Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Getty

LOUISVILLE, Georgia—It may have taken Gov. Brian Kemp a good half-hour to get there, but during his speech at a recent campaign stop in this small east Georgia town, he allowed himself to acknowledge the truth about the state of his Republican primary contest against former Sen. David Perdue.

“I know some are getting a little confident,” Kemp said. “Which worries me.”

Laughs rang out from the room, which was packed with local luminaries and Kemp supporters tucking into sliced ham and bright pink cake, courtesy of the governor.

Not too long ago, however, there was little in this race for Kemp to laugh about.

In December, Perdue launched a campaign to primary him—backed by the full might of Donald Trump—based almost entirely on the governor’s refusal to illegally overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 win in Georgia.

With the MAGA grassroots still fired up about election fraud conspiracies, Georgia Republicans braced for a brutal cage match between two of their most high-profile politicians. A Kemp loss was seen as possible. A bruised GOP nominee heading into the general election against Democrat Stacey Abrams was seen as a certainty.

Now, as the May 24 primary draws near, this Republican battle royale has turned out to be as bitterly personal as expected.

That much was clear at a debate between the two men on Sunday night, which ended up being a bare-knuckled brawl over the 2020 election. Perdue blamed Kemp for his and Trump’s losses—and Kemp called him “weak” for trying to avoid accountability for his humiliating loss.

What wasn’t expected, however, is what Kemp carefully alluded to in Louisville: the possibility that Perdue’s much-hyped challenge fizzles out in embarrassment.

Not a single public poll of the primary has found Perdue leading Kemp; one recent survey even showed the governor ahead by 24 points. Meanwhile, the Georgia GOP establishment has largely rallied around Kemp, as have legions of rank-and-file types. Kemp has badly outraised Perdue, and his ads attacking the ex-senator are omnipresent on TV screens across the state.

Trump, already seeking to manage expectations, has publicly suggested Perdue—a former senator and Fortune 500 CEO—is a “long shot.”

Even if he’s willing to acknowledge his advantage over Perdue with a self-deprecating joke, Kemp is nothing but sober and serious when discussing the rest of the primary campaign. If he doesn’t get more than 50 percent of the vote in May, the two Republicans will go head-to-head in a June runoff.

In that scenario, anything can happen—so much so that in Georgia, local politicos often joke that the first-place spot is “cursed” in a runoff.

Just ask Perdue, who lost to Democrat Jon Ossoff in a 2021 runoff after leading him by over 80,000 votes after the 2020 general election. Or ask Kemp, who finished a distant second in the GOP primary for governor in 2018 before winning in the runoff.

“We’ve got to run like we’re 10 points down, and win by 10,” Kemp told the crowd in Louisville. “That’s what we’re doing.”

Kemp’s biggest advantage right now may be that Republicans in Georgia care more about what he has done on a number of issues—not what he didn’t do on the only issue that seems to matter to Trump.

At a campaign stop in Sandersville on a recent Thursday, Brant Kennedy, a minister, held up a pro-Kemp sign as the governor ticked through his actions on a number of conservative priorities, from guns and taxes to police and agriculture policy.

Like most Trump supporters, Kennedy is upset about the 2020 election. He’s supporting Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA), who is challenging Brad Raffensperger, the GOP Secretary of State who became a villain simply for defending the state’s election system.

But Kennedy saw no reason for Perdue to run against Kemp—and said he wanted to “put a sock” in Trump’s mouth for continuing to bash Kemp and boost Perdue.

“Brian Kemp hasn’t been a good governor,” Kennedy argued. “He’s been a great governor.”

If Kemp successfully vanquishes Perdue, the win might have implications that extend far beyond this spring’s primary, which has become a litmus test for the future of the GOP.

For one, it shows that even the most devoted Republicans simply aren’t making decisions based on Trump’s endorsements or his fixation on the 2020 election—a potential boon to Republican leaders who have been urging candidates nationwide to focus on Democrats’ handling of the economy and COVID instead.

Beyond that, Kemp’s durability could affect Democrats’ chances of putting Abrams in the governor’s mansion next year.

Democrats had been banking on running against a GOP nominee weakened by the Trump-fueled primary fracas—perhaps one of their few advantages in what will otherwise be a difficult election-year environment for the party.

Even though Trump’s attempt to upend the Georgia GOP is falling flat, Georgia Democrats still believe the expensive, messy internal brawl will ultimately help Abrams.

Max Flugrath, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Georgia, said Kemp is “facing an onslaught of brutal attacks” from Perdue and, in “fighting for his political life,” has embraced “extreme and unpopular” positions.

“The intensifying GOP infighting and four-candidate field is fueling Trump’s efforts to force Kemp into a runoff,” said Flugrath, noting that the national Republican Governors Association has spent heavily to protect Kemp.

Many Republicans are well aware that the more time and money they spend fighting, the better chance Democrats will have. If Abrams goes on to win in November, Kennedy, the Kemp-supporting minister, said he’d put the blame squarely on one person: “President Trump.”

