Georgia Today: Kemp-Perdue gubernatorial primary is likely to be a referendum on Trumpism
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s announcement that he's challenging Gov. Brian Kemp in next year’s gubernatorial primary is deepening the divide in an already fractured GOP. Former President Donald Trump has endorsed Perdue. How will Perdue’s unprecedented challenge to a sitting governor play out in next year’s primary elections and what could it all mean for the future of the Georgia GOP?
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Has the Georgia Republican Party ever been more divided? Not in living memory, at least. This week, Republican former U.S. Sen. David Perdue upended Georgia politics with his announcement that he'll primary incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, who's running for reelection next year.
David Perdue campaign video: Unfortunately, today we're divided and Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger are to blame. Look, I like Brian. This isn't personal. It's simple. He has failed all of us and cannot win in November.
Steve Fennessy: The announcement exposes the chasm that's opened up in the party since Donald Trump lost the state in 2020. And Perdue, who also lost his Senate seat earlier this year, is now claiming that he's the only one who can beat Democrat Stacey Abrams for governor. But the big question is, will what happens in the GOP primary next year be a sign of the Republican Party's direction nationwide? For more on what's shaping up to be yet another dramatic year in Georgia politics, I'm joined by GPB reporter Stephen Fowler. Welcome, Stephen.
Stephen Fowler: Hey, Steve; how's it going?
Steve Fennessy: What factored into David Perdue's decision to run against Brian Kemp?
Stephen Fowler: The easiest answer is: Trump. Let's go back just a little bit. Georgia, one of the battleground states in the 2020 election, demographically and politically has shifted over the last decade; no longer the white, rural Republican bastion. Donald Trump won the state in 2016. It looked like it was going to be close in 2020. And when all of the votes were counted — and counted and counted again — Joe Biden narrowly won Georgia's Electoral College votes. And Trump didn't like that.
Donald Trump: That was a rigged election. Well, I want to thank you very much. Hello, Georgia, by the way.
Stephen Fowler: In the meantime, there were two Senate runoffs: David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler trying to hold on to their seats against Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. So while these campaigns are trying to get out the vote, Donald Trump was trying to get back the vote from 2020 and claiming that he won and that there was massive fraud and that it was taken from him. So what ended up happening is Democrats won those seats, too, in part because of the large number of conservative Trump voters that stayed home. So now Joe Biden is president, two Democratic senators and Democrats control the Senate. And Donald Trump is looking for somebody to take out his anger and rage on. And we've seen a lot of it with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, Georgia's chief election official, who did not "find votes" like Trump asked him to do. And Brian Kemp, who had the misfortune of being a very conservative governor who also knows what it's like to be the secretary of state and didn't overturn the election. So Trump's been asking for somebody to primary Brian Kemp. He's been asking David Perdue, who has time on his hands now. And what you see is Trump's wish is granted.
Steve Fennessy: The Kemp-Perdue relationship. I mean, these are two people who have been in Georgia politics for quite a while. David Perdue has even called Brian Kemp a friend, right? I mean, what is their relationship like up to now, anyway?
Stephen Fowler: In 2010, Sonny Perdue, David's cousin, was the governor of Georgia, and he appointed Brian Kemp to be secretary of state. Brian Kemp then won that seat and served for eight years as secretary of state. When Kemp ran for governor, Sonny Perdue helped campaign for him. And in fact, in the GOP primary runoffs, Kemp wasn't the favorite. That would be Casey Cagle, who was a lieutenant governor. And then, one week before the primary runoffs, Donald Trump, via a tweet out of nowhere, endorsed Brian Kemp for governor.
[News Tape] WJCL22: Kemp has always been a solid supporter of Trump, and he won the governorship back in 2018, in part because President Trump endorsed him and personally campaigned for him here.
Stephen Fowler: And that kind of helped seal the deal. Now we found out later that that was orchestrated by Sonny Perdue and his cousin, U.S. Sen. David Perdue. And even, Steve, if you go as recently as this summer, David Perdue has been an ally of Brian Kemp. At the Georgia Republican Party State Convention on Jekyll Island — I was there — Brian Kemp was introduced by David Perdue. So when Perdue launched his campaign this week with a video message saying “It's nothing personal,” there's lots of red flags and alarm bells go off because this is an incredibly personal thing for Perdue to go back on his long-term ally and primary Brian Kemp.
Steve Fennessy: Well, you mentioned being at the GOP convention when David Perdue introduced Brian Kemp; there were people in the crowd who were booing Brian Kemp, right?
