A donation committee created by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign has taken aim at former U.S. Senator David Perdue, an ally of former President Donald Trump who announced Monday that he would challenge the Republican incumbent in next year’s gubernatorial election.
The Kemp-aligned Georgians First Leadership Committee described Perdue as a “crooked insider” looking to “claw his way back into political relevance” in a fundraising email sent hours after he announced his campaign.
Perdue’s candidacy sets Georgia up for a tense primary battle between two Republicans whose main differences seem to lie within Trump’s perception and their stances on last year’s presidential election. Kemp fell out of Trump’s good graces in refusing to back his baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 vote.
But Perdue, who has received the former president’s endorsement Monday night, continued the election fraud rhetoric in an announcement video that criticized both Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams.
“We simply have to be united. Unfortunately, today we are divided, and Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger are to blame,” Perdue said, referencing Georgia’s secretary of state.
Trump described Kemp as “a very weak governor” in his endorsement of Perdue, but did not elaborate on his stance apart from decrying Kemp’s position on “election integrity.”
“Most importantly,” Trump said in reference to Kemp, “he can’t win because the MAGA base — which is enormous — will never vote for him.”
Perdue narrowly lost his Senate seat in January to Democrat Jon Ossoff, and Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said in a statement that Perdue’s bid for the governor’s office is an attempt “to soothe his own bruised ego.”
“Governor Kemp has a proven track record of fighting the radical left to put hardworking Georgians first, while Perdue is best known for ducking debates, padding his stock portfolio during a pandemic, and losing winnable races,” Hall said.
Less than a year after losing the presidency, Trump has set out to reshape the GOP in his image across the nation’s top political battlegrounds, sparking bitter primary battles that will force candidates and voters to decide how much to embrace Trump and his grievances.
But nowhere is his quest more consequential than Georgia.
Trump has inspired a slate of loyalists to seek statewide office in the southern swing state, and as of Monday, that group included Perdue, who formally launched a challenge against Kemp. The move marked a rare, serious primary threat to a sitting governor, bucking the wishes of GOP leaders in Washington and ensuring months of Republican infighting in a state where the party is trying to restore its dominance.
“It is going to be a political civil war here in Georgia,” current Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican and frequent Trump critic who is not running for reelection, told The Associated Press. “It’s all avoidable if we just act like adults and move on. But that’s not reality at this point.”
It’s not just Georgia.
Tension between Trump and what’s left of the Republican establishment is defining primaries for Senate and governor across dozens of states — including Arizona, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania — months before the first ballots are cast next spring and summer. With President Joe Biden‘s approval numbers sagging, political headwinds from Washington suggest that Republicans could make major political gains in 2022 — if the GOP can get out of its own way.
Trump’s interest in a third presidential bid in 2024 ensures he will be the face of the Republican Party for the foreseeable future.
Look no further for a cautionary tale than Georgia, an evolving swing state where demographic shifts of recent years have given Democrats a path to power. Biden narrowly defeated Trump here last fall and, after Trump falsely claimed widespread election fraud, Democrats seized victory in two Senate runoff elections in January that gave them control of the Senate.
Ever since, the former president has battered the state officials who certified the election results — Kemp chief among them — with a fierce torrent of political attacks.
Trump has boosted Republican former football star Herschel Walker in the GOP’s push to unseat Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, betting on an untested and unvetted professional athlete in a Republican primary against state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black. He is also backing like-minded candidates in Republican primaries for lieutenant governor and secretary of state, where current Secretary of State Raffensperger is fighting for his political survival.
Nationwide, Trump has endorsed more than 60 midterm candidates so far, including several running against Republican incumbents.
Trump’s intervention in the Georgia governor’s race is a nightmare scenario of sorts for some Republican strategists, who were already gearing up for a difficult general election contest against former state lawmaker and Democratic voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018. Abrams formally announced her candidacy last week.
Republicans in Washington and beyond prepared for a nasty and expensive GOP primary, which could ultimately cost tens of millions of dollars and drag Kemp to the right in a state that has moved to the center. So far, Abrams has no primary challengers.
“While David Perdue and Brian Kemp fight each other, Stacey Abrams will be fighting for the people of Georgia,” Abrams top aide Lauren Groh-Wargo wrote on Twitter.
The governor’s race reflects GOP divisions playing out across Republican communities this year.
In Georgia, pro-Trump activists angered by his defeat have flooded local Republican Party meetings, seizing control of the party machinery while dumping some metro-Atlanta county officials deemed insufficiently pro-Trump.
David Shafer, the state party chairman, has maintained a pro-Trump line.
Criticized for speaking at Trump’s September rally where Trump joined his slate of endorsed candidates, Shafer on Sunday told The Associated Press that the party would be neutral in contested primaries and said he hoped Republican candidates “will focus on their own strengths and how they can assemble a winning coalition.”
National Republican leaders are remaining loyal to Kemp.
Anticipating a Trump-backed challenge from Perdue, the Republican Governors Association vowed to support the incumbent Georgia governor in addition to other sitting Republican governors who have drawn Trump’s ire, including Idaho Gov. Brad Little. In helping Republican incumbents, however, RGA Chairman Doug Ducey, the Arizona governor, said his organization would not attack Trump’s slate of challengers.
“The RGA follows the 11th Commandment,” Ducey said at the group’s recent gathering in his state. “We do not speak ill of another Republican.”
But Republicans on the ground in Georgia are not likely to play so nice.
Georgia Republican Party official Randy Evans, who served as Trump’s ambassador to Luxembourg, argued that Kemp may be so unpopular with the Trump base that he will lose to Abrams even if he survives the primary.
“If the party comes together, Perdue will be the nominee and then he’ll go on to be governor,” Evans said. “And if the party comes apart, which if the bitterness and divisiveness continues with this kind of rhetoric, then Kemp will be the nominee and Stacey will be the governor.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.