The Pastor Who Won’t Give In to Georgia’s New Voting Restrictions

Trump’s inability to let go of his grudge against Kemp was on full display Thursday, when he released a bitterly angry statement attacking the governor for, among other things, not doing enough to protect Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA). The MAGA acolyte is facing an effort in court to disqualify her from the ballot. Trump closed by saying that Kemp “will never be able to win the general election” because Republicans “just will not vote for him.”

This statement was just the latest in a slew of broadsides from the ex-president, who has never forgiven Kemp for declining to overturn the 2020 election in his state.

Kemp, however, has opted to keep Trump’s name out of his mouth.

The day before Kemp toured east Georgia on his campaign bus, news broke that a TV ad offensive against Kemp had been funded by Trump, to the tune of $500,000. Asked by The Daily Beast to respond, the governor did not mention the ex-president’s name.

“We can’t control that,” Kemp said of Trump’s funding of attacks. “I’m not worried about what other people are doing.”

On the stump, Kemp also avoids mentioning Perdue by name, preferring to take veiled shots that resonate most with local audiences. For example, Kemp repeatedly referenced Perdue’s recent comments that the Georgia State Patrol is “not elite,” which outraged some Republicans and members of law enforcement.

In Louisville, Kemp said the State Patrol’s critics—not naming Perdue—“just don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re not in today’s world. They’re throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.”

Instead, Kemp has remained focused on his record as governor with the urgency of someone convinced that his policy accomplishments are his best asset in this tough campaign—even if his plodding determination to get through every last item means he sometimes loses a crowd.

At a restaurant on Louisville’s quiet, historic Broad Street, roughly 80 attendees listened as Kemp methodically went through his wins from the just-concluded state legislative session. Within 30 minutes, the governor covered legislation on mental health, reworking the state’s elections, K-12 education, the state income tax, farming, law enforcement, human trafficking, and more.

Democrats are convinced that several of these bills will be politically toxic in the general election—such as one to allow permit-free carrying of firearms in public—but they’ve shored up Kemp’s status in the GOP base.

GOP state senator Max Burns, who introduced the governor to the crowd, boiled down Kemp’s message in a brief interview with The Daily Beast.

“If you want to argue with Brian Kemp’s record, tell me what he’s done wrong?” Burns said. “I don’t have a thing against David Perdue. He’s not the guy.”

Indeed, Kemp’s pitch is an intentionally Georgia-focused antidote to Perdue’s campaign, which is animated almost solely on the issue of election fraud and Trump’s focus on the 2020 election.

An ad from Perdue—which began running on Friday and was funded by pro-Trump forces—tried to tie virtually all the country’s current problems to Kemp, by making the false claim that he “sold us out and allowed radicals to steal the election.”

Republicans had already noted the former senator’s struggle to refocus on other issues, as it becomes clear that GOP voters largely aren’t willing to ditch Kemp over his handling of the past election.

“David Perdue seems to be caught in the past, without a plan,” said Jason Shepherd, the former chairman of the GOP in Cobb County, just outside Atlanta. “His campaign is trying to run to the right of the most conservative Republican governor that Georgia has ever had.”

That has prompted Perdue to pick some unusual fights. When the electric vehicle company Rivian decided to invest billions of dollars for a new plant in Georgia, Perdue criticized Kemp for allegedly not listening to the concerns of residents near the proposed site. He’s also tried to cast suspicion in the GOP on the entire project by noting that liberal financier George Soros is a Rivian investor.

GA Sec. of State Brad Raffensperger Details Trump’s ‘Threats’

Charles Bullock, a longtime professor of politics at the University of Georgia, said this line of attack “smacked almost of desperation.”

The weakness of Perdue’s 2020 election-focused pitch, Bullock says, has “forced Perdue to take counter-Republican positions… most folks in Georgia, generally, are in favor of things that are going to bring jobs.”

There is one individual who Kemp is glad to mention by name, repeatedly, at every stop: Abrams. Though she lost to Kemp in 2018, Abrams’ work registering voters in that race and in 2020 is credited as being integral to recent Democratic wins in Georgia. And now she is running for governor again.

While Perdue’s campaign materials put Abrams front and center, Kemp—though he insists on not taking the primary for granted—is also running ads dinging Abrams. In Louisville, Kemp acknowledged he is “definitely” running two campaigns at the same time. “

“We have got to win the primary,” Kemp said. “And I have the record to do that, but I also have a record to beat Stacey Abrams in November, and look, primary voters need to understand that— they need to understand that I’m the candidate that can beat Stacey Abrams.”

But Republicans stress that they will support whichever Republican is taking on Abrams. Several said they believe Perdue to be a weaker candidate, pointing to his loss to Ossoff and reporting on his stock trading activity by The Daily Beast and other outlets. Recent polling of the race has backed up that sentiment, with Kemp faring better than Perdue in hypothetical head-to-heads with Abrams—though both would have an advantage over the Democrat.

With such a ripe midterm environment shaping up for the GOP, virtually every Republican who spoke to The Daily Beast expressed dismay that this primary is even happening.

Mitch Sheppard, a self-described “conservative Republican” who is in the trucking business, came out to see Kemp in Sandersville last week. He said he was “a little disappointed” that Perdue decided to run.

“The focus right now should be on defeating Democrats. I’d rather not go through a primary,” Sheppard said. “I personally think the Trump effect has gone away for a lot of people.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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