Stephen Fowler: Yeah. In the 2016 election, Trump kind of really took over the direction and driving the train of the Republican Party. And in the five years since then, he's gone full steam ahead. Now, not everyone is quite so sold on having Republican conservatism be Trumpism. There are some that are obviously Never Trumpers that didn't vote for him in 2020 and didn't support him. And there are others who say, “we like these things, but maybe not the style.” And then there are some that say, “we like the we like the style and we don't care about policies.” And so while lots of Georgia Republicans have focused on the past in 2020 and trying to find election stuff, there are some that are trying to look ahead and acknowledge that the party is cratering with support and running out of rural white, older conservative voters, and they need to expand the party. So that was on display this summer, when Kemp did get a few boos from people that think he's a traitor to the party and, mainly, to Trump.
Steve Fennessy: Well, you mentioned this continuum of Republicans, some of whom on one side are Never Trumpers and the other who are his steadfast supporters, no matter what. Where does Brian Kemp sort of stand on that continuum?
Stephen Fowler: This is the really interesting, puzzling part, Steve, because Brian Kemp is probably one of the most conservative leaders that Georgia has ever seen. In his first governor's race, he cut ads with explosions and shotguns and big old trucks to round up illegal immigrants.
Brian Kemp 2018 campaign video: I'm Brian Kemp. I'm so conservative, I blow up government spending. I own guns — that no one's taking away. My chainsaw's ready to rip up some regulation.
Stephen Fowler: There really shouldn't be any question of his conservative bona fides. It — since taking office, he's championed things like cracking down on human trafficking and stopping gangs, and signed a very strict abortion law into place and shrank government spending.
Steve Fennessy: The voter law, too.
Stephen Fowler: Two different voting laws. In 2019, there was a big voting bill overhaul that gave us new voting machines and tweaked a bunch of laws. And then in 2021, there was a massive 98-page voting law that he got roundly criticized by Democrats and voting rights groups for suppressing the vote and cracking down on the vote. But he committed the cardinal sin of going against Trump.
[News Tape] WSB TV: Here's President Trump's tweet, squarely attacking Georgia's governor and secretary of state. He criticized them for not allowing the Trump campaign to examine ballot signatures, and I asked the governor if he supports these results in Georgia.
Gov. Brian Kemp: I'm as frustrated as he is with how this process has played out, with ballots showed up — showing up that were missed in the first count and many other things. But I have a duty under the laws and the constitution of the state as governor, just like the secretary of state does, and that's what I've been following.
Steve Fennessy: So, Stephen, several months ago, we have — amid this growing split within the Republican Party — we have Vernon Jones, a former Democrat, saying that he was going to primary Brian Kemp. You know, it got a little coverage, but not a ton, because it didn't appear that Vernon Jones is going to be a real, credible threat to Brian Kemp in a Republican primary next year.
Stephen Fowler: You know, Vernon Jones is not somebody to be dismissed. Vernon Jones has represented that core constituency of Trump supporters angry about the 2020 election results, mobilized to get out and voteand do something about it and unhappy with Brian Kemp.
Vernon Jones: I am officially announcing my candidacy for the governor of the great state of Georgia.
[News Tape] WSB TV: Jones was a longtime Democratic state lawmaker and DeKalb County CEO who switched to the Republican Party in January and was often seen at Trump presidential campaign rallies.
Stephen Fowler: And now that David Perdue is in the race, as a quick aside, Vernon Jones is going to be an incredibly important person, because where his voters go — or don't go, if they don't vote — could be an important factor in both who wins the primary and who wins the general election. Basically, ever since Jan. 7 or so, and Democrats would control all three branches of government, there has been mounting pressure for somebody to go against Brian Kemp. Trump has said it in rallies and media appearances and his emailed statements that come off. I mean, Brian Kemp has been attacked, just about, more than Democrats have.
Steve Fennessy: Kemp's campaign’s central argument, or at least one of their primary arguments against the candidacy of David Perdue, is, look, he's running for governor and he lost his own seat in 2020. He can't win against the Democrat as a Senate, a Senate candidate. How is he going to do that against Stacey Abrams as a gubernatorial candidate?
Stephen Fowler: Right. And Brian Kemp points out he's the only one that's beat Stacey Abrams. He won in 2018 by about 55,000 votes. But Kemp is pulling out all the stops in this to really burn it all down and ensure that the decision to primary him is going to not be something taken lightly and also not something that will be forgotten.
[News Tape] 11Alive: Well, a spokesperson for Gov. Kemp's campaign put out a statement today, saying, in part, quote, “Perdue's only reason for running is to soothe his own bruised ego.” It went on to criticize Perdue, saying, quoting, “ducking debates, padding his stock portfolio during the pandemic and losing winnable races.”
