Former President Donald Trump is on a revenge mission in Georgia.
After top Republicans refused to rig the state’s 2020 vote in his favor, he’s already inspired one primary challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp, and he’s endorsed another against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Wounded by two special election losses that cost the GOP control of the Senate, he’s also trying to coax Herschel Walker — a football legend in Georgia — to run for the seat that’s up again in 2022.
Trump’s ire comes through in the emailed statements he issues to get around social media bans. Since March, at least two dozen have mentioned Georgia, accounting for about 12 percent of the messages Trump’s Save America PAC has sent in that time. No other state has been singled out more.
As recently as Friday, Trump suggested that the "PEOPLE of Georgia should SUE the State, and their elected officials, for running a CORRUPT AND RIGGED 2020 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION" — a response to the news that the Justice Department is suing the state over the restrictive voting law Kemp signed after Trump's loss and that Trump has complained does not go far enough.
And at a rally Saturday night in Wellington, Ohio — Trump’s first since leaving the White House — he took a moment to complain about Kemp and Georgia.
Democrats have made Georgia, once reliably conservative, a competitive state. President Joe Biden’s narrow win there, the Senate victories in January and Stacey Abrams’ close race with Kemp in 2018 all play into its battleground status.
At the same time, some prominent Georgia Republicans are fully aligned with the former president. The state’s congressional delegation includes some of his staunchest defenders. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who spoke at the Saturday Trump rally, is known for supporting dangerous and racist conspiracy theories. Reps. Andrew Clyde and Jody Hice are among those who have offered a false revisionist history of the Jan. 6 riot that Trump supporters led on the Capitol. In March, when Hice launched his primary bid against Raffensperger, the former president quickly endorsed him.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican who is critical of Trump, cites the party’s tilt toward personality-driven politics and grievance over policy and empathy as a factor in his decision not to run for a second term in 2022.
“Georgia is a small microcosm of what’s happening all over the country with Republicans,” Duncan told NBC News. “We unfortunately happened to be on the front page of the paper for 10 weeks. Certainly the crosswinds and chaos are going to show up all over the country.”
To no avail, Trump repeatedly pressured Kemp and Raffensperger to help overturn the 2020 results in the state, at one point begging the secretary of state to “find” him enough votes. Echoing Trump’s lie that the election was stolen from him has since become a litmus test for GOP candidates looking to earn support from his right-wing followers.
In 2018, Kemp catapulted over an establishment-friendly Republican on the strength of the then-president’s endorsement. Even now, under Trump’s explicit threat to campaign against his re-election, Kemp has been careful not to further antagonize him and escalate the situation. Exactly how far Trump will go to exact revenge remains to be seen, though. He’s expected to hold a rally in Georgia soon.
“Depending on how involved he wants to get — and it seems very involved — Trump could be a determinative voice in more than one race in Georgia,” said one GOP operative close to Trump’s political operation.
Vernon Jones, a former state lawmaker and former Democrat whose previous party affiliation made him a convenient Trump surrogate in 2020, has launched a primary bid against the governor. He says Trump would still be president if not for Kemp. His campaign manager, CJ Pearson, said Trump’s displeasure with Kemp was the “catalyst” for his candidacy.
But Trump has not endorsed Jones. And Corey Lewandowski, a Trump adviser who runs one of the former president’s super PACs, hinted last week about a potentially strong new contender.
“I have talked to what I think is going to be a phenomenal candidate,” Lewandowski said Tuesday on conservative commentator John Fredericks’ syndicated radio show.
Lewandowski would not identify the mystery candidate by name but called him a “known commodity” who’s “been elected in an area that traditionally Republicans don't get elected in.”
Kemp entered 2021 with $6.3 million on hand for a re-election campaign he officially launched last month. Allies say he’s been focused on activating a large team of grassroots supporters across the state. When people at GOP events press him on his refusal to overturn Trump’s loss, Kemp responds by “telling the truth,” reminding them that he followed the law and emphasizing his conservative accomplishments, said a Republican close to the governor’s team who requested anonymity to discuss a politically fraught subject.
Pearson questioned Kemp’s viability without Trump behind him.
“We've seen that Brian Kemp can run well with the president's support,” Pearson said, referring to Trump’s 2018 endorsement. “What we haven't seen him do is run without it.”
Raffensperger began the year with about $87,000 in his campaign account, and Republicans mindful of his down-ballot office and of Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement of Hice view him as more vulnerable than Kemp. A Raffensperger spokesperson declined to comment. Hice’s campaign did not respond to requests to comment on the primary.
As for the Senate race, several Republicans have expressed interest in challenging Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock, including former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost to him in January’s special election. Gary Black, the state’s elected agriculture commissioner, is the only announced candidate with statewide name recognition.
Walker — a Heisman winner at the University of Georgia who played for Trump’s old United States Football League franchise and later in the NFL — raised expectations that he’ll run for the seat in a recent tweet. The operative close to Trump, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, predicted Walker would clear the GOP field and compel the former president and his family to invest even more in Georgia. A Walker campaign also would give the party a well-known Black candidate to rival Warnock, and possibly Abrams, atop the 2022 ticket.
Given her near-miss in 2018 and continued national profile as a voting rights activist, Abrams would again be a formidable Democratic opponent if she runs for governor, as many expect. In a state where fewer than 12,000 votes separated Biden and Trump, her prospective strength is a factor GOP primary candidates and voters might weigh.
“At the end of the day, are you sufficiently Trump in the primary? And in the general election, does that create a burden or a problem?” said Nick Everhart, a Republican media consultant who worked with Kemp’s campaign in 2018.
There have been early signs that the first question matters more. Activists at the Georgia GOP’s convention this month booed Kemp and voted to censure Raffensperger. But there remains a segment of the party worried about the second.
Duncan, the outgoing lieutenant governor, is writing a book, due in September, outlining his plans for a “GOP 2.0” to rebuild a post-Trump party. He described the primaries against Kemp and Raffensperger as “selfish” and “solely based on wanting to pacify a former president sitting in his resort down in Mar-a-Lago.”
John Watson, a Kemp ally and former state party chair, wonders how Trump’s grudge match will end.
“For Republicans nationally and in Georgia, if the agenda is forward looking through the windshield, I believe we win,” Watson said. “If we are trying to drive looking through the rearview mirror, we crash.”