Kemp-Perdue clash sparks GOP concerns
Georgia’s hotly contested GOP gubernatorial primary is devolving into a no-holds-barred political fist fight, stirring concerns among some in the party that Republicans may be weakening their own chances of holding the governor’s mansion in November.
Gov. Brian Kemp and his chief primary opponent, former Sen. David Perdue (Ga.), have been at it for months. But the divisive tone of the primary has only intensified in recent weeks, especially as early polling has shown Perdue trailing Kemp despite the former’s high-profile endorsement by former President Trump.
Democrats, meanwhile, have coalesced behind the candidacy of Stacey Abrams, raising fears among Republicans that the primary could leave their eventual nominee battered and their voters divided.
“It’s hard to see how either of them — Brian Kemp or David Perdue — could really come out of this at this point and not have the bad blood,” one Georgia Republican strategist said. “It’s too early to say what that means for November, but it’s also easy to see how things could kind of spiral.”
Those same concerns were also made clear last week by Republican Senate candidate and former NFL star Herschel Walker, who said that he was “mad at both” Kemp and Perdue and did not support either one because of their incessant infighting.
“What has happened now is some people get sour grapes and they don’t get out and vote,” said Walker, who, like Perdue, has been endorsed by Trump. “But I want to say this to whoever loses that race — whether it’s Gov. Kemp or Sen. Perdue — he needs to tell his people to go vote for the other.”
The back-and-forth between the two men has played out in ads, speeches and through surrogates. Perdue’s campaign announced this week that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., would hit the trail for the former senator next week, while Perdue also said recently that the former president had committed to campaign for him in-person.
Perdue has centered his campaign around the notion that Kemp has all but isolated many Georgia Republicans by refusing Trump’s pleas to overturn his loss in the state in the 2020 presidential election. His first campaign ad featured Trump himself hammering Kemp over the results of the last election.
In an interview with Fox News at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., over the weekend, Perdue appeared to brush off concerns about what the primary could mean for Republicans in November, saying that the party was “already divided” before he ever entered the race.
“I’m running because I don’t believe that Brian Kemp can bring out the voters who are upset about 2020 and bring them together and unite them against Stacey Abrams,” he said. “I just believe that anyone who’s going to win a statewide race in Georgia, we got to have somebody else besides Brian Kemp standing up against Stacey Abrams. The reason is, he can’t bring out all the Republican voters.”
Kemp, meanwhile, has sought to cast Perdue as a failed candidate, citing his 2021 loss to Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) in a hotly contested runoff election that helped hand Democrats control of the Senate. But Kemp has also hammered Perdue on his business record, blaming him for offshoring American jobs during his long career as a corporate executive.
There are still more than two months to go before Georgia’s May 24 primary elections, but what little polling there has been in the match-up between Kemp and Perdue shows the incumbent governor with an early advantage.
A Quinnipiac University poll released in late January showed Kemp with a 7-point lead over Perdue, while a February survey from the Republican-leaning Trafalgar Group found Kemp with a slightly higher 9-point lead.
Kemp also has a significant financial advantage over his chief primary rival. His campaign reported having $7.4 million in the bank at the end of January, while Perdue had less than $1 million on hand.
Perdue has committed to supporting Kemp should the incumbent governor win the primary in May. Still, his campaign hammered Kemp in a statement to The Hill on Tuesday and insisted that Perdue would emerge from the primary.
“David Perdue is focused on uniting conservatives and stopping Stacey Abrams from ever becoming Governor of Georgia,” the spokesperson said. “Our momentum has made clear that Georgians want bold conservative leadership, not a 20-year career politician who hasn’t delivered. Perdue will win the primary and be Georgia’s next Governor.”
A spokesperson for Kemp’s campaign did not respond to questions from The Hill about whether the divisive primary could hurt the eventual nominee and whether the governor would commit to supporting Perdue if he wins the GOP nomination.
Democrats are relishing the drama in the GOP primary, seeing it as a damaging battle that could effectively tie Kemp and Perdue up for months while leaving the eventual nominee without a clear message once the general election campaign begins.
“The GOP primary has devolved into a Republican boxing match pitting Kemp vs. Trump and Perdue — but Georgians are the real ones losing in this contest,” said Max Flugrath, a spokesperson for the Georgia Democratic Party. “While they trade blows, they aren’t offering voters meaningful plans to increase access to affordable health care, protect voting rights, strengthen public education, or address other crucial issues impacting Georgians’ lives.”
Democrats also believe they have a winning candidate in Abrams, one of the party’s most visible and beloved figures who came within 55,000 votes of winning the governor’s mansion in 2018.
Still, there’s reason for Republicans to be optimistic about their chances in November. Democrats nationally are facing strong historical headwinds in this year’s elections, given President Biden’s dwindling approval ratings and the fact that midterms are typically seen as a referendum on the party in power.
Chuck Clay, a former Republican state senator and Georgia GOP chair, acknowledged that the primary fight between Kemp and Perdue put the eventual nominee at risk of taking damage before the general election campaign begins.
But he also noted that without Trump on the ballot this year, Abrams is facing a much different political environment than she did last time around.
“Trump ain’t on the ballot with her now. It’s not going to be the same match-up,” Clay said. “The trend is going Republican.”