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High anxiety over Trump in Georgia GOP
Georgia Republicans are growing anxious that former President Trump's continued influence within the GOP and the party's deepening internal divisions could undermine their standing in critical races in 2022.
The GOP is gearing up to try to unseat Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) in next year's midterm elections while also defending the governor's mansion.
But several GOP strategists and operatives expressed concerns that Trump's looming intervention in the midterms - especially his pledge to support a primary challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp (R) - could only serve to deepen their losses in one of the nation's fastest-growing and most diverse battleground states.
"He's done a real number on us already," one Republican consultant in Georgia said, blaming Trump for the GOP's losses in two January Senate runoffs. "My concern is Trump becomes a distraction. You never want to have to deal with nonsense, and right now we really can't afford his nonsense."
Republicans have little room for error in 2022. The GOP needs to gain only one seat in the Senate to recapture a majority in the chamber. But they are facing a difficult electoral map that requires them to defend 20 seats to Democrats' 14, and GOP retirements in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and North Carolina are likely to make the midterms even more challenging for them.
What's more, the Republican Party is still torn over its direction in the post-Trump political environment, with some in the party working to cement the former president's influence over the GOP for years to come and others urging Republicans to move past Trump and his brand of ultraconservative populism.
"I think there's millions of Republicans waking up around the country that are realizing that Donald Trump's divisive tone and strategy is unwinnable in forward-looking elections," Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican, said earlier this month on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"We need real leadership," he added. "We need new focus."
Nevertheless, there's little doubt that Trump will get involved in next year's races in Georgia.
Republican operatives say Trump is fixated on the state as he looks to wield influence in the 2022 midterms, motivated by his own electoral loss there in November and his desire to exact political revenge on Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), who rejected Trump's pleas last year to overturn the results of the state's presidential election.
He has already endorsed Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.), who is running to oust Raffensperger, and he has pledged to back a primary challenge to Kemp next year. One Georgia Republican source said that Trump is also eyeing potential primary challengers to Duncan, who has broken with his party's conservative base on several occasions in recent months.
It's unclear who Trump might back in the gubernatorial race. Former Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) is said to be weighing a primary challenge to Kemp, though several Republicans in the state believe he is more likely to mount another campaign for the Senate next year.
Vernon Jones, a former Democratic congressman who switched to the GOP earlier this year, has also floated a possible primary challenge to Kemp. In a tweet last week, Jones raised the prospect of a gubernatorial campaign, saying that "if it weren't for Brian Kemp, Donald Trump would still be President of these United States."
Also looming over the 2022 governor's race in Georgia is Stacey Abrams, the former state House minority leader who came close to defeating Kemp in 2018.
Abrams is seen as a likely Democratic contender for the governor's mansion, and Republicans fear that any failure to rally their base around a single candidate could cost them control of the state's highest office.
Then there's the state's all-important 2022 Senate race, which Republicans see as crucial to winning back their majority in the upper chamber. Trump has publicly called on Herschel Walker, the former NFL player, to mount a bid against Warnock, who defeated former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) in a hotly contested runoff election in January.
But other Republicans are eyeing the Senate seat as well, including Collins and Loeffler, who now runs an outside group called Greater Georgia that is seeking to replicate the voter registration tactics used by Fair Fight, the influential voting rights group founded by Abrams.
"There's going to be some rough primaries. I don't think there's a way around that," a Republican campaign operative who has worked on statewide races in Georgia said. "Everyone is going to be going after that Trump endorsement and tearing each other apart to get it."
The rumblings of contentious statewide primaries bring to mind the 2020 special Senate election that saw Collins and Loeffler spend months battling it out for Trump's support.
Loeffler ultimately beat Collins in November before advancing to a runoff against Warnock in January. But many Republicans believe that the prolonged intraparty fight - along with Trump's claims that Georgia's elections system was "rigged" - buoyed Democrats and contributed to the dual GOP losses in January.
"There was loads of good [opposition research] on Warnock, and it didn't come out until the runoff," one former Senate campaign aide said.
"By that time, he looked like the nice guy - the guy who hugs puppies," the aide added, referring to a series of Warnock campaign ads last year that featured the now-senator alongside a beagle named Alvin.
There are still plenty of variables that have yet to be determined in Georgia. Few candidates in either party have actually announced campaigns. And some Republicans are still skeptical about what influence Trump will have left by the time the midterm elections arrive on Nov. 8, 2022.
There are also questions about what effect a recently signed voting law in Georgia will have on the state's elections next year.
The law - which limits the use of ballot drop boxes, adds a voter ID requirement for absentee voting and gives Republican state lawmakers more control over local elections boards, among other things - has drawn widespread criticism from Democrats and voting rights activists, who see it as an overt attempt by Republican legislators to suppress and disenfranchise voters.
Republicans have defended the new law as necessary to boost confidence in the elections process after Trump leveled baseless allegations of voter fraud and malfeasance during the 2020 presidential race.
But some Republicans have reservations about the new voting measures, fearing that Democrats could use the law to motivate their voters in 2022 and beyond. One GOP strategist noted how Abrams and her allies seized on allegations of voter suppression in recent years to register and turn out new voters.
"Stacey Abrams has been out there saying for years that Republicans are trying to keep you from voting. And you know what? Those people showed up to vote," the strategist said. "Well, now the Democrats have something concrete to show people where they can say 'See, we were right.' "