A simmering war within the Georgia Republican Party is about – what else? – Donald Trump.
The former President – still angry over how Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp responded to the 2020 election results in his state – may get his wish for a credible primary challenger to the Republican leader. Republicans in the state have told CNN they expect former Sen. David Perdue to make a decision soon about running against Kemp in next year’s primary, after Perdue allies floated the possibility last month.
At the center of the potential fight is Trump’s false contention that the election was stolen, with the narrow victory for Joe Biden in Georgia as a central part of the tale. Despite Kemp’s call for an audit that turned up no substantial change in the overall vote count, Trump continues to blame the governor for not contesting the results enough and has vowed to back a primary challenger.
So far, no one of note has emerged to take on Kemp and get the Trump endorsement. A Perdue bid for governor could change that.
A match-up between Kemp and Perdue could not only upend Georgia’s governor race but split the GOP at a time when the party’s dominance in the state has been threatened by recent electoral wins by Democrats. Some Republicans fear that a contested primary over the issue of the 2020 election could only further damage the GOP, which, in addition to the losing the presidential election there, also lost both of its US Senate seats in Georgia this year in runoff elections – including Perdue’s.
“I would hate to see two good men run against each other,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a veteran GOP strategist and former chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue. “Having watched the Republican Party become the dominant party in Georgia, it’s puzzling to me we would see a sitting incumbent Republican governor be challenged by another Republican.”
Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter, a staunch supporter of Trump in the US House, told CNN Tuesday that he does and will continue to support Kemp for governor. The Republican congressman added that he does not know what Perdue will do.
“My hope is that he won’t run,” said Carter. “My hope is that we’ll have just one candidate that we can unify behind.”
But other allies of the former President counter that Kemp will be unable to keep Trump voters in the fold. On Sunday, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a Trump ally, posted on his personal website that only Perdue, not Kemp, could unite the party and defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has not yet declared but is thought to be considering her own bid for governor.
The result of all this is what one Republican operative in Georgia called a “meltdown” by Kemp’s political operation in its attempt to discourage Perdue from running. Republican critics of Kemphave accused the governor’s chief of staff of threatening potential Perdue allies with political retribution. Meanwhile, Kemp’s PAC and campaign have been hiring members of Perdue’s wider political circle.
“They’re playing hardball,” said a second GOP operative in Georgia.
Kemp allies, on the other hand, say the governor is simply taking the threat of a primary challenge from a former US senator seriously.
“It’s gonna be an all-out fight,” said one person allied with Kemp.
When asked for comment, a spokesman for Kemp’s campaign provided CNN with a statement.
“Governor Kemp and Marty proudly campaigned hard for – and with – former Senator Perdue and Bonnie throughout the 2020 election cycle,” said Tate Mitchell. “Both the Governor and the First Lady were honored when Senator Perdue told them personally that he would fully support their campaign for re-election earlier this year.”
Efforts to reach Perdue for comment were unsuccessful.
Kemp ready to fight
On Monday, Kemp launched a TV ad that makes a positive case for his first term as governor. The ad highlights Georgia’s economic health along with policies meant to appeal to Republican primary voters.
The ad touts that Kemp “backed the blue, stopping the radical left from defunding local police,” “passed a tough new election integrity bill,” and “kept our schools and businesses open, while keeping Georgians safe” during the pandemic.
But the sunny tone of the ad is at odds with what people close to Kemp say would be a brutal campaign against Perdue if he challenges the governor.
Nothing, the Kemp ally said, would be off limits for going after Perdue and making his life “a living hell.”
“We’d have the resources and we’d have the motive,” said this person.
That may include targeting a series of stock trades Perdue made in January 2020 following a briefing about the then-nascent coronavirus pandemic.
The New York Times reported last year that the Justice Department opened an investigation into Perdue’s transactions but declined to press charges. A spokeswoman for Perdue at the time, Casey Black, told CNN, “Separate reviews by the Department of Justice, the Securities & Exchange Commission, and the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee each quickly and independently cleared Senator Perdue of any wrongdoing.”
