Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue has joined the race to become the state’s next governor, setting up a bruising primary against sitting Republican governor Brian Kemp before the eventual victor can challenge likely Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams.
“It will be like a cage match,” said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock. “World heavyweight title on the line. There will be no holds barred, I suspect. They were friends, and the story is — probably accurate — that the Perdue cousins were instrumental in getting President Trump to weigh in on behalf of Gov. Kemp in the Republican runoff in 2018, but now that they’ve broken, they’ll be unrestrained, and there’s an awful lot at stake.”
Back in 2018, Kemp, then the secretary of state, styled himself as a political outsider in President Donald Trump’s mold, and the president’s endorsement helped ensure his victory over then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the establishment pick in that year’s Republican primary.
But a lot has changed since then, and Kemp has found himself in the crosshairs of the former president after Trump’s narrow 2020 loss in Georgia, and he now faces what could be the first serious primary challenge for a sitting Georgia governor in a century.
Perdue publicly announced his candidacy Monday and received Trump’s official endorsement on the same day.
“The last time I think there was a really serious one, certainly the last time that a sitting governor was denied a nomination was 100 years ago in 1922,” Bullock said. “Thomas Hardwick lost the Democratic primary to Clifford Walker. The big issue was the Ku Klux Klan. Hardwick opposed it, Walker was a member.”
For about 30 years ending in the 1970s, Georgia governors could not run for a second term. Since that changed, no sitting governor has been seriously challenged from within his own party, Bullock said.
Trump issued a pair of statements Monday, praising Perdue and condemning Kemp in equal measure. The former president has vowed to help defeat Kemp ever since the governor refused to overturn last year’s election results.
“This will be very interesting, and I can’t imagine that Brian Kemp, who has hurt election integrity in Georgia so badly, can do well at the ballot box (unless the election is rigged, of course). He cost us two Senate seats and a Presidential victory in the Great State of Georgia,” Trump said.
Kemp’s campaign scoffed at the idea that the governor was responsible for losing Georgia’s two Senate seats. In a tweet, Kemp’s communications director Cody Hall accused Perdue of “Blam(ing) your two election losses on someone who wasn’t even on the ballot, but did dozens of campaign events/fundraisers for you.”
A bloody battle
When it comes to policy, there are not a lot of differences between Kemp and Perdue, said Amy Steigerwalt, a political science professor at Georgia State University. The distinction between the two, she said, comes down primarily to their relationship with Trump and the 2020 presidential election.
“It lays bare the fact that this is not about policy right now, it’s not truly about what is the best path forward in many ways for the country, it’s about what does it mean to be a Republican,” Steigerwalt said. “Does being a Republican mean that you adhere to conservative policy positions and values, or does it mean that you support former President Trump, including his accusations of fraud? And that’s not a great place for the party to be.”
Republican strategist Brian Robinson agreed that the primary race is shaping up to be a referendum on 2020.
“It’s a fascinating battle royale, and it’s going to potentially divide the party right down the middle based on how you view the 2020 election,” he said. “I mean, Perdue told us that today, he wants the election to be about the 2020 election, and Brian Kemp wants the election to be about Perdue not winning his runoff, about the stock portfolio issue, et cetera. So I think we’ve gotten a preview already of what the campaign is going to be. It’s going to be personal. It is going to be vicious.”
Perdue, who served one term in the Senate, could be a dangerous opponent for Kemp — at least according to a survey funded by Trump’s Save America PAC, which found a Trump-endorsed Perdue could have the upper hand in a primary against Kemp.
And even if Kemp pulls through in the primary, the governor can’t be happy having to spend time and money fighting off Perdue rather than Abrams, Steigerwalt said.
“Now there is going to be a terribly nasty and brutal Republican primary that is going to leave scars and wounds, festering, bubbling, horrible open wounds, I think, not only on whoever wins, but on the party and its ability to then reunite for the general election,” she said.
And while both GOP candidates will have the incentive to play to the base in the primary, pushing too far to the right could haunt the nominee in the general election when more moderate swing voters become important.
“The more that both of the candidates feel that they have to run to the right to try and not just shore up sort of the hardcore base, but the QAnon base, to bring in the Marjorie Taylor Greene voters out in the 14th, the more they feel they have to do that during the primary, the more difficult it’s going to be for them to win the general election,” Steigerwalt said.
And Trump himself will likely prove to be a more dangerous foe to Kemp than Perdue, Bullock said. Kemp has so far been unwilling to return the former president’s barbs.
“What we’re going to see is Trump following through on his policy, which has been to try to do everything he can to prevent Brian Kemp’s renomination,” Bullock said. “Can you continue to turn the other cheek, turn the other cheek, turn the other cheek?”
