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Georgia Governor Race Is a Test for Trump. It Isn’t Going Well.
Tuesday’s GOP primary between Kemp and Perdue tests the potency of a stolen-election campaign in the state at the center of former President Trump’s push to overturn his loss
By Cameron McWhirter and Joshua Jamerson, WSJ
May 22, 2022 10:33 am ET
DAWSONVILLE, Ga.—Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp seemed to face a bleak political future in the contentious aftermath of the 2020 election.
He had angered former President Donald Trump by not going along with Mr. Trump’s false claim that Democrats used election fraud to carry the state for President Biden. Being on the wrong side of Mr. Trump and his supporters has doomed the careers of many GOP politicians.
Yet Mr. Kemp, 58 years old, is positioned to win Tuesday’s Republican primary for governor and fend off a Trump-backed challenger. At the core of Mr. Kemp’s campaign is his record while in office: signing the state’s largest income-tax cut, opening up Georgia early in the Covid-19 pandemic, bolstering police and championing new voting requirements.
Mr. Kemp’s chief opponent in the primary, former Sen. David Perdue, 72, has run a campaign channeling the simmering anger among Mr. Trump’s supporters over the outcome of the 2020 election, an issue the former president has said will boost GOP turnout in the midterm contests.
Mr. Perdue’s argument to voters on the campaign trail centers on the 2020 election and his endorsement by Mr. Trump. The former president campaigned in Georgia for Mr. Perdue and hosted virtual town hall events that the Perdue campaign said drew thousands of participants.
“To run against an incumbent governor is a serious thing, but this is a serious reason: He sold us out. He allowed the left to steal these elections,” Mr. Perdue said during a recent campaign stop in Thomasville, a conservative rural community in southern Georgia.
Mr. Kemp has said he, too, had questions about how the 2020 election was handled, but acted on them within the limits of the Georgia state constitution.
In polls, Mr. Perdue has trailed Mr. Kemp by double digits. Mr. Kemp has kept top Republican donors in his fold and amassed a larger campaign war chest. Former Vice President Mike Pence plans to attend a rally for Mr. Kemp before Tuesday’s vote. Mr. Perdue has been endorsed by former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Georgia’s primary presents a marquee test of Mr. Trump’s influence on Republican voters and the potency of a stolen-election platform versus one built on such traditional conservative issues as crime, taxes and inflation. Mr. Perdue’s struggle suggests that some Republican voters, even in a state that was at the center of Mr. Trump’s push to overturn the 2020 results, have tired of that fight or don’t consider it their first priority.
If Mr. Kemp wins, his strategy could be a template for other Republicans seeking office who don’t want to tie themselves to the former president’s coattails.
So far, Mr. Trump’s endorsement, still widely sought by GOP candidates, has yielded mixed results. It helped author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance win a crowded Republican primary this month for Ohio’s open Senate seat. Charles Herbster, another Trump-backed Republican, lost his bid to be Nebraska’s GOP gubernatorial candidate. He faced allegations of groping women, which he denied.
In North Carolina last week, Mr. Trump’s pick, Rep. Ted Budd, won the Republican Senate nomination. U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, backed by Mr. Trump, lost his primary to GOP state Sen. Chuck Edwards.
Mr. Kemp is positioning himself as the best candidate to beat Stacey Abrams, who lost to Mr. Kemp in 2018 and is running unopposed for governor in Georgia’s Democratic Party primary, also on Tuesday.
“I have the record to beat her again, and that is why they should elect me. I’m not a guy who couldn’t beat Jon Ossoff,” Mr. Kemp said, referring to Mr. Perdue’s loss to the Democrat in last year’s Senate runoff.
Mr. Kemp has avoided responding publicly to attacks from Mr. Trump, and he doesn’t mention the former president by name in his campaign speeches. “I can’t control especially what people who don’t even live here are doing,” he said in an interview. The governor directs his criticism, and blame, at Mr. Biden for rising inflation and other voter complaints.
“All of [Biden’s] policies have hurt the small man and helped the corporate world,” said Dee Dettman, 57, a Kemp supporter from Gainesville, Ga.
She and her husband run a pressure-washing business, and the reopening of the state’s economy early in the pandemic helped cinch her backing for the incumbent, Ms. Dettman said. She suspects there was fraud in the 2020 election in Georgia, she said, but that won’t determine her vote.
“If there were real proof to that, I think the court system would have played that out,” Ms. Dettman said. “I feel it was true, but where is our proof?”
In November 2020, Mr. Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to lose Georgia since 1992. His campaign and allies later lost dozens of lawsuits around the U.S. challenging Mr. Biden’s win. The Justice Department found no signs of widespread voter fraud. A bipartisan group of local, state and federal election officials declared it the most secure vote in history.
Mr. Trump and his supporters have promised to exact revenge on Republican leaders such as Mr. Kemp for not doing enough to overturn the election results. It is still a potent issue in the GOP midterm campaign.