The saber-rattling from Kemp allies only underscores how the governor’s team is on guard about a looming primary fight.
Their fears are two-fold: One, that Perdue can successfully challenge Kemp with the backing of Trump; and two, that Kempsurvives a bitter primary fight that leaves him and the party damaged ahead of the 2022 general election, which Republicans believe would be another tough battle after Kemp’s narrow 2018 victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Adding to the stakes is the GOP’s fight to win back a Senate seat from Democrat Raphael Warnock, who defeated Perdue’s fellow Republican Kelly Loeffler in the other runoff election earlier this year.
The top Republican in the Senate primary, football great Herschel Walker, has a troubled personal history, including allegations uncovered by CNN Investigates and other news outlets that the former football star threatened women with violence beyond what he disclosed in his memoir. That has some GOP strategists worried about Walker’s chances against Warnock. A well-positioned gubernatorial candidate at the top of the ticket could help boost Walker.
But despite the warning signs to the Trump-led GOP the 2020 presidential election and the 2021 Senate runoffs, Trump remains a force among Georgia Republicans, particularly those who vote in primaries.
“David Perdue with Donald Trump’s backing is dangerous,” said the second GOP operative.
Trump’s Georgia focus
Trump has focused his ire particularly on Georgia Republicans he deems disloyal in the wake of the 2020 election.
Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, received the brunt of Trump’s anger about his loss in the state by fewer than 12,000 votes. In a January 2 phone call with Raffensperger, Trump asked the secretary of state to “find” enough votes for Trump to make up the difference – a request the Georgia Republican rejected. Raffensperger now faces a formidable primary challenge from Rep. Jody Hice, whom Trump has endorsed.
“Unlike the current Georgia Secretary of State, Jody leads out front with integrity,” Trump said in a statement in March. “Jody will stop the Fraud and get honesty into our Elections!”
Trump made a similar appeal to Kemp, asking in a phone call in December 2020 for the Georgia governor to convene state legislators to select pro-Trump electors. Kemp, who had already approved the certification of Georgia’s electoral votes for Joe Biden, told Trump he had no authority to do anything to change the election results.
In response, Trump blasted Kemp as a “RINO” and later said he was “ashamed” to have endorsed him in 2018. During an appearance in Georgia before the Senate runoff elections in January, Trump vowed to campaign against Kemp before the 2022 primary.
But Trump’s struggles to find someone with the ability to take on Kemp show how difficult it can be to take on an incumbent governor, particularly one as powerful as Georgia’s. Burt Jones, a state senator and perhaps Trump’s most ardent supported among elected officials in the Peach State, resisted overtures from the former president to take on Kemp. Instead, Jones is running in an open primary for lieutenant governor.
Last December, Trump publicly floated that outgoing Rep. Doug Collins could run for governor. But Collins, who had unsuccessfully run for the Senate in last year’s special election, announced in April he would not be running for any office in 2022.
And while former state Rep. Vernon Jones (no relation to Burt Jones), who is close to several in Trump’s orbit, got into the race for governor in April, Trump has not yet backed him. A former Democrat, Jones was a fixture at Trump campaign rallies and spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2020. He switched parties this year and has become a vocal avatar for the right wing of the Republican base.
Despite striking out, Trump’s animosity toward Kemp has not abated.
While at a rally in Georgia in September, Trump even said he would prefer if Abrams, who may run again for governor next year, had the top job instead of Kemp. Party leaders were caught flat-footed by the remark but seemed unwilling to rebuke the former president or rally to Kemp’s side.
“I think the most notable part is the quiet of everyone in the GOP in Georgia,” said Erick Erickson, an Atlanta-based talk radio host, told CNN at the time. “No one agrees with him. No one is endorsing it. But no one is vocally pushing back, either.”
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this story.