The three pivotal figures in the 2022 Republican primary in Georgia have each spent solid stretches of the past three years jockeying to appease Donald Trump or his most delusional supporters.
There’s David Perdue, the former senator, who announced a surprise bid for governor Monday. Perdue spent the bulk of November and December 2020 pushing Trump’s lie that the presidential election had been stolen after Trump threatened him with mean tweets. Perdue then faced a runoff in his own Senate race in January and was narrowly defeated by Democratic neophyte Jon Ossoff. That race, along with fellow Republican Kelly Loeffler’s loss to Raphael Warnock, handed the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.
Then there’s Brian Kemp, the current governor. He ran Trump’s culture-war playbook to victory in his 2018 race against Stacey Abrams. His most famous campaign ads had him pointing a rifle at his daughter’s prom date and showing off the pickup truck he claimed to use for rounding up “illegals.” But the fun was short-lived. When Trump lost Georgia — the first time a GOP presidential candidate had done so since 1992 — Kemp was blamed for not pulling enough strings. Trump has been on a warpath ever since to make sure the governor loses reelection.
Finally, there’s Brad Raffensperger, the recipient of Trump’s notorious January phone call in which he asked the Republican secretary of state “to find 11,780 votes” — which did not exist — to hand him Georgia’s 16 electoral votes. When Raffensperger declined, he got the same “RINO” smears as Kemp but also became a folk hero of sorts, lionized by some pundits and elected Democrats as a rare paragon of GOP rectitude. He knew this looked bad for his reelection prospects, however, especially with Trump-backed challenger Jody Hice planning to primary him. So Raffensperger indulged Trump’s fraud claims earlier this year, agreeing to review all 147,000 absentee ballots cast in Fulton County under the auspices of “election integrity.”
So to recap: The guy who ran toward Trump in 2020 — and surrendered the Senate in the process to avoid disparaging tweets — is now running against a governor whom Trump used to adore but who couldn’t deliver him reelection and now gets booed at large GOP gatherings. They’ll face off in an election overseen by a guy whom Trump failed to coax into doing election crimes and who now has become election-crime-curious in the face of a Trump-backed challenger in the same primary.
It is, to put it mildly, a race that is set to revolve to an incredible degree around the petty grievances, grand delusions, and personal animus of a man who hasn’t held elected office in almost a year. It’s an especially weird predicament for Perdue, who around this time in 2020 was quietly complaining about Trump’s presence on the ballot. From the Washington Post in November 2020:
Addressing donors on a conference call earlier this month, Perdue spoke of an “anti-Trump vote in Georgia” and said the runoff is about getting “enough conservative Republicans out to vote” who might have opposed the president’s reelection …
“I’m talking about people that may have voted for Biden but now may come back and vote for us because there was an anti-Trump vote in Georgia,” Perdue said. “And we think some of those people, particularly in the suburbs, may come back to us. And I’m hopeful of that.”
His hope went unrealized, and now he’s running because he says Kemp is at real risk of losing to Abrams, who announced her repeat gubernatorial campaign last week. But aside from leaning into the same game plan he suspects doomed Republicans in the last race, the clearer risk is that a bruising and expensive GOP primary could do real damage to whomever survives it, turning what a Kemp adviser described as Perdue’s “lapdog” campaign into a spoiler one too.
It’s still unclear how helpful a Virginia comparison might be here — it’s a different state in a different year with different electorates and a slate of markedly different candidates — but here’s one anyway: If keeping Trump at arm’s length was important for Republican Glenn Youngkin’s triumph over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in November, his centrality to the Georgia race will be harder to sidestep even after the primary. Trump might not be on the ballot, but this could be the next worst thing.
In any case, Perdue’s entrance handily reshuffles which statewide race might tell us the most about Trump’s ongoing sway over the Georgia GOP. It used to look like Raffensperger’s, whose defeat by Hice seemed all but inevitable. Now it’s surely the nominating contest for control of the statehouse that Kemp has already signaled he’ll approach with “total war” and “scorched earth” tactics according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
And what it can tell us might already be obvious — that Georgia’s status as an innovator in anti-democracy has recently been sublimated into a referendum on which candidates would have created the most Trump-friendly electoral environment in 2020 and could do so if he runs again in 2024. But more immediately, it looks like anyone in Georgia who voted last year hoping to hear less about Trump can rest assured they’re getting the opposite.