Two months after the presidential election, Mr. Perdue, former chief executive of Reebok and Dollar General, lost his Senate seat in a January 2021 runoff, and so did former Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
“I want to congratulate the Democratic Party and my opponent,” Mr. Perdue said after now-Sen. Ossoff was declared the winner.
Mr. Perdue now tells voters there was widespread voter fraud in 2020, and that Mr. Kemp robbed him of a second term in the Senate by refusing to order a recount in his losing runoff.
In a debate last month, Mr. Perdue said that if Mr. Kemp were a Democrat, his actions after the 2020 election would be described as “a gross, corrupt coverup” by other Republicans.
Mr. Kemp replied, “Weak leaders blame everybody else for their own loss instead of themselves.”
Mr. Trump has tempered his outlook on Mr. Perdue’s chances. “I’m going against the governor, who has done a horrible job with election integrity in Georgia,” he said in a recent interview. “I have a candidate that’s a very good candidate. We’ll see what happens, but it’s somewhat of a long shot.”
Chip Lake, a GOP strategist in Georgia who isn’t involved in the governor’s race, said Mr. Trump’s endorsement is coveted among Republicans. “But you have to be able to complement that endorsement with something else you can bring to the table,” he said, adding that Mr. Perdue has struggled to do that.
While campaigning, Mr. Kemp trumpets wins from Georgia’s recently ended legislative session, such as pay raises for teachers and state employees. He highlights a new law that allows residents to carry a concealed firearm without a state license, as well as a law limiting what teachers can discuss about racism in their lessons.
Georgia’s new election law, intended to tighten election security, requires voters requesting an absentee ballot to provide a driver’s license number or another form of identification.
In April 2020, when most states were in pandemic lockdowns, Mr. Kemp allowed restaurants, theaters, barber shops and gyms to operate if they followed sanitary and social-distancing guidelines. His decision was applauded in some circles and condemned in others, generally along party lines.
With a healthy combination of tax revenue and federal aid, Georgia piled up a state budget surplus in the pandemic years.
Republican Debbie Blackwell, 59, said she admired how Mr. Kemp didn’t extend school and business closures. Ms. Blackwell, who works for a shipping business, and her husband, a truck driver, both worked during the pandemic, and her 15-year-old son, Jackson, returned to the classroom relatively early.
Ms. Blackwell said she strongly supported Mr. Trump as president but is uneasy about his involvement in the governor’s race. “I don’t like his fight against Kemp because I think Kemp did what he had to do,” she said.
The winner of the GOP primary faces a well-funded opponent. Ms. Abrams, the former top Democrat in the Georgia House of Representatives, is a nationally known voting-rights advocate. Mr. Kemp defeated her by about 55,000 votes in the 2018 gubernatorial race out of more than 3.9 million cast.
Early polls suggest both Messrs. Kemp and Perdue would hold a slight advantage over Ms. Abrams in the fall election. Mr. Trump hasn’t said whether he would support Mr. Kemp in the general election should the governor win on Tuesday.
Ms. Abrams, who declined a request for an interview, has said she would campaign for an expansion of voting access. She has attacked the voting regulations passed last year by the Republican-led state legislature, which in addition to new I.D. requirements also limits the number of ballot drop boxes. The new rules make it harder for people, especially minority voters, to cast a ballot, she said.
“There was no fraud, there was no lack of integrity” in the 2020 presidential election, she said last month in a TV interview. “There was simply a different victor than they intended.”
Ms. Abrams has spoken out against the alleged suppression of Black voter turnout by Mr. Kemp, who as secretary of state oversaw the 2018 election. He has denied those allegations.
During a campaign swing last month, Mr. Kemp told about 60 supporters at a restaurant in Dawsonville, Ga., that Mr. Biden’s first year in office shows how Ms. Abrams might govern.
“Our state is going in the right direction, and if you don’t want it to go the way of Joe Biden’s Washington, D.C., you need to help us win this primary with your vote and with your support,” Mr. Kemp said. “Then we’ll turn it and do it again against Stacey Abrams in November.”
Mr. Perdue said polls that show him trailing Mr. Kemp aren’t to be believed. “How many of y’all talked to a pollster?” Mr. Perdue asked a group of about 20 people in Thomasville, Ga.
“Look at that. One,” he said of a single raised hand.
In Valdosta, Ga., Mr. Perdue urged a group of Republicans to ignore the polls. “This is the kind of race that they cannot predict because it’s an outsider running against an incumbent,” he said.
“Kemp has done a good job strictly as a governor,” said Fred Heivilin, 81, a Republican who was undecided when he arrived to see Mr. Perdue in Thomasville. Mr. Heivilin left the event inclined to vote for Mr. Perdue because of his belief there was voter fraud in the 2020 election, he said.
Even if Mr. Kemp wins the primary by highlighting his record in office, suspicions about the 2020 election and the integrity of the voting system remain on the minds of many voters.
Roberta Magg, a retired teacher who backs Mr. Perdue, said she would question the credibility of the primary vote should he lose. “I would look more at how the election was done,” she said.
Alex Leary contributed to this article.