gordon’s candidacy for state attorney general.

Mr Kemp has had years to hedge against a challenge from the Trump wing of the party. He was one of the first governors to roll back Covid-19 restrictions in early 2020, drawing support from many on the right who were angry at government-imposed lockdowns. Last year he enacted new voting restrictions that were popular with the Republican base. And in January, the governor backed a law allowing people to carry a gun without a license and another banning abortion pills in the mail.

That record, Kemp’s supporters say, has won over grassroots Republican voters, even those who agree with Mr. Trump that Mr. Kemp hasn’t done enough to fight Georgia’s election results. .

“I think they’ve moved on from the election,” said State Sen. Clint Dixon, a Republican representing suburban Atlanta. “And people who may have been upset by that, they still see that Governor Kemp is a proven conservative leader that we need.”

Of Mr Trump’s rally, he added: “I don’t think it does much. And the polls show it.

In early March, a Fox News poll of Republican primary voters in Georgia showed Mr. Kemp ahead of Mr. Perdue by 11 percentage points.

Mr. Kemp has amassed a war chest of more than $12.7 million, compared to the $1.1 million that Mr. Perdue has amassed since entering the race in December. The Republican Governors Association has also cut more than $1 million from ads supporting Mr. Kemp – the first time the organization has taken sides in a primary race. (Since December, Ms. Abrams has raised more than the two men, bringing in $9.3 million in January.)

Mr Kemp has worked to bring key Republican leaders into line – or keep them out. Earlier this month, he named Sonny Perdue chancellor of the state’s university system. The former governor intends to remain neutral in the primary, according to sources familiar with his plans.

Since losing Georgia by less than 12,000 votes in 2020, Mr. Trump has tried to turn state politics into a proxy war over his election grievances. He blamed Mr. Kemp for his loss, saying he didn’t win Georgia because the governor refused to block certification of the results. Mr Trump’s attempt to overturn the results is the subject of a criminal investigation.

Mr. Trump viewed Mr. Kemp’s refusal as disloyal, in part because Mr. Trump endorsed the governor in a 2018 primary, helping propel him to a decisive victory.

“It’s personal,” said Martha Zoller, a Georgia-based conservative radio host and former aide to Mr. Kemp and Mr. Perdue. “President Trump thinks he created Brian Kemp.”

Now Mr. Perdue’s campaign is looking for the same boost from Mr. Trump. Although advertisements, social media pages and Mr. Perdue’s campaign website indicate that he is endorsed by Mr. Trump, Mr. Perdue’s campaign aides believe that many voters are not yet paying attention and don’t know he has Mr. Trump’s support. The former business executive has been an ally of Trump, but he barely exuded the shine of his political benefactor during his one term in the Senate.

Mr. Perdue now runs to the right of Mr. Kemp. He recently campaigned with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene at a rally in his rural northwest Georgia district, even after the congresswoman appeared at a far-right conference tied to white supremacy.

At the rally, Mr Perdue lamented the “assault” on Georgia’s election and reminded the crowd that he “fought for President Trump” in November 2020. At the time, he said. He said he had asked Mr. Kemp not only to call a special legislative session committee, but also for the resignation of the current Georgian Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger — remarks received to thunderous applause.

Although Mr. Perdue’s campaign has largely focused on the 2020 election, he and Mr. Kemp have parted ways on other issues. Mr. Perdue has opposed the construction of a Rivian Automotive electric truck plant in the state, saying the tax incentives it brings could benefit wealthy liberal donors. Mr Kemp embraced the deal as a potential economic boon.

Mr. Perdue also parted ways with Mr. Kemp when Mr. Perdue lent his support to a group of residents of Atlanta’s wealthy Buckhead neighborhood who seek to secede from the city. The idea gained traction among some who worried about Atlanta’s rising crime rate, but the effort has now stalled in the state legislature.

If Mr. Trump was concerned about the campaign, he did not show it at the rally. Before taking Mr. Perdue on stage later in the evening, he promised his supporters that the former senator would stand up for election integrity and defeat Stacey Abrams.

“It’s a big crowd of people,” he said. “And they all love David Perdue.”

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