Democrats’ tough fight to retain their House and Senate majorities against a feared 2022 “red wave” has reignited the party’s penchant for pessimism, but downhearted Dems have at least one thing going for them: Donald Trump is once again urging Republicans to prioritize his election fraud Big Lie over winning elections.
With the GOP facing another Trump-directed circular firing squad, Democrats have a rare opportunity to set the conversational agenda with voters.
After the doubts he sowed about election integrity seemed to depress GOP turnout in pivotal Senate runoffs in Georgia in January, handing two red seats to the Democratic Party and with it control of the entire chamber, Trump is now undermining the governor’s race in this key Southern state.
On Monday, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue announced a Trump-backed primary challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp, driven largely by spite from Trump and his supporters over Kemp’s correct insistence that there was no voter fraud in Georgia last year. The contest has all the makings of a costly and demoralizing battle between the Republicans in thrall to Trump and his election falsehoods and the few remaining GOP officeholders who refuse to buy into Trumpian unreality. The crack-up couldn’t come at a better time for his opponents.
For a state party hoping to focus its attacks on increasingly organized Democrats, Trump’s fiery re-entry into Georgia politics is already inviting a distracting media circus. For Democrats rallying around the return of political star Stacey Abrams, who announced her second run for governor last week, Trump’s antics may be the opening they need to complete a stunning takeover of what was once a Republican stronghold.
Kemp will be a formidable candidate for any challenger. A Morning Consult survey from April found that Kemp enjoyed strong support from GOP voters, with 3 in 4 approving of his performance. And Trump’s first campaign to tank Kemp, which included a flurry of lawsuits targeting Kemp as well as a monthslong media barrage, never dragged the governor’s approval rating below 62 percent.
Incumbents with the built-in popularity Kemp enjoys rarely, if ever, find themselves in primary fights. But Trump is no ordinary politician, and his support is often more about satisfying his revenge complex and fueling outrage than picking strong candidates, as demonstrated during his brief public flirtation with endorsing disgraced aide Corey Lewandowski in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in New Hampshire. For Trump, the months spent tweaking Kemp’s nose will be time and money well spent even if Perdue garners single-digit vote totals.
Other Republicans, now forced to divide their money and messaging resources internally instead of concentrating on Abrams, feel differently. “This will be the ugliest, nastiest race this state has ever seen,” one Georgia Republican operative told The Washington Post. Another described Perdue’s “Stop the Steal” rhetoric as “a sort of ‘fool me twice’ moment. I don’t see how people can argue that’s the way to win a general election next year.” For the Republicans who don’t buy into Trump’s magical thinking on election fraud, spending the next year relitigating 2020 instead of talking about issues affecting Georgians is a path to yet another Democratic upset.
Perdue, for his part, is a man with nothing to lose. His 2020 Senate re-election campaign went down in flames in large part because of Trump’s parallel, highly unpopular fight with Georgia Republican officials over the legitimacy of President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory. At the time, Trump reveled in Perdue’s and his colleague Kelly Loeffler’s humiliating losses to Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, reportedly complaining to White House aides that Perdue didn’t defend him enough. Fortunately for Trump, Perdue has no problem compromising his dignity in pursuit of political relevance.
He’ll fight it out with former Georgia state Rep. Vernon Jones, another Trump-aligned Republican who argues the 2020 election results are fraudulent. Jones, a Black conservative who was a Democrat until switching parties under Trump, draws rapturous attention from the far-right faithful. But a new poll from the Trump-aligned Save America PAC hints that Trump’s endorsement could be decisive. It found that Kemp led Perdue and all challengers in a Trump-free race. But include the former president’s support and Perdue vaults from 6 points behind Kemp to 15 points ahead.
If those numbers are even close to accurate, Kemp could burn through a significant chunk of his $12 million campaign war chest well before he ever goes toe-to-toe with Abrams and her well-organized Georgia Democrat Party. Abrams outraised Kemp $27.7 million to $22.3 million in the 2018 matchup that made her a national Democratic celebrity despite narrowly losing the race.
With her heightened profile, Abrams should easily top her 2018 fundraising total. Meanwhile, Kemp will need to outperform his fundraising from a time when the Georgia GOP was largely united — a tough proposition when pro-Trump and anti-Trump Republicans regard themselves as increasingly distant partisan relatives. Coaxing money from voters who think you betrayed The Donald won’t be an easy task.
The situation gets even worse if Perdue or longshot Jones somehow topples Kemp with his significant establishment advantages. Their MAGA-centric campaigns will almost certainly count on the two-thirds of Republican voters nationwide who believe Trump’s Big Lie. That may be red meat for Trump’s base, but winning statewide would be an uphill climb burdened by an issue that polarizes the party.
It will also create a unique moment in American history: If Perdue or Jones ends up facing Abrams in the general election, Georgians will choose between two politicians who have accused Georgia officials of supporting election fraud. In 2018, Abrams-aligned groups sued the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, headed by Kemp through the election, for what they called illegal voter suppression tactics that year. Kemp, for his part, has denied any voter suppression. (And unlike Perdue — or Trump — Abrams never demanded the state overturn Kemp’s win.)
Political trivia aside, a Kemp/Abrams matchup remains the most likely outcome, with Trump punching and counterpunching both sides from the comfort of Mar-a-Lago. But Trump’s antics are far more likely to sway fellow Republicans away from Kemp than they are to move a single Democrat into the GOP column. And thanks to decades of on-the-ground organizing by activists like Abrams, nearly every Democrat in Georgia is registered to vote. Republicans now have a smaller margin of error than ever.
With the GOP facing another Trump-directed circular firing squad, Democrats have a rare opportunity to set the conversational agenda with voters. Abrams has already built an enviable organizing operation in the years since her 2018 bid. Now she’ll have the chance to deploy it against a state Republican Party in the midst of a messy, exceptionally public meltdown.
Abrams benefits from being Democrats’ most marketable rising star after her years of organizing Georgians helped catapult a pair of Democrats into power-shifting Senate wins. As Trump and the GOP prepare to turn Kemp’s re-election race into a national story, they’ll also vault Abrams back to the center of media attention. That’s a great place for Abrams ahead of 2024 — and a headache for Republicans trying to keep a lid on her rise.
Instead of Democrats’ worrying about Biden’s drooping poll numbers, Abrams offers them an opportunity to turn anxiety into action. If Abrams and Democrats can take advantage of the latest round of Trump’s chaos machine, an unexpected sequel to 2020’s “Blue Georgia” would go a long way toward soothing Democrats’ other anticipated midterm bruises.