The country’s 45th president, Donald Trump, and his onetime governing partner, Mike Pence, held dueling events on Monday night for their favored candidates ahead of Georgia’s highly anticipated Republican gubernatorial primary, in what could presage a potential fight over the future of the Republican Party.
Dramatically breaking with his former boss, Pence held an ebullient rally with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on the eve of an election the governor is expected to win. Meanwhile, Trump appeared at a tele-town hall with the man he recruited to oust Kemp, whom he blames for not working feverishly enough to overturn the 2020 presidential election results there: former senator David Perdue (R).
The former vice president appeared with the governor in an airport hangar in Kennesaw, where a black bus with Kemp’s logo rolled in through a large side door and country lyrics such as “it’s harvest time” blared as the men posed for photos with supporters.
“When you say yes to Brian Kemp tomorrow you’ll send a deafening message across America that the Republican Party is the party of the future,” Pence said to the crowd.
Pence praised much of the Trump administration’s agenda, and even Kemp praised Trump. Neither man mentioned Perdue by name and instead focused their ire on likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, in a sign the primary election was all but over, according to observers and polls.
Kemp instead boasted of his reopening of Georgia ahead of others during the coronavirus pandemic — against the guidance of federal officials — and some of his other moves, such as suspending the state’s gas tax. Pence briefly mentioned the 2020 election but largely concentrated on other topics.
Pence did not answer shouted questions about Trump as he left the event.
Meanwhile, Trump targeted Kemp — and Abrams — at the town hall for Perdue.
“David is the only candidate who can beat Stacey Abrams, because I don’t believe Kemp can do it. He’s got too many people in the Republican Party that will refuse to vote,” Trump said. He again attacked Kemp over the 2020 election. Perdue, for his part, said Abrams was “demeaning her own race” and should leave Georgia.
“She said that Georgia is the worst place in the country to live. Hey, she ain’t from here. Let her go back to where she came from. She doesn’t like it here,” Perdue said.
The split-screen symbolism was stark between a once-obsequious vice president and Trump. The two men have not spoken in almost a year, and Trump has criticized Pence for not doing more to overturn the 2020 election results. Pence, meanwhile, has sometimes criticized Trump’s comments about 2020, signaling privately that he may run in 2024, even against Trump.
If Kemp wins on Tuesday as expected, it would be a significant setback for Trump, who goaded a reluctant Perdue into competing against him, political observers say. Fueled by anger at Kemp for not helping him overturn the election, Trump has insulted the governor for months, organized political opposition to him and held an earlier rally in Georgia on Perdue’s behalf. Trump’s political clout will also be tested in two other races: the Senate contest where ex-NFL star Herschel Walker is expected to win the GOP nod to face Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D); and the secretary of state race between Brad Raffensperger and Trump’s pick, Rep. Jody Hice (R).
That no one criticized Trump explicitly reflects that he still remains the most influential Republican in the country and holds significant sway over his party’s base, political strategists said. Kemp has repeatedly declined to say anything negative about Trump.
“I had a great relationship with President Trump,” Kemp said during a virtual news conference Monday. “I’ve never said anything bad about him. I don’t plan on doing that. I’m not mad at him. I think he’s just mad at me. And that’s something that I can’t control.”
In interviews with about a dozen voters at Monday night’s Kemp rally, they all rejected Trump’s criticisms of Kemp and said they had grown increasingly sour on the former president because of his moves in the state.
Barry Schrenk, a 79-year-old Atlanta resident, said he’d recently had breakfast with six friends — all of whom were Republicans and voted for Trump. But Schrenk’s friends also appear to be supporting Kemp, who he described as an “outstanding governor” who opened up the state “soon after covid hit,” which he said “turned out to be the right decision.”
“All of them voted for Trump and said he was a good president but he shouldn’t be sticking his nose into this,” Schrenk said, referring to the Georgia gubernatorial contest. “Everyone at the table said they were voting for anybody now who Trump didn’t support.”
Schrenk described Trump as an “excellent president,” sans his Twitter account. But his criticism of Kemp had been horribly unfair, Schrenk said. “He did everything he could,” Schrenk said of Kemp. “He had to follow the Constitution. Trump … can’t blame himself for losing the election. He’s looking for someone to blame.”
Phoebe Mitchell, a special-education teacher, said she voted for Trump twice and “thought he was a great president.
“But he lost the election. And the governor doesn’t have the authority to overturn the election,” she said. “When he started criticizing Kemp, I was not down with that. And then he was criticizing my state. I didn’t like that. I have lost a lot of love for him.”
Now, Mitchell said, if Trump endorses a “guy or gal,” the endorsement “makes me want to vote for anyone else.”
Brett Daise, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, said he’d voted for Trump twice but felt differently now. Kemp was “his guy,” he said, because of how he’d handled the coronavirus and made the state “open for business,” he said. None of his friends, he said, were voting for Perdue.
Daise said he had turned away from Trump because of the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot and his efforts to overturn the election. “It would be enough to lose anyone,” he said.
“Trump is a driving force behind some things,” Daise said. “But if Trump was that much of a driving force, Perdue wouldn’t be down by 30 points.”
The Georgia gubernatorial primary has become the latest test over the potency of 2020 election conspiracy theories in the GOP electorate, and may be a template for how Republicans can move past that election. President Biden narrowly won Georgia in the 2020 election and Kemp refused to question those results and certified them. Voters will also go to the polls to pick nominees in a Senate contest to replace retiring Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.); and choose candidates in Texas runoffs for attorney general and in Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar’s 28th District.
In Georgia, the Republican Governors Association, which launched a remarkable bid to protect incumbents from Trump-backed challengers this primary season, poured about $5 million into the Kemp-Perdue race, according to a person familiar with the funding who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private budget details.
If Perdue loses, his defeat will be the third one in a governor’s race for Trump so far in the primary season, including Charles Herbster in Nebraska and Janice McGeachin in Idaho. Trump also backed Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R), who lost his North Carolina primary last week.
A coterie of GOP figures have descended on Georgia in recent days to back Kemp, including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
While Trump infused more than $2.5 million into the campaign, Perdue’s team has struggled to raise money against an incumbent and popular governor — and observers say he has also struggled to land any political punches against Kemp. Georgia political observers say Perdue’s campaign has largely gone dark, with few ads and few major appearances in the final days of the primary campaign.
Perdue’s campaign has revolved around unsubstantiated allegations of 2020 electoral fraud, and he continued that on Monday during his final appearance, declining to promise that he would accept the results of Tuesday’s election and attacking the news media.
“He’s divided this state,” Perdue said of Kemp during a brief news conference Monday. “He allowed fraud to happen in our election. He denied it happened. And he covered it up ever since,” he said, using his final moments of the campaign to continue repeating Trump’s false claims.
Kemp canceled a fly-around of the state on Monday because of the weather, and his team expected about 500 people at Monday night’s rally. A recent Fox News Poll showed that he’s garnering 60 percent of the vote, well over the 50 percent margin required to avoid a runoff.
The other major contest in the state is whether Raffensperger, the secretary of state, can keep his job. Like Kemp, he attracted a Trump-backed primary challenger because of his refusal to go along with Trump’s wishes to overturn the election.
Surprisingly, Raffensperger has tried to court the former president’s base by raising some questions about the 2020 election that he refused to overturn without completely jettisoning his image as an official willing to stand up to Trump. He is being challenged by Hice, who embraced Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election.
Dawsey reported from Kennesaw, Ga.