If Perdue clinches the primary, he could have a hard time winning back moderate voters who favor the GOP but dislike Trump, Bullock argued.
“He’s not going to be in the position like Glenn Youngkin was in Virginia, where Youngkin was not wrapped in Trump’s cloak,” he said. “If David Perdue gets the nomination, he’s going to be very much wrapped up in Trump’s cloak and not be able to separate himself from Trump.”
Kemp’s status as an outsider — this time from the Trump wing of the party rather than the establishment wing — could help him in the general election, but only if he gets that far, Bullock added.
“If he makes it to the general election, then he doesn’t bear the stigma of being Trump’s candidate, which might cost him among that critical electorate, but can he get to that stage?” Bullock said. “Certainly, he’ll have plenty of money. He’s got power. He’s got influence as the governor of the state, so it’s not like he has no tools.”
Abrams watching the fight
Perdue started off his announcement video Monday with a jab at Abrams rather than Kemp, but he didn’t hold back from attacking his former ally.
“I’m running for Governor to make sure Stacey Abrams is never governor of Georgia,” he said. “Make no mistake, Abrams will smile, lie and cheat to transform Georgia into her radical vision of a state that would look more like California or New York. To fight back we simply have to be united. Unfortunately, today we are divided and Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger are to blame.”
Raffensperger has consistently pushed back against allegations he mismanaged the election. He did so again Monday.
“I made sure we had honest elections, and I’ll continue to fight that because I think people want people who hold high office to have integrity,” Raffensperger told reporters Monday after a Rotary Club of Atlanta meeting. “Integrity counts. It always has and always will.”
Abrams, who came within about 55,000 votes of defeating Kemp in 2018, announced her plans to run last week. It’s likely that very few Georgians were happier to watch Perdue’s announcement video than her, Bullock said.
“She gets to sit back and watch her opponents beat each other over the head for a while,” he said. “Bring out the popcorn.”
Abrams’ campaign said as much Monday in reaction to the news.
“While David Perdue and Brian Kemp fight each other, Stacey Abrams will be fighting for the people of Georgia,” her campaign said in a statement. “Both Kemp and Perdue would deprive 500,000 Georgians of health coverage that our taxpayers already paid for. Both would continue to underfund our schools, both would continue to divide Georgia and both would continue reckless decisions that have endangered the lives of Georgians during the pandemic.”
Not all Republicans are worried about a hard-fought primary leaving their candidate weakened against Abrams, though. Take Cobb County GOP Chair Salleigh Grubbs.
“I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing,” she said. “I think there are people that want options, and now they have an option.”
As a county chair, Grubbs said she cannot support one of the two candidates until the primary is over. The Cobb GOP censured Kemp earlier this year for not carrying out campaign promises concerning illegal immigration.
“Of course, it always enters one’s mind,” she added. “The more that’s spent in the primary, the less resources you have in the general, so that’s a concern with every race. We have that situation in the 6th District, but I think there are a lot of Georgians who will get behind Perdue just like I think there’s a lot that will get behind Kemp.”
Grubbs said she will welcome the opportunity to take another look at the 2020 election results.
“We definitely have to look forward, but we have to look at the things that need to be fixed,” she said. “I for one am for hand-marked paper ballots. I think the Dominion system is flawed. There are many, many, many people who believe the same way, and in order to get confidence in the election for 2022, there are going to have to be some changes.”
Numerous investigations have found no evidence of widespread voting fraud in Georgia or elsewhere during the 2020 election, and three tallies of the vote confirmed Biden’s win. Still, state lawmakers passed a bill this year that they say will secure future elections, but Democrats say the law makes it harder for Georgians to vote, especially minorities.
And there are many factors that would favor a Republican in this race, Robinson said. Typically, the party in power loses during midterms, Democrats tend to have more problems getting out the vote in non-presidential years, and President Joe Biden’s approval ratings are far from enviable. Those factors will still be in play after the primary, he said.
“I do not deny that the Democrats are united at a time when Republicans are divided,” Robinson said. “But barring a runoff, the Republicans are going to go into the general election in an environment that is historically bad for Democrats. We don’t even need a 10-point swing like they had in Virginia or New Jersey, we need a much smaller swing than that here.”
“The crux of what the nominee, whoever it is, must do is not lose the educated metropolitan voters who abandoned the Republicans for the Democrats in the last few cycles,” he added. “Those people want to come home. Those people are mad about the inflation. They’re mad about how Biden is running the country. They’re mad about schools, and all of those issues are huge net positives for whoever the Republican nominee is. So the question becomes, can the party unite and mend after the primary? And that’s an answer I don’t have at this juncture.”
—Georgia Recorder Stanley Dunlap contributed to this report.