GOP braces for brutal primary in Georgia governor's election

Republicans are staring down a potentially costly and bitter primary for Georgia governor that will test the GOP’s resolve in one of the most competitive political battlegrounds of the 2022 midterm elections.

Former Sen. David PerdueDavid PerdueKemp campaign alleges Perdue team illegally coordinating with new fundraising committee Abrams treads carefully in relationship with Biden Stacey Abrams's shocking snub of Biden, Harris signals possible 2024 aspirations MORE’s (R-Ga.) entrance into the race for governor on Monday set up a showdown with Gov. Brian KempBrian KempGOP governors press Biden administration for control of infrastructure implementation Kemp campaign alleges Perdue team illegally coordinating with new fundraising committee Abrams treads carefully in relationship with Biden MORE (R), a conservative firebrand who drew the ire of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger welcomes baby boy Tennessee lawmaker presents self-defense bill in 'honor' of Kyle Rittenhouse Five things to know about the New York AG's pursuit of Trump MORE last year when he refused to overturn the former president’s loss in the 2020 election in Georgia.

The nascent primary fight between Kemp and Perdue, who already has the endorsement of Trump, is stirring concern among Republicans, who fear that a drawn-out nominating contest could hobble the party as it prepares to take on Stacey Abrams, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, next year.

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“I find it hard to believe that you could have a bitter, bitter Republican primary and then be fully healed and ready to go against a candidate that’s going to clear the field on her side and will have whatever money she needs to run,” said Chuck Clay, a former Republican state senator and Georgia GOP chair.

Still, Clay added, “I do think this state is – and especially in 2022 – advantage Republican.”

In announcing his campaign for governor on Monday, Perdue offered a preview of just how vicious the GOP primary could become.

He blamed the Georgia governor for the former senator’s own loss in the January runoff election against Sen. Jon OssoffJon OssoffThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Schumer tees up doomed election reform vote Momentum builds to prohibit lawmakers from trading stocks On The Money — US regulators go after illegal mergers MORE (D-Ga.), one of two Senate races that handed Democrats control of the upper chamber. He also accused Kemp of failing to stand up for Trump last year as the former president sought to reverse his loss in the presidential election.

“Look, I like Brian. This isn’t personal,” Perdue said. “It’s simple: He has failed all of us and cannot win in November. Instead of protecting our elections, he caved to Abrams and cost us two Senate seats, the Senate majority and gave Joe Biden free reign. Think about how different it would be today if Kemp fought Abrams first instead of fighting Trump.”

Kemp’s campaign fired back at Perdue, accusing him of running for governor “to soothe his own bruised ego, because his campaign for U.S. Senate failed to inspire voters at the ballot box – twice.”

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“The man who lost Republicans the United States Senate and brought the last year of skyrocketing inflation, open borders, runaway government spending, and woke cancel culture upon the American people now wants to lose the Georgia governor’s office to the national face of the radical left movement,” said Cody Hall, Kemp’s communications director and senior adviser.

Perdue isn’t the first Republican to challenge Kemp for the GOP nomination, though he is the highest-profile — and perhaps the most viable. A poll commissioned by Trump’s leadership PAC Save America in August showed that with the former president’s endorsement, Perdue would lead Kemp 41 percent to 26 percent in a multi-candidate primary field.

In a statement announcing his endorsement of Perdue on Monday, Trump railed against Kemp as a “very weak Governor” who would lose next year’s general election because the former president’s conservative base “will never vote for him.”

The matchup between Perdue and Kemp also virtually guarantees that Trump and his false claims that widespread voter fraud cost him the 2020 election will play a central role in Georgia next year.

Few Republicans are willing to question Kemp’s conservative bona fides. He’s been an outspoken advocate for conservative positions on everything from immigration to abortion, and scored political points with many Republicans earlier this year when he signed controversial new voting restrictions into law.

One Republican strategist who has worked on governor’s races said that Kemp’s record leaves Perdue with little to attack him for in terms of policy and ideology.

“It’s going to be a primary about Donald Trump and 2020,” the strategist said. “You can’t really argue that Kemp’s not a real conservative. There’s not going to be a real debate over actual policy, and I think that’s what makes it so dangerous.”

If there’s any silver lining for Republicans, it’s that Democrats are facing a bevy of challenges nationally in 2022.

Voters have largely soured on President BidenJoe BidenBiden says he didn't 'overpromise' Finland PM pledges 'extremely tough' sanctions should Russia invade Ukraine Russia: Nothing less than NATO expansion ban is acceptable MORE’s job performance over the past several months; recent polling shows that most Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track and many Democrats acknowledge that even top-tier recruits like Abrams could face strong headwinds next year.

At the same time, Abrams is a polarizing figure in her own right, and staunch GOP opposition to her candidacy could help unite a splintered Republican electorate in the wake of a divisive primary fight.

The governor’s mansion isn’t the only statewide office at stake next year. Sen. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockKelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Overnight Energy & Environment — Lummis holds up Biden EPA picks Dems block Cruz's Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill MORE (D-Ga.), who was elected earlier this year in a runoff election against former Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerEleven interesting races to watch in 2022 Democrats' selective hearing on law and order issues puts everyone at risk Pelosi faces pushback over stock trade defense MORE (R-Ga.), is seeking a full term in 2022, and the fate of his seat could very well determine the balance of power in the Senate.

Warnock is facing a challenge from former football star Herschel Walker, who jumped into the race in August and has the backing of Trump. Trump has also endorsed Rep. Jody HiceJody Brownlow HiceSecretary of state races come under red-hot focus Watchdog finds fundraising spikes for Ga., Mich., Minn. secretary of state candidates Raffensperger knocks 'double-minded' Trump-endorsed challenger MORE’s (R-Ga.) bid to oust Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who also refused Trump’s pleas to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia.

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Still, many Democrats are optimistic about their chances in the state, especially in light of the nascent primary between Kemp and Perdue.

Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign in Georgia, said that Trump’s continued involvement in Republican politics and his willingness to inject himself into the primaries could motivate Democrats in Georgia in 2022.

Johnson also said that regardless of who wins the Republican primary for governor next year, the fight between Kemp and Perdue would inevitably leave the eventual nominee damaged. Meanwhile, Abrams, who’s not facing any primary opposition, will “be able to talk about the issues that matter to Georgia voters,” he said.

“It helps because no matter who emerges as the nominee for governor, that gentleman will be battered and bruised by attacks from his own party,” Johnson said. “So that person – whether it’s David Perdue or Gov. Kemp – will have to take some time to gather themselves.”