Former President Donald Trump has offered Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Vernon Jones his endorsement in a congressional contest if Jones agrees to exit the GOP primary for governor to instead run for Congress, according to two people familiar with the matter, both of whom said Trump’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering is meant to bolster former Sen. David Perdue’s challenge to incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.
It’s the latest sign of Trump meddling in 2022 midterm races to help his preferred candidates prevail over opponents who have refused to embrace his false claims about the 2020 election, though it is unclear how successful Trump will be as he tries to nudge Jones into a different contest. After this story was first published, Jones signaled in a tweet that he will remain in the gubernatorial primary.
“I can’t wait to debate @StaceyAbrams,” he tweeted, referring to the prominent Democrat who is currently running unopposed in the party’s gubernatorial primary. The Jones campaign did not return multiple requests for comment.
Trump endorsed Perdue shortly after the former senator launched his campaign in December and has been closely monitoring his performance in the primary against Kemp. Jones’ campaign has failed to take off despite his early entry into the primary last April, leaving him badly trailing both Kemp and Perdue. The latest Quinnipiac University poll of the race showed Jones with 10% support, while Kemp led Perdue by 7 percentage points – 43% to 36%.
Looking to close the gap between Perdue and Kemp, the former President invited Jones to Mar-a-Lago last Wednesday to discuss a possible transition to a campaign for one of two congressional districts – either the 6th or 10th – where Trump and his aides believe that Jones would fare better. Trump told Jones during that meeting that he is prepared to endorse him in either primary as soon as he makes the switch, sources told CNN.
People familiar with Jones’ thinking said he is leaning toward seeking the GOP nod in the 10th District if he ultimately decides to exit the governor’s race, though they stressed that he has not yet made a firm decision. One person close to Jones said he believes “he has reasons to believe he has enough support to remain competitive” due to his loyal donor small-dollar donor base and existing campaign infrastructure.
The 10th District seat is currently held by Republican Rep. Jody Hice, who is challenging Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in the statewide primary. Hice has embraced Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, and received the former President’s endorsement last March.
Hice told CNN he has heard “rumblings” about Jones running for a House seat rather than continuing his bid for the governor’s mansion. The Trump-backed congressman could find himself in an awkward position if Jones ultimately decides to enter the 10th District primary given that Hice previously endorsed state Rep. Timothy Barr to succeed him.
The 6th District, where seven Republicans are battling in the primary, currently is held by a Democrat, Rep. Lucy McBath. Jones’ most formidable competitor would likely be Jake Evans, a former chairman of the Georgia Ethics Commission who is supported by former House Speaker and Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally.
“If (Jones) gets in the 6th District race with a full-on Trump endorsement, he becomes an instant front-runner in the race. It kneecaps Jake Evans,” said one Georgia-based Republican strategist.
Another Georgia Republican said Jones is “definitely going to run,” it is just a matter of figuring out “where.”
A Trump spokesman did not return a request for comment.
Jones switching races would surely be welcomed by Perdue, who released his first ad Tuesday featuring Trump attacking Kemp and reminding voters of the ex-President’s endorsement of Perdue. Trump has falsely blamed Kemp for his loss in Georgia in 2020, claiming in December that the governor “allowed massive Election Fraud to take place.”
Kemp told Axios in January that he has “never said a bad word about” Trump but stood by his decision to certify his loss. Perdue has said that he would not have certified the 2020 election, even though the state law requires the governor to do so. In January 2021, Perdue and fellow Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler narrowly lost to Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, shifting the Senate to Democratic control.
Trump attempted a similar move in North Carolina’s Senate GOP primary late last year, when he privately encouraged former Rep. Mark Walker to exit the race and run for the House instead – offering up his endorsement if he did. The move was meant to assist Rep. Ted Budd, who, despite having Trump’s endorsement, has failed to emerge as a definitive front-runner in the primary, which also includes former Gov. Pat McCrory.
Ultimately, Walker ignored Trump’s entreaties. Last Thursday, he announced that he was going to remain in the Senate race even though he was “thrilled to get all these endorsements and asking about the U.S. House.”