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'Revenge': Georgia GOP primaries test Trump's power, voter fraud lie

From the governor's race down to the insurance commissioner’s election, Trump is endorsing candidates in hope of sweeping Gov. Brian Kemp and his allies out of office.
Then-President Donald Trump talks with then-gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp before a rally in Macon, Ga., on Nov. 4, 2018.
President Donald Trump talks with Brian Kemp, then a candidate for governor,  before a rally in Macon, Ga., on Nov. 4, 2018.John Bazemore / AP file

Georgia was Donald Trump’s narrowest loss in 2020, and it is his biggest target in 2022.

More so than in any other state, Trump has dived into politics in Georgia by encouraging and selecting a slate of six loyal candidates to run for offices at the top of the ballot in this year's midterm elections, some of whom are challenging members of his own party and all of whom are dedicated to the baseless proposition that the last election was stolen from him in the state.

If they triumph in the primaries and are elected in November, all but one of the candidates would be in positions to use their offices in 2024 to help Trump mount election challenges, assuming he runs again for president and ends up in another nail-biter. 

All six candidates are expected to take the stage Saturday with Trump at a rally near Athens, a de facto unveiling of the Georgia GOP Trump ticket two months before the May 24 primary. It's a crucial show of force for Trump and a test of his popularity among Republicans in Georgia, where questions linger about the power of his endorsement and the turmoil he unleashed in the party. Nationally, the battles will be proving grounds for Trump’s relevance, the power of his endorsement and the salience of his meritless voter fraud crusade.

Trump's top target in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp, is handily leading his Republican rival, David Perdue. Trump recruited Perdue, a former U.S. senator, to run because Kemp didn’t help his efforts to overturn the presidential election results in the state. Neither did Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — Trump endorsed his opponent, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice. Neither did Attorney General Chris Carr, and Trump on Tuesday backed his opponent, the little-known lawyer John Gordon.

Jay Williams, a Georgia-based GOP strategist, said the sheer number of candidates Trump is backing could make his efforts more difficult.

“I think it’s going to be problematic for him, because he’s going to be working against people that have a lot of support,” Williams said in an interview, saying he believes Trump’s best chance to unseat an incumbent comes in the race for secretary of state between Hice and Raffensperger. 

“The problem [Trump] has in Georgia is that, outside of his frustration with the election, all these Republican officeholders, especially the governor, have done a really good job according to what a conservative would think would be a good job,” Williams said, pointing to Kemp’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his economic agenda.

Even some of Trump’s longtime loyalists wonder whether he has gone too far.

“Is President Trump — who I definitely support — doing this because this is what’s best for the state and the country?" asked Ed Muldrow, a former chair of the Gwinnett County GOP. "Or is this an ‘I have an ax to grind and this is a personal vendetta.’ That’s my issue."

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican who chose not to run for re-election, also incurred Trump’s wrath, and he described Trump’s involvement as “100 percent revenge-driven.”

“He’s not picking good-quality candidates,” said Duncan, whose conservative group, GOP 2.0, launched TV ads criticizing Trump and others focused on 2020 ahead of his rally. “And that’s his mistake. He’s picking folks that agree on one thing and one thing only, and America’s moving on from that subject.”

Those who understand Trump’s thinking say he is too obsessed with Georgia to do otherwise. He lost the state in 2020 by less than a quarter of a percentage point, becoming the first Republican to lose the state since former President George H.W. Bush in 1992 — the last one-term president before Trump.

“Everyone’s told him to move past 2020, and he won't. What can you do?” said a top pro-Trump Republican who frequently speaks to the former president and didn’t want to be identified on the record.

"Georgia holds a special place in his heart. He wants revenge against Raffensperger and Kemp and even Carr,” the Trump confidant said, noting that Trump is also keenly interested in Arizona, which he lost by a slightly bigger margin than Georgia, 0.3 percentage points. If Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey were running for office again, “you can bet Trump would have a candidate against him.”

Without evidence, Trump has blamed voter fraud for his loss in the state. Some GOP strategists have suggested that his relentless talk of a rigged election is responsible for two Republican senators’ losing their runoff races on Jan. 5, 2021. The next day, Trump’s supporters in Washington rioted at the U.S. Capitol to stop Congress from counting the electoral votes in the 2020 election.