Steve Fennessy: One of the things that maybe surprised me is the ferocity of the response by the Kemp campaign immediately to the news of David Perdue's announcement that he would primary the governor. Were you surprised that David Perdue stepped in?
Stephen Fowler: I've talked to a lot of Republicans in the last few days and even the last few weeks, and none of them think David Perdue getting into this race is a good idea. What a lot of conservatives have said is that they think this is about David Perdue's ego more than anything else, because David Perdue doesn't necessarily have a base to draw from. He doesn't have the grassroots endorsements in the same way that Brian Kemp does. And now there have been other Republicans that have traveled to Mar-a-Lago, and Trump has asked if they were interested in running for governor and running against Brian Kemp, and they all said no, because it would be political, just a political downfall, unlike anything else that they had ever encountered. And that's not a good sign.
Steve Fennessy: Why is it not a good sign?
Stephen Fowler: This is basically the worst time to have an all-out family food fight within the Republican Party. Georgia has added more than a million new residents in the last decade. Most of them — almost all of them — are not white and younger and moving to the metro Atlanta areas and places that vote for Democrats. And so the Democratic Party is on the rise at the same time as the Republican Party is just really fighting for its future identity, and that has left an opening where Stacey Abrams could have a relatively easy path to victory.
[News Tape] WJCL22: She's been credited with helping Democrats with strong voter turnout in the last presidential and Senate elections, where Democrats Joe Biden and Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won. Former President Donald Trump releasing this statement, calling Abrams “the Hoax” and writing that Trump supporters will not be voting for Kemp after, quote, “what he did with respect to election integrity and to horribly run elections.”
Steve Fennessy: How can the Georgia GOP pick up the pieces after what's sure to be a divisive primary? That's next. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by GPB political reporter Stephen Fowler. Stephen, you mentioned that there are few Republicans with more consistent conservative bona fides than Brian Kemp. So when David Perdue is making an argument that he is the better candidate to become governor, I mean, what is the foundation of his argument that he should be governor from a — from a governing perspective?
Stephen Fowler: I mean, in Perdue's launch video, he mentions eliminating the state income tax, which is something that probably isn't going to happen and can't happen without raising sales taxes. He's mentioned tackling crime and making our cities feel safe, but didn't have specific policies. And he said:
David Perdue campaign video: And let me be very clear: Over my dead body, will we ever give Stacey Abrams control of our elections again. Abrams will smile, lie and cheat ...
Stephen Fowler: Stacey Abrams has never been in charge of elections. Attacking Abrams and talking about the elections indicates that this campaign is built on opposition to Stacey Abrams and not being Brian Kemp and little else.
David Perdue campaign video: I'm David Perdue. I'm running for governor to make sure Stacey Abrams is never governor of Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: Let's game this out a little. We are anticipating a fierce, fierce battle between David Perdue and Brian Kemp and also Vernon Jones over the coming months, leading up to next year's primary. That is going to soak up not not only a lot of attention, but it's also going to soak up a lot of money. Where does the GOP money go and how fierce will the battle be for that? And then how equipped will whoever wins the primary be to face Stacey Abrams, who is going to be incredibly well-equipped financially to mount a campaign?
Stephen Fowler: There are a couple of different things that could be likely scenarios. One is that Brian Kemp wins the primary but is weakened by Perdue and Trump's attacks, which opens the door for Stacey Abrams to win statewide in November. Another option is David Perdue somehow beats Brian Kemp and people that didn't vote for Trump in 2020 and didn't like Trumpism and switched, especially in the suburbs, to vote for Joe Biden and Democrats, might deflect from the Republican Party to Stacey Abrams. And David Perdue would win a united Republican Party, but one too small to win the most number of votes. If Brian Kemp wins, is Trump going to get behind him and say, I'm sorry, Brian, let's defeat Stacey Abrams. But looking at the history and looking at the visceral responses that a lot of hard core conservative primary voters have felt to Trump losing in 2020, you can probably get a pretty good picture of how things are going to go. Trump's endorsement doesn't necessarily carry the same weight as it did four or five years ago after he became president. I mean, there are Trump-endorsed candidates in other states and other places that might win the primary, but definitely won't win the general. The question is what kind of campaign is going to be backed with a Trump endorsement? You'vegot Herschel Walker for U.S. Senate, who's kind of keeping a low profile — not really saying a whole lot about Trump, but not really saying a whole lot about anything. That may benefit him in a Senate primary. You've got Burt Jones, the lieutenant governor candidate, with a Trump endorsement. He is aggressively campaigning across the state. He's using the Trump endorsement. He's talking about his policies. But it's really going to come down to who's a campaigner and who convinces the most people to vote for them. And right now, David Perdue is probably the third-best campaigner on the Republican primary side.
