By Michael Warren, CNN
Brian Kemp isn’t exactly declaring an early victory ahead of Tuesday’s Republican primary as he bids for a second term as Georgia governor. He’s even downplaying recent polls showing him with a commanding lead over his opponent, former US Sen. David Perdue.
“Don’t believe the polling,” Kemp told a crowd Saturday near his hometown of Athens.
But behind the mask of caution, Kemp and his team are brimming with confidence. The latest Fox News poll found that 60% of likely GOP primary voters preferred Kemp compared with 28% for Perdue. On the stump, the governor has stopped even mentioning Perdue, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump. Instead, he has shifted his focus to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018 and is unopposed in her primary Tuesday.
“Be excited about the momentum, but use that to encourage you even more to leave no doubt on Tuesday. And then on Wednesday, we will all unite on the mission to make sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be our governor or our next president,” Kemp said in a short speech that name-checked Abrams half a dozen times.
The question, Republican operatives around the state say, is not whether Kemp can best Perdue on Tuesday but by how much. If Kemp can win an outright majority, he’ll avoid being forced into a runoff next month. And defeating Perdue decisively on Tuesday would also provide a moral victory for Kemp, who earned Trump’s contempt for resisting the former President’s pressure to overturn the 2020 election results.
Erick Erickson, a Georgia-based conservative talk radio host, said he thinks Kemp is headed for a big win over Perdue — a result that would indicate the limits of Trump’s obsession with 2020 among Republican voters.
“The margin of victory is shaping up to be so big (for Kemp) that we will, at least, be spared more claims of a stolen election and blessed with an early night,” Erickson said.
Trump’s vendetta against Kemp has led the former President to stretch the limits of plausibility with GOP voters. Trump has called Kemp the “worst governor in America” and a “disaster.” At a rally last fall in Georgia, he even suggested — to the bewilderment of Republicans in the crowd and around the state — that he would prefer Abrams to Kemp in the governor’s mansion.
Carol Williams, a realtor in Athens who supports Kemp, dismissed Trump’s insults.
“Those comments are about himself, actually, not about the governor,” Williams told CNN on Saturday. “I think that the former President has no skin in the game in Georgia. He does not understand what’s best for our state.”
A troubled challenge
After months of failing to find a suitable challenger to Kemp, Trump got his champion in Perdue, who entered the race in November at the former President’s urging.
It was nearly a year after the one-term GOP senator had failed to win a runoff for a second term, but Perdue centered his campaign on the question of electability. His message was that only a Trump-backed Republican could hope to unite the party in the general election. Although he has found other issues to attack Kemp on — from rising crime to a new electric vehicle plant enticed by state tax incentives but opposed by some locals — Perdue’s closing argument has not swayed from that original premise.
“If we end up in a runoff, that means that more Georgians, Republicans, have voted against this governor than have voted for him. Let’s remember that. And my job is to consolidate that. That’s why I got in this race in the beginning,” Perdue said Friday at a campaign event in Savannah.
But despite Trump’s backing, the Perdue challenge has struggled to gain traction from the get-go. Nearly every elected Republican in the state legislature lined behind Kemp, along with the state’s GOP political elites — including those who had been around Perdue’s cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue.
Additionally, Perdue’s fundraising has been anemic, with Republican donors sticking with Kemp despite long-standing relationships with the former US senator. The effect has been consequential, with the Perdue campaign failing to reserve any time for TV ads in the final week before the primary. A person close to the Perdue campaign blamed the lack of financial resources, particularly when compared to the well-funded Kemp operation.
“It’s the reality of running against an incumbent governor,” this person said.
While Trump is aware of the campaign’s stumbles, his support for Perdue has not abated. In March, Trump held a major rally in Commerce, Georgia, to support Perdue and other Republican candidates he has endorsed. And Trump’s organization Save America has donated a total $2.5 million to pro-Perdue super PACs since April.
But since the March rally, Trump has not visited the state to boost Perdue, although he will call into a “tele-rally” for the candidate on Monday evening.
Lining up behind Kemp
While Perdue has Trump’s support, much of the rest of the GOP has backed Kemp. The Republican Governors Association has invested $5 million in running pro-Kemp ads. Multiple current and former governors — Chris Christie of New Jersey, Doug Ducey of Arizona and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska — have traveled to Georgia to campaign alongside Kemp in the final days of the race.
“My message to you today is conservative leadership matters,” Ricketts told the crowd here in Watkinsville on Saturday, reciting a litany of accomplishments in Kemp’s first term, from a massive income tax cut to laws expanding gun carry rights and restricting abortion.
And headlining Kemp’s final pre-primary rally Monday night will be former Vice President Mike Pence, himself the former governor of Indiana. The result is a show of force from non-Trump Republican leaders and an implicit rebuke of the former President, who issued a statement calling Christie, Ducey and Ricketts a trio of “RINOs,” or Republicans in name only.
But the outside help has reinforced Kemp’s general election pivot to focusing on the Democratic Party.
“Brian Kemp is the only thing standing in between Georgia and having Stacey Abrams as your governor,” Christie said at a rally in Alpharetta, Georgia, on May 17. “We don’t want that, do we?”
Despite Trump’s and Perdue’s insistence that Kemp cannot win in November without the support of the “MAGA base,” the governor is confident that opposition to an Abrams win will be plenty to get out the GOP vote this fall.
“I think Stacey Abrams is a great unifier. I think every Republican in Georgia will be unified after Tuesday,” Kemp told reporters Saturday.
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