Donald Trump‘s plans to play GOP kingmaker are being disrupted by one of his most loyal supporters in Georgia.
In early May at Mar-a-Lago, Trump met with Georgia state Sen. Burt Jones and Jones’ father, a wealthy pro-Trump donor, and said he wanted the younger Jones to run for governor against Brian Kemp in the Republican primary. With the former President’s backing, Jones could knock off the first-term governor, one of Trump’s top political targets.
But by the end of the meeting, Jones made it known to Trump he was unsure about taking on Kemp and that he preferred to run for lieutenant governor, according to four people familiar with the meeting.
Trump’s failure to recruit Jones would be a blow to the former President’s vendetta against Kemp, the otherwise pro-Trump stalwart who nonetheless refused the Trump’s calls to intervene and overturn his defeat in Georgia. It also highlights the limits to Trump’s power to pick and choose his candidates to ensure the Republican Party remains in his grip through the 2022 midterms and beyond.
Since meeting with Trump, Jones is even more likely to seek the open lieutenant governor seat, two of those people told CNN.
Jones said he would announce his plans to run for higher office “soon” in a statement provided to CNN. The statement criticized other state Republican leaders, including the secretary of state and the retiring lieutenant governor, but mentioned neither Kemp nor the governor’s race.
“I will be running to protect the integrity of every legal vote, to protect Georgia taxpayers, and to protect the progress made under the Trump administration,” Jones said. “My job will be to hold myself accountable to the voters of Georgia, not to political insiders and elected officials in Atlanta or Washington, DC.”
Running for lieutenant governor is the right call, the two Georgia Republicans say, both for the ambitious 42-year-old Republican’s future and for a state GOP trying to rebound from a disappointing and frustrating 2020 election.
Elsewhere, Trump’s grip is tenuous. His animosity toward Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, for example, has not stopped the National Republican Senatorial Committee from backing the Alaska Republican in her reelection bid next year. And the former President’s surprise endorsement last weekend of Rep. Ted Budd for an open Senate seat in North Carolina has not yet driven the two other major Republicans vying for the nomination from the race.
Trump’s focus on disloyal Georgia Republicans is particularly notable, given the prominence the Peach State plays in the former president’s false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen.
Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, received the brunt of Trump’s anger about his loss in the state by fewer than 12,000 votes. In a January 2 phone call with Raffensperger, Trump asked the secretary of state to “find” enough votes for Trump to make up the difference — a request the Georgia Republican rejected. Raffensperger now faces a formidable primary challenge from Rep. Jody Hice, whom Trump has endorsed.
“Unlike the current Georgia Secretary of State, Jody leads out front with integrity,” Trump said in a statement in March. “Jody will stop the Fraud and get honesty into our Elections!”
Trump made a similar appeal to Kemp, asking in a phone call in December 2020 for the Georgia governor to convene state legislators to select pro-Trump electors. Kemp, who had already approved the certification of Georgia’s electoral votes for Joe Biden, told Trump he had no authority to do anything to change the election results.
Trump blasted Kemp as a “RINO” and later said he was “ashamed” to have endorsed him in 2018. During an appearance in Georgia before the Senate runoff elections in January, Trump vowed to campaign against Kemp before the 2022 primary.
But that’s proving a more difficult task than it might have seemed in the weeks and months following the last election.
“Statewide, [Kemp’s] numbers are better than one would think,” said one Georgia Republican consultant who