Photo illustration of Vernon Jones and Brian Kemp
Getty Images/The Hill Illustration

Several Republican governors are being threatened by primary challenges from the right ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, with Trump allies within the GOP hitting them for not aligning themselves closely enough with the former president on issues like coronavirus restrictions and last year’s election results.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who faced backlash from former President Trump for certifying President Biden’s win in the state, is facing a primary challenge from pro-Trump Republican Vernon Jones. 

In Texas, former state Sen. Don Huffines (R) is challenging Gov. Greg Abbott (R), whose coronavirus restrictions have come under fire from some conservative critics as too severe even as Democrats called them too lenient.

And in Ohio, Trump loyalist Jim Renacci is considering a run against Gov. Mike DeWine (R), who has also faced criticism from conservatives for his state’s coronavirus orders. 

“To me this isn’t about challenges from the right, it’s about challenges from the Trump wing of the party,” said veteran GOP strategists Doug Heye. 

The former president has attacked Republicans, like Kemp, who did not echo his messaging on the 2020 election results. Meanwhile, many conservatives have rallied around Trump’s lax approach to coronavirus restrictions and have criticized Republican governors who did not fully reflect the former president’s approach. 

Last week, Huffines launched his primary challenge against Abbott, pledging to take stronger action on issues like taxes, elections and border security. 

However, it’s the debate over coronavirus restrictions that has proven to be a thorn in Abbott’s side throughout the course of the pandemic, resulting in criticism not only from Democrats agitating for more stringent measures but also from conservatives, like Huffines. 

“For too long, Texas has been let down by politicians who offer nothing but excuses and lies,” Huffines said in an announcement that did not mention Abbott by name. “I am ready to take on the federal government and the entrenched elites of the Austin swamp.” 

Insiders say that Abbott does not have too much to worry about with Huffines as a primary challenger, but that could change if more candidates jump into the fray. 

Texas Republican Party Chair Allen West and the state’s Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller are also said to be mulling primary challenges. 

“If one or two more credible candidates jump in that primary, I think he’d have something to be concerned about,” said a Republican consultant who has done work in Texas. “I don’t think Don Huffines is going to take down Greg Abbott one on one. He still won’t have the resources to match or the narrative on his own.”

Abbott faced criticism at the start of the pandemic last year from conservatives who said the state’s stay-at-home order was unnecessarily harsh. Abbott also faced criticism from the left in March after he lifted the statewide mask mandate and limits on business occupancy. Biden referred to the move as “Neanderthal thinking.” 

However, nearly three months later, Abbott and his allies are touting the Lone Star State’s coronavirus data showing a downward trend in cases. On Sunday, Texas reported zero coronavirus-related deaths for the first time since March 2020. 

In Ohio, where DeWine took an arguably more cautious approach to the pandemic, restrictions have been lifted as vaccines are distributed and cases continue to trend downward. 

Strategists argue that primary challengers launching bids against incumbents based on coronavirus restrictions could run into a dead end with GOP primary voters next year as those restrictions go away.

“Given that Gov. DeWine has essentially lifted all of the restrictions, that anger is going to dissipate,” said Ohio-based Republican strategist Mark Weaver. “It doesn’t mean that it’s forgotten, it just means it’s less palpable.” 

DeWine has yet to formally receive a primary challenger, but former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale is touting Renacci, a former congressman, as a potential primary challenger. Parscale told NBC News last week that he was advising Renacci but was not being paid. 

Parscale tweeted a Harris Quick Poll on Tuesday showing Renacci leading DeWine by 18 points. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points. 

Additionally, Parscale has promoted a polling memo from Trump’s chief pollster in 2016 and 2020 showing Renacci leading DeWine 42 to 34 percent. 

But other Ohio Republicans doubt Renacci’s chances, citing his 7-point loss to incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in 2018. Trump won the state by 8 points two years earlier. 

“When [Renacci] ran for Senate, he had a pretty good shot at Sherrod Brown, but he famously bungled his campaign,” said Weaver, who has advised DeWine in the past. 

While Abbott and DeWine did not necessarily take the same approach to the pandemic as Trump did, they, unlike Kemp, are not dealing with Trump’s own anger directed at them. 

Kemp refused to overturn Trump’s electoral loss in Georgia, earning him the ire of the former president and a pro-Trump primary challenger. 

Jones, a former Democrat who endorsed Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, has called last year’s presidential election results in Georgia “fixed.” Trump has not endorsed Jones, but he has vowed to support a primary challenge against Kemp. 

An internal poll commissioned by Jones’s campaign and conducted by GOP firm Remington Research Group shows Kemp leading Jones by just 4 points, 39 to 35 percent.

Some Georgia Republicans have expressed concerns over the idea of a contentious primary, arguing that it could drain a candidate’s resources ahead of what will certainly be a hard-fought general election in the Peach State. 

“Any kind of bloody primary that chews up $2 million in money you desperately need in November is not good,” said Chuck Clay, a Kemp ally and former chairman of the Georgia GOP. “We need to find a way to be unified.”

Tags Brad Parscale Brian Kemp brian kemp vernon jones georgia governor texas abbott huffines pro trump gop primary challenges 2022 races election Donald Trump Jim Renacci Joe Biden Mike DeWine Sherrod Brown

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