early and often

The Devil Went Down to Georgia and Lost

It was Brian Kemp’s night in Georgia, but Stacey Abrams awaits in November. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

Donald Trump invested very heavily in a show of force in Georgia’s 2022 Republican primary, endorsing 13 candidates, some of them handpicked. But he was especially determined to take down the two incumbents who together certified Joe Biden’s 2020 win in the Peach State: Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Kemp emphatically beat Trump’s candidate, former senator David Perdue, winning nearly three-fourths of the vote, well above his performance in any poll. and carrying all 159 counties. More surprisingly, Raffensperger, who defied Trump’s direct orders to “find” him additional votes in December 2020 and has mocked his election fables, defeated Jody Hice, whom Trump convinced to give up a safe congressional seat to purge the incumbent. Hice was apparently saving his money for a runoff that nearly everyone expected, but Raffensperger won a spare majority and thus the nomination, after being left for dead by most observers at the beginning of the race.

The enmity between Trump and Kemp goes back a ways, well before the governor’s refusal to help overturn the 2020 election. When Kemp was cruising toward a runoff win in 2018 as a self-proclaimed “politically incorrect conservative,” Trump gave him a late endorsement, and subsequently took total credit for Kemp’s career. When Kemp spurned his recommendation to fill an open Senate seat, and then got crosswise with Trump on COVID policy, Trump decided he was ungrateful. Certifying Biden’s win was the final straw, so Trump decided on revenge and talked Perdue into becoming its instrument.

But Kemp had the better idea. His smashing victory on Tuesday was a testament to his success in making himself a Trumpy candidate in every way other than in bending the knee to Trump’s stolen-election claims. He used his gubernatorial powers ruthlessly and effectively to head off any room to his right, cutting taxes (and suspending gasoline taxes), championing voter suppression and extreme abortion laws, and reminding Republican voters he had been just as ruthless in turning back a tough 2018 challenge from Stacey Abrams, whom he will face once again in November. He also secured timely financial help and some personal campaigning from his fellow Republican governors (and also, down the home stretch, from another Trumpism-Without-Trump pol, Mike Pence). Meanwhile Perdue steadily lost ground after beginning the contest dead-even with Kemp, lagging in fundraising and never succeeding in outflanking the incumbent ideologically. His campaign reached a dismal end with Perdue talking racist smack about Abrams. He has already endorsed Trump’s bitter enemy Kemp against the charismatic Democrat, who was unopposed for her party’s nomination.

Raffensperger’s surprise comeback was the product of three factors. First, he was able to self-fund an aggressive campaign that emphasized his hostility to voting-rights champions like Abrams and his support for the state’s new restricting voting and election law. Second, Raffenspeger’s defiance of Trump led an undefined but probably significant number of Democrats to cross over and vote for him. Third, Hice didn’t spend the money to let Trump fans know he was the MAGA candidate. Aside from voters in his congressional district, he had no real base.

Trump’s losing streak continued with his candidates for attorney general and insurance commissioner, who lost badly. The bright spots for him are Senate candidate Herschel Walker, who like Kemp is winning handily over a large but feeble field (amazingly, Walker ran five points behind Kemp) and state legislator Butch Jones, who is running first in the primary for lieutenant governor and could avoid a runoff. Down-ballot, Trump’s celebrity party-switcher Vernon Jones is currently running second in the primary for Hice’s open seat, and will likely face heavily favored Mike Collins in a runoff. Though nobody really thought ultra-MAGA congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene was in any trouble against underfunded primary opponents, Trump will probably claim her easy win as a feather in his cap in what is turning out to be a nightmarish evening for him.

The Kemp-Abrams general election tilt along with Walker’s effort to knock off incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock could be landmark races in November. If Republicans stay united, they could have an advantage in both races thanks to the midterm dynamics that are helping the GOP from coast to coast. But Abrams and Warnock are savvy campaigners who have raised epic sums of money while watching the Trump-inspired Republican squabble. And even if Georgia Republican leaders unite behind their ticket, there’s no guarantee their ex-presidential leader will lift a finger to help Kemp and Raffensperger (who will have his own tough general-election fight). Most knowledgeable observers blame Trump for the twin Senate losses in Georgia on January 5, 2021, when some loyal MAGA voters sat on their hands rather than participating further in an election Trump had called “rigged.” Now that Georgia has humiliated Trump and his champions again, he may once again be unable to look beyond his own towering ego and help the party he professes to lead.

Trump has already stumbled in his effort to make Republican midterm primaries proof positive of his domination of the GOP, with the defeat of his gubernatorial candidates in Nebraska and Idaho; his struggle to pick a Senate candidate in Pennsylvania; and his withdrawn endorsement of Alabama Senate candidate Mo Brooks. After this primary setback in Georgia, he’d better get his mojo back soon or his party leadership will be seriously in question.

The Devil Went Down to Georgia and Lost