David Perdue and Donald Trump often say that Gov. Brian Kemp has irrevocably divided Georgia Republicans.
“He has alienated a good part of the Republican Party,” Perdue said on a humid evening in late April to a group of voters in Oconee County, a short drive from the University of Georgia. “I hate it. It shouldn’t be that way. But it’s a reality.”
But while many Republican voters in the state were frustrated with how Kemp handled the 2020 presidential election results – he refused to reverse Joe Biden’s victory, much to Trump’s chagrin – even some of the most committed Perdue voters say they’ll support Kemp in the general election should he emerge as the victor of the May 24 primary. After all, the eventual GOP nominee will face off in November against Democrat Stacey Abrams, the arch-villain for Georgia Republicans who one operative described to CNN as the “great unifier” for the GOP.
“If Kemp wins, then we need to back him,” said Tammy Paulson of Watkinsville, who is voting for Perdue, the former senator, in the primary.
Don and Sharon Doherty, two Perdue supporters from Winterville, said the same thing. And Kelly from Watkinsville, who declined to give her last name, said she was so angry with Kemp for his inaction during 2020. But she nodded her head resignedly when asked if she’d back Kemp if he won the primary.
“I would have to vote for him,” she admitted.
The former President, who is Perdue’s most prominent backer, has spent more than a year of railing against the incumbent governor. He has repeatedly said that his most die-hard supporters will stay home in the general election if Kemp is renominated.
The latest came on a call-in “tele-rally” with Perdue this week, when Trump called Kemp a “truly horrendous RINO” who betrayed Republican voters” and warned those listening that Kemp was bound to lose in November.
“So many Republicans are just not going to vote for Kemp,” Trump said.
But polls have shown Kemp with a significant lead, maybe even enough to avoid a runoff and win the nomination outright.
The state of the race has confounded Perdue supporters who take the former President’s falsehoods about the 2020 election to heart and blame Kemp for allowing Biden’s victory.
“When everybody that I know feels that he let down the state, I want to know why he’s so far ahead,” Paulson, the Watkinsville voter, told CNN.
The explanation for Kemp’s persistent lead is simple, say observers: He has been a successful conservative governor, delivering on priority agenda items on abortion, taxes and education.
“Donald Trump fans are realizing how conservative a leader Brian Kemp is, and that’s why we see the polling go in that direction,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican, told CNN.
Duncan, who is not running for reelection and has been critical of Trump’s influence on the GOP, spoke to CNN outside the White Diamond Grill in Houston County, where Kemp had just signed into law one of the largest income-tax cuts in the state’s history.
The location for the signing was a not-so-subtle jab at Perdue, who grew up in Houston County and has called the White Diamond Grill his “favorite spot.” It was also a symbolic reminder of the power advantage Kemp has as the incumbent.
A day earlier, Kemp received the endorsement of the National Rifle Association after he had signed into law an expansion of gun-carry rights. And later in the week, Kemp signed several education bills, including legislation that bans divisive concepts and ideologies from being taught in the classrooms.
That’s all on top of other recent conservative achievements, from a temporary relief from the state’s gas tax to a bill that bans abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Even Perdue voters, such as Kelly from Watkinsville, give Kemp credit for reopening the state from its Covid lockdown quickly in 2020.
The tagline from Kemp’s television ads notes his “conservative accomplishments” and crops up organically in conversations about the governor with voters across the state.
“It’s rare when an elected politician makes good on campaign promises and rarer still when they keep commitments amid a global economic and public-health crisis,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a longtime Republican operative in Georgia who was chief of staff for former Gov. Sonny Perdue, David Perdue’s cousin. “But that’s what Gov. Kemp did. He ran and governed as a common-sense conservative grounded in reality.”
Kemp’s impressive conservative report card and the fear Abrams could win this time are enough to give most Republicans reasons to stick with their governor in the primary. But there’s another factor lingering just beneath the surface for Republicans – the sense that Trump’s involvement in Georgia politics has been a net negative for the GOP.
“We saw what happened in 2021,” said Katherine Hurley, the chair of the Oconee County Republican Party.
“What happened” was two months of Trump talking about and amplifying false claims of a stolen election in the run-up to Georgia’s dual runoff elections for US Senate. Both Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the other incumbent Republican senator at the time, lost in the January 5 runoff, humiliating Republicans again a short two months after Biden’s narrow victory there and giving Democrats the majority in the US Senate.
What scares these Republicans now is a replay of that scenario in this fall’s general election. Trump’s intense focus on taking down Kemp is giving some Georgia Republicans uncomfortable flashbacks. Hurley, who says she loves what Trump accomplished, took a deep breath and pursed her lips before telling CNN, “I really wish he would keep his nose out of Georgia state elections.”
Even those who can recite in detail the litany of supposed evidence and conspiracy theories Trump and his allies have raised regarding the 2020 elections say the former President doesn’t quite get what motivates Georgia Republicans in 2022.
Jody, a Perdue supporter from Monroe who declined to give her last name, has bought into Trump’s narrative. In a conversation with CNN, she blamed Kemp for failing to investigate voter-fraud conspiracies like large batches of missing ballots or rigged voting machines. She brought up the forthcoming film from conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza, which had a screening earlier this month at Mar-a-Lago, saying it will expose more of the problems with the 2020 election.
But when asked by CNN about Trump’s suggestion last fall that Kemp is such a bad governor that Abrams would be better, Jody paused and shrugged her shoulders.
“He doesn’t quite understand,” she said.