In 1976 the Georgia legislature and subsequently Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing governors to run for a second consecutive term. Since then every governor has run for a second term. Five (George Busbee, Joe Frank Harris, Zell Miller, Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal) were reelected; one (Roy Barnes) was defeated in a general election. None of them had a significant primary challenge…until now.
As my colleague Zak Cheney-Rice explained, the surprise decision by former U.S. Senator David Perdue to take on incumbent Republican governor Brian Kemp in a 2022 primary is clearly the product of Donald Trump’s determination to purge Kemp for the disloyalty he demonstrated in seconding the certification of Joe Biden’s victory there (made by another Republican purge target, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger). Otherwise, Kemp would be cruising towards renomination like all of his predecessors, perhaps with enhanced velocity thanks to the prospect of a rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams, whom Kemp defeated by an eyelash in 2018 with the help of an election system he supervised as secretary of state.
There really is no other issue MAGA types have with Kemp. He has governed as a standard-brand conservative Republican (or as he put it in 2018, a “politically incorrect conservative”), with an occasionally nasty flair that should remind Georgians of the 45th president. Building on his record as a vote suppressor, he helped develop and then signed Georgia’s notorious 2021 election law. He lifted COVID restrictions in 2020 even more rapidly than the Trump administration advised, and has consistently sought to crack down on any local governments or businesses that might mandate masks or vaccines.
The personal nature of Trump’s grudge with Kemp was illustrated by its first incident: Kemp’s refusal to obey The Boss’s instruction to appoint his congressional attack-dog Doug Collins to a vacated Senate seat in 2019. The brouhaha wasn’t about the views of Kemp’s choice Kelly Loeffler: she subsequently displayed the Trumpiest voting record in the Senate, and even promoted the Big Lie in defiance of her gubernatorial benefactor’s position.
But the best evidence that Perdue’s unprecedented primary challenge to an incumbent Republican governor is all about Trump is supplied by Perdue himself in his announcement video:
According to Perdue, Kemp has “divided” Georgia Republicans by rejecting the Big Lie, and would be roadkill against the “radical” Abrams. Thus does this one-time Kemp ally allow himself to be used to reinforce Trump’s threat to throw the election to Abrams. Georgia Republicans have to dump Kemp or Trump will dump Kemp in favor of Abrams. It’s that simple.
Kemp is showing no signs of backing down, of course, and will turn the “divisiveness” charge around on Perdue, reminding primary voters again and again that the former senator was responsible for Democratic control of the Senate via his loss to Jon Ossoff in the January 5 Georgia runoffs, and is now damaging the Republican ticket again. It will be an expensive and brutal primary campaign, and would be even if Trump stayed on the sidelines, which of course ain’t happening.
I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the outcome. Trump ally Jody Hice is the strong favorite to take down Raffensperger, and another Trump apply Burt Jones is likely to win the primary to fill an open lieutenant governor’s office. And to be sure, Trump friend Herschel Walker is almost certain to win the Senate primary to take on Raphael Warnock.
But Perdue versus Kemp is another matter. Georgia governors have extensive powers to reward friends and punish enemies. Once Republicans endorse either candidate, and they will be pushed relentlessly to do so, there will be no quarter for the ultimate losers. There’s a reason incumbent governors in Georgia never face primary challenges and usually win reelection. Until now.