Steve Fennessy: Stephen, how much does the Trump wing of the Republican Party — How much of its future is riding — I'm talking nationally now — how much of its future is riding on the outcome of the elections in Georgia next year?
Stephen Fowler: Based on my reporting and the conversations I've had a large portion of Trumpism's success in 2024 and beyond is going to come down to Georgia because Virginia, you had the governor flipped to a Republican who had Trump’s support, but it was kind of at an arm's distance away. He didn't embrace Trump a whole lot. Trump didn't come there. But here in Georgia, how do you think it would look if Trump and Republicans lost the 2020 presidential race, two U.S. Senate seats, control of the U.S. Senate and then in 2022 lost the governor's mansion and lieutenant governor and attorney general and secretary of state and a Senate seat again? You know, how strong do you think Trumpism would be coming out of that in a state that is still a battleground and is not unwinnable for Republicans like very deep blue states? I think there are some of the Republican Party that might secretly root for us Stacey Abrams victory in Georgia so they can begin to loosen the stranglehold of Trump on the Republican Party.
[News Tape] News4Jax: Abrams tells me she's tuning out the other side.
Stacey Abrams: I am not interested in the internecine fights of the Republican Party. I'm interested in improving the lives of Georgians.
Stephen Fowler: I think it's important to go beyond the splashy headlines of Trump and beyond the splashy David Perdue getting in mounting a primary challenges. When you look at it, most Republicans in Georgia like Brian Kemp. They support Brian Kemp. They support the policies that Brian Kemp has done. Time will tell, but I don't think Brian Kemp is in a very vulnerable position to lose this primary to David Perdue. I think also that off the bat, I think you would have to give the advantage to a united Democratic Party behind Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock that has the infrastructure in place.
Steve Fennessy: What impact could Donald Trump announcing he's going to run again in 2024 — let's say he makes that announcement sometime between now and the Republican primary — will that have any impact on how the primary might go? Or the general, for that matter?
Stephen Fowler: Oh, absolutely. Trump being on the ballot is a gift to both Democrats and some Republicans. And so I think if you want to make an election a referendum on Trump, that's a good way to take the Republican Party further to the right and oust a bunch of conservatives and out a bunch of more moderate voters. It might change some of the primary outcomes and maybe make the general even more favorable for Democrats because Donald Trump didn't win in 2020. And even though Joe Biden's favorability has dropped, that's still a motivating factor to have people show up again and might take the midterms in a different direction.
Steve Fennessy: You spoke earlier about David Perdue's ego as maybe one of the contributing factors in his decision to challenge Brian Kemp. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Stephen Fowler: David Perdue won in 2014 as this conservative outsider. He had this jean jacket on; Fortune 500 CEO; very successful his entire life and career, and he lost a Senate race to a young 30-something, photogenic filmmaker that has no business experience, no governing experience. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue got ousted. Raphael Warnock is a civil rights leader, pastor, done a lot of organizing work. But Jon Ossoff is, relatively speaking, this kid off the street who beat a Fortune 500 CEO.
Steve Fennessy: Do you have any insight into how Brian Kemp is feeling right now, personally about David Perdue?
Stephen Fowler: Brian Kemp has been preparing for the last three years for a rematch with Stacey Abrams. I think he relishes the opportunity to try and beat her again.
Gov. Brian Kemp: Good afternoon, everybody.
[News Tape] WSBTV: Gov. Brian Kemp talked to us about the Abrams candidacy and about why he wants to remain governor. Kemp beat Abrams by roughly 54,000 votes three years ago, and he thinks he can beat her again.
Gov. Brian Kemp: Well, I've been working so hard on our fundraising and having a record first quarter. We're going to have a record second quarter and we're just going to keep going. I've been in the fight and I’m looking forward to it.
Stephen Fowler: David Perdue getting into the race complicates that, and so I think you're seeing with the aggressive ads, with the aggressive statements, when all is said and done, that Brian Kemp is going to leave nothing on the table. And I think that's a mode that he's kind of operated in his whole life and political career. And in many ways, this is no different.
Steve Fennessy: I've been speaking with Stephen Fowler from GPB News. We're still almost six months from the primary but results from the first poll, at least, are in. Among 500 likely Republican voters polled by Fox 5 Atlanta and Insider Advantage right after Perdue's announcement, 34% said if the election were held today, they'd vote for Kemp. But another 34% said they would vote for Perdue. It's going to be a long six months.
Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. You can keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. See you next week!