2022 midterms

Kemp and Perdue Get Nasty in Georgia Gubernatorial Debate

Brian Kemp and Georgia Perdue, the former allies now battling for the Georgia Republican nomination for the governorship. Photo: Miguel Martinez/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool

With one month to go before Georgia’s May 24 Republican primary (and far less than that before early voting commences), Governor Brian Kemp and Trump-endorsed challenger David Purdue had their first of three debates on Sunday. Purdue, the former U.S. senator, made the former president’s 2020 election fables his main focus from the jump.

Trailing in every public poll and in fundraising as well, Perdue is trying to remind MAGA voters that they should blame Kemp for both Trump’s and Perdue’s own Georgia losses in 2020. Though he was under tremendous pressure from Trump, the governor certified Biden’s presidential win and didn’t pursue various unfounded fraud allegations. Indeed, Perdue’s pretzel logic led to him claim that it’s Kemp who is dividing the GOP and exposing the party to the awful specter of a Stacey Abrams administration (the Democrat is unchallenged in her bid for governor).

Kemp, who has made nastiness something of a personal brand, fired back in an uninhibited manner, calling Perdue a “weak leader” who blamed “everybody else for their own loss instead of themselves.” Perdue took the debate down a favorite Trump rabbit hole, alleging that there was a deal between the state and voting-rights groups over absentee-ballot signature-verification procedures. Kemp was having none of it, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“You’re the top cop in this state,” Perdue shot back. “It’s your responsibility to make sure we investigate voter fraud.”

Kemp bridled at that.

“I was secretary of state for eight years and I don’t need to be lectured by someone who’s lost his last election about what the voting laws are in our state,” Kemp said.

The two men went on to bicker over their relative commitment to the safety of the citizenry in the wealthy white Atlanta enclave of Buckhead, which is allegedly besieged by (presumably Black) criminals:

Kemp repeatedly deflected when asked if he supports the affluent, mostly white Buckhead neighborhood seceding from the poorer, Blacker city of Atlanta. That effort died in the state legislature this year amid opposition from business groups, some Republican lawmakers and Atlanta city leaders. Kemp said instead he was focused on reducing crime in Atlanta …

Perdue said that was an example of Kemp being a “weak” governor, supporting Buckhead’s exit from Atlanta.

“They’re trying to protect themselves,” Perdue said of his support for letting Buckhead split off. “And the only way to do that is to get control of their own government. Keep your powder dry? People are getting killed up there right now.”

Perdue also took a shot at Kemp’s inattention to illegal immigration, alluding to a famously demagogic ad the incumbent ran during his first gubernatorial campaign in 2018, showing the candidate in a pickup truck he owned “in case I need to round up criminal illegals.” “What happened, Governor? Pickup break down?” Perdue asked.

Kemp responded that he had stationed members of the Georgia National Guard near the (very distant) U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, which gives you an idea of the extent to which these two former allies are battling for high ground on the far right. The incumbent, of course, was himself endorsed by Trump during the 2018 Republican primaries (which probably didn’t affect the outcome); part of the ex-president’s incandescent rage toward Kemp is attributable to his erroneous belief that the governor owes him everything.

The bottom line is that Perdue is trying to make the primary a test of loyalty to Trump while Kemp (like Florida’s Ron DeSantis) is carving out his own version of Trumpism Without Trump. One of Kemp’s main talking points in his fight for a second term is that no governor was more eager to reopen their state’s economy in 2020, even as COVID-19 was still raging. At the time, Trump criticized him for moving too fast. So in the eyes of many conservatives, Kemp was arguably more MAGA than the 45th president himself.

The person who enjoyed the Kemp-Perdue debate most was probably Stacey Abrams. Whoever Republicans nominate will likely have a breeze behind his back, with the midterms expected to be a red wave. But as in the 2021 Senate runoffs in Georgia, Republican divisions and a lack of base enthusiasm could be just enough to produce a Democratic win in this very competitive state.

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Kemp and Perdue Get Nasty in Georgia Gubernatorial Debate