early and often

Will Trump Ruin Georgia Republicans Out of Spite?

Can these two angry men learn to love each other by November? Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Jamie Squire/Getty Images; Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE

Three days after the smoke cleared from Georgia’s 2022 Republican primary, Donald Trump has a problem. Though he invested inordinate time and spiteful energy in the task of purging Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who together committed the cardinal sin of certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in the Peach State, the 45th president got his butt kicked on May 24. There’s really no other way to put it.

Trump personally handpicked the instruments of his revenge, talking former U.S. senator David Perdue out of retirement to take down Kemp and convincing Jody Hice to give up a safe congressional seat to dispose of Raffensperger. Kemp routed Perdue on an epic scale, beating him 74-22 and winning all 159 counties. He took 67 percent of the vote in Perdue’s home county and 75 percent in the home county of ultra-MAGA Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. And even more remarkably, Raffensperger, written off as a sure loser by most observers from the get-go, beat Hice and two other opponents without a runoff.

Yes, there were some silver linings in the Georgia results for Trump. His Senate candidate Herschel Walker won easily, not that there was a shred of doubt about it going in. Indeed, the only surprise in Walker’s race was that he ran well behind Kemp despite opposition so weak that the former football star ignored his rivals. Trump’s candidate for lieutenant governor seems to have won without a runoff. Two of his congressional endorsees in competitive primaries made runoffs, albeit in second place.

But the Kemp victory in particular leaves the ex-president in a quandary. He’s said so very many hateful things about the incumbent governor before and during the primary campaign that he cannot just endorse his general election candidacy like nothing happened. On the eve of the primary, he pushed back against reports that he had given up on Perdue by labeling Kemp “the worst election integrity governor in the country.” But his grudge against Kemp goes back long before their disagreements over the 2020 outcome to a dispute over COVID-19 measures in Georgia, and before that, to Kemp’s dismissal of Trump’s request that he reward a loyal ally with an appointment to an open U.S. Senate seat.

More generally, Trump maintained that Kemp owed his governorship to an endorsement the then-president gave him during the GOP primary four years ago, saying, “He would be nothing without me.” Kemp, who knew he would have almost certainly won in 2018 without Trump’s endorsement, has reciprocated his disdain, telling a reporter that when Trump pressured him to call a special session to “audit” Biden’s win in December of 2020, “I didn’t give a shit what he had to say.”

These are two fierce right-wing warriors (Kemp likes to call himself a “politically incorrect conservative”) with competing egos and plenty of simmering resentments.

So Trump may sit on his hands for a good while and Kemp may bask in his ability to win MAGA voters without a blessing from Mar-a-Lago.

But there will be a lot of pressure on both men to kiss and make up in order to provide party unity in the general-election struggle ahead. David Perdue, for his part, endorsed Kemp in his concession speech, citing the importance of making common cause to defeat Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams.

It will be a common sentiment among Republicans, who tend to think of Abrams as sort of a combination of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; they both loath and grudgingly respect the skills that made her in 2018 the most successful Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 20 years. And Abrams and Kemp have their own grudge match going; it ties back to Abrams’s efforts to register low-income and minority voters and Kemp’s efforts as secretary of State to stop her. Perhaps the deadliest insult Trump has ever fired at Kemp was his suggestion last autumn that Abrams might be a better governor than her 2018 opponent.

In weighing whether to swallow his towering pride and put on the party harness, Trump must acknowledge that his Senate candidate Walker’s fate in taking on incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock is tied to Kemp’s. And if the ex-president cares at all about his image in what will likely be a key 2024 battleground state, he must keep in mind the blame so many Georgia Republicans quietly assign to him for the loss of two U.S. Senate seats that gave Democrats a governing trifecta. In the lead-up to the January 2021 runoff, Trump couldn’t stop complaining about Georgia’s “rigged” election machinery, which dampened GOP turnout.

Luckily for Republicans, Trump now has over five months to get over his pique. But time certainly hasn’t helped the 45th president forget about the (perceived) injustice he suffered at the hands of Georgia voters in 2020.

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Will Trump Ruin Georgia Republicans Out of Spite?