Yet despite multiple recounts, lawsuits and federal and state investigations showing there was no widespread significant voter fraud in 2020, Trump has continued to press the lie that the election was stolen, and a majority of Republicans continue to doubt the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s win.

Former Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said he is concerned Trump might react with similar fraud claims should candidates he has endorsed statewide fall short in the primary.

"If he stands up and says, ‘Don't come out and vote in November for the governor and lieutenant governor,’ or whatever it might be, I don't know what the reaction of people will be," Chambliss said. "But I'm fearful of that."

Trump brought up election fraud this week when he yanked his endorsement in the Alabama Senate race from GOP Rep. Mo Brooks, who later claimed Trump asked to be reinstated to the presidency late last year. Trump also raised the issue when he endorsed Gordon in the Georgia attorney general’s race.

“Carr did absolutely nothing to stop the 2020 Presidential Election Fraud,” Trump said in a written statement, calling him “a disaster every step of the way."

Carr’s campaign said he followed the law and had no choice but to defend the state against various election lawsuits that ultimately failed to show election fraud.

Suspicions about the election, however, remain.

“Election integrity is very important,” said Thuy Hotle, a Gwinnett County activist and former party officer. She said she trusted Trump to vet candidates and that his influential base will vote for whomever he picks.

“I don’t know that if we voted for the same people that we would get a different result in 2022 or 2024,” she said.

But former state Rep. Scot Turner, who was the only Republican to vote against an elections bill in 2019 because he had doubts about the voting machine technology the state was authorizing, said Trump’s involvement has been too much.

"He's continuing to keep us divided,” Turner said. “The Democrats are rallying around their candidates. They’re united. They get to raise money and march into November in lockstep without fighting each other, while we’re over here in a circular firing squad.”

Georgia Republicans started to break from Trump more forcefully in September after a rally where he suggested that Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor, who is running again for the state's top office, would be a better governor than Kemp. Others suggested that, regardless of who wins the Republican primary, Trump will face blame should Abrams win.

“Trump has divided the party to the extent that, no matter who wins the primaries, if Stacey Abrams wins, he will get the blame and his chances of winning a presidential primary here in 2024 are zero if he runs again,” Eric Johnson, a former state Senate GOP leader and adviser to former Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s 2020 campaign, said in an email.

Republican consultant John Porter, who worked for Duncan and represents lieutenant governor candidate Butch Miller, said Trump is still popular in the party, but his favorability ratings are slowly and marginally coming down, while his unfavorability numbers are rising. While his endorsement is still highly sought after, some of his preferred candidates in Georgia and nationwide haven’t squashed rival campaigns, or they have had difficulty raising money.

"The other interesting component is that he has endorsed so many candidates in this race that, when you get past Perdue and Kemp, it could be hard for voters to keep track of who he supported and who he hasn’t down-ballot," Porter said.

Trump endorsed Miller’s opponent, state Sen. Burt Jones, who was among the first legislators after the 2020 elections to demand that Kemp call a special session of the Legislature to overturn the election.

The one Trump candidate who needs little help with his name recognition is former college and pro football star Herschel Walker, whom Trump recruited to run for Senate. Trump also endorsed Patrick Witt for insurance commissioner, a position that has no say over election-related matters. It is held by John King, whom Kemp appointed to the seat after his predecessor was indicted on federal fraud charges.

It’s the governor’s race, in particular, that will play the biggest role in whether Trump has a successful primary. A source close to Perdue said Trump’s endorsement will be “determinative” in the governor’s race but acknowledged that if the election happened today, Kemp would win.

This person noted that Kemp has yet to face negative advertising, which is starting to change as Perdue and his allies begin TV campaigns. Perdue faced tens of millions of dollars in ads tearing him down as part of his 2020 Senate race, making it more difficult for anyone to create a new, negative impression, this person argued.

As far as the races farther down the ballot, this person said that while Trump’s endorsement is “the most powerful” in GOP politics, “it’s not the only message they need to get out.”

But for Trump, this Perdue ally said, whether the primary is a win for him will come down to Perdue’s performance.

“It doesn’t matter what happens down-ballot,” this person said. “If we’re not successful in the governor’s race, then people are going to say that Trump had a major defeat.”