Battleground: Ballot Box | Trump rallies for chosen candidates in high-stakes Georgia primary
Former President Donald Trump came to town last week to tout a slate of seven Republican primary candidates that could remake Georgia as we know it.
"Eight months from now, the people of Georgia are going to vote to fire the radical Democrats and you're going to elect the wonderful friend of mine and a great man, a great senator and a great man, David Perdue as your governor," he said. "And we need him. We need him badly."
Almost all of them are seeking to unseat incumbents, and almost all of them are going all-in on false claims about Georgia’s election system and the 2020 results.
"Let me be very clear: In the state of Georgia, thanks to Brian Kemp, our elections in 2020 were absolutely stolen," Perdue said.
Beyond pushing those claims, what else are these campaigns offering voters? With many of them lagging in fundraising and the polls, are their campaigns destined to fizzle out — and what does that mean for 2022 and beyond?
This week: We dig deeper into the Trump slate’s impact on Georgia politics.
It’s a cold, windy Saturday night in Commerce, about 90 minutes northeast of Atlanta, and former President Donald Trump is ready to roll.
"I wanted to tell you that it's great to be back in this incredible state where we did so well, we did so well far better than anybody understands, but a lot of you do understand with thousands of proud, hardworking, freedom loving American patriots, and that's exactly what you are," he said.
There are thousands of supporters at this rally for seven primary challengers ranging from U.S. Senate to insurance commissioner — though it’s a fraction of the attendance and the energy of massive events that drew as many as 35,000 people to places like Rome, Valdosta and Perry during Trump’s 2020 reelection bid.
Speaking of 2020, that’s the main reason Trump came to Georgia. After narrowly losing Georgia’s electoral votes, and the overall presidential race, Trump has been singularly focused on going after Republicans that did not overturn his defeat and finding primary challengers to run against them.
"Before we can defeat the Democrat Socialists and communists — which is exactly what we're running against — at the ballot box this fall, we first have to defeat the RINOs, sellouts and the losers in the primaries this spring," he said. " We have a big primary coming out right here in your state."
Chief among Trump’s political targets is Gov. Brian Kemp, who, despite notching a number of strong conservative wins through his time in office so far, did not overturn the election.
"Brian Kemp is a turncoat, is a coward, and is a complete and total disaster," Trump said, continuing his attacks on the governor.
RELATED: Can Gov. Brian Kemp convince conservatives Trump is wrong?
Many of Trump’s endorsements stem from this beef with Kemp — whom Trump endorsed in the 2018 GOP primary at the urging of David and Sonny Perdue.
Vernon Jones, Democrat-turned-Trump booster earned Trump's support for the wide-open 10th Congressional District primary after leaving the governor’s race to clear a path for Perdue.
“They want us to believe that there was no fraud in Georgia," Jones said. "Joe Biden may have gotten 81 million votes, but he didn't get — well, actually 81 million people didn't vote for him. You and I both know that.”
In recent weeks, Trump has gone deep down the ballot to endorse long-shot candidates against Kemp allies like Insurance Commissioner John King and Attorney General Chris Carr. King’s opponent, Patrick Witt, was endorsed not on his stances about what the office actually does, like elevator inspections and insurance fraud, but election integrity.
“Now, a lot of y'all don't know who I am and even fewer of you actually know what the insurance commissioner does, so I hope to shed some light on that this afternoon,” Witt said.
Witt then proceeded to talk mainly about Trump and against a bipartisan mental health care reform bill in the Georgia legislature.
“I'm going to keep your insurance costs low and keep every dollar in your pocket in this crazy, crazy Biden inflation economy," he continued. "And more importantly, I'm going to keep your insurance from going 'woke'.”
John Gordon, running against incumbent Chris Carr, launched his attorney general campaign with a broken website and a claim that the 2022 elections were stolen — despite them not happening yet.
Gordon complained about being “canceled” on social media for posting false claims about the 2020 election and spent most of his speech talking about the past.
“As your attorney general, my first act will be to open an official investigation into the election of 2020," he said to cheers. "We are going to uncover the facts. We will expose the truth, and we are going to hold the people responsible accountable. It will never happen again.”
And of course, Trump endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice to unseat Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who infamously rejected the former president’s attempts to manipulate election results and “find” votes that were not there.
“We must at this moment have a secretary of state in Georgia who will do the job of that office and restore election integrity to this state and restore confidence that your vote counts," Hice said. "We need a secretary of state right now in Georgia who will do everything possible to prosecute people who violate our election laws. If there are no consequences to cheating, these people will continue cheating."
State Sen. Burt Jones (R-Jackson) earned Trump’s endorsement to replace Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a fellow Republican, after Duncan also pushed back against Trump’s claims of a stolen election and announced he would not run for reelection.
“The elections, ladies and gentlemen, could have been so simple to fix," Jones said. "It could have been so simple to investigate, but so many of the people in leadership did not want to do that. And I can tell you right now, if you elect me lieutenant governor, we're going to restore confidence in our elections process.”
Jones says he would get rid of the Dominion ballot-marking devices that are part of a new $100 million-plus voting system — and eliminate drop boxes, which he voted for in Senate Bill 202 last year.
Jones also made a pretty explicit case for why these candidates are putting all their eggs in the “2020 was stolen” basket and trying to reach these base voters. Trump has endorsed more and more candidates, including several long-shot challengers, and his political clout is on the line, especially in Georgia.
"It will set the stage for ’24, because all eyes will be on Georgia this year,” he said. “And if we don’t win big — if we don’t have a red wave — then it doesn’t play well for us to put Donald Trump back in the White House in 2024.”
RELATED: Stacey Abrams is ready for a rematch (and Medicaid expansion)
Closer to home, there is concern among Republicans that the Trump slate will fizzle out in the primary, but the vitriol and attacks against incumbents could also hurt the GOP in the November general election, even though Democrats face dire odds nationally.
For his part, Trump seems to be counting on it.
“If Brian Kemp is renominated, he will go down in flames at the ballot box," Trump said. "Because Stacey will steal it from him and humiliate him, just like she brazenly stole the Georgia election from right under his nose in 2020, which hurt two senators and which hurt the presidential candidate.”
While Trump may still be a major player in the Republican Party, touting his endorsement and solely focusing on elections doesn’t appear to be enough to get these Republican primary candidates, with the exception of Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, on top in polling or fundraising.
MORE: The primary paradox of David Perdue's run for governor
Take David Perdue, for example.
His talk about policy issues — albeit long-shot ones like eliminating the state’s income tax and undoing the state’s recently announced deal that is bringing electric vehicle maker Rivian to eastern Georgia — did little to excite the crowd. Instead, the main thing to get this die-hard portion of the base going is continuing to push false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Perdue even smiled and gave a thumbs up when the crowd chanted “lock him up” after saying people “responsible for that fraud” should be imprisoned.
“I'm fighting right now to find out what happened in 2020 and make sure that those people responsible for that fraud in 2020 go to jail,” he said.
When he’s been alone on the campaign trail, Perdue has not talked explicitly about the idea of a stolen election, claiming that irregularities were present and Georgia’s runoff law kept him from being elected despite “winning” in November. The rally in Commerce marked the first time the former U.S. senator fully embraced the lie that his election was “stolen” from him and Trump.
“Let's get one thing straight, let me be very clear — very clear: In the state of Georgia, thanks to Brian Kemp, our elections in 2020 were absolutely stolen,” he said falsely.
Perdue also recently spoke at a rally held by far-right U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who’s made recent headlines for speaking at a white nationalist conference and making remarks sympathetic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
While out on the campaign trail, many Republican voters say they still support Trump, but don’t think his endorsements are on point this time. Only Herschel Walker, whose celebrity as a former Heisman Trophy winner and campaign that hasn’t embraced voter fraud seems a shoo-in to win his primary.
And ahead of the May 24 election, Trump told the crowd why he came to Commerce over the weekend.
"Mister future governor — I hope, David, you’re going to be the governor, or I just wasted a hell of a lot of time here tonight,” he said.
Battleground: Ballot Box from Georgia Public Broadcasting is produced by Stephen Fowler, our editor this week is Grant Blankenship. Our engineers are Jake Cook and Jesse Nighswonger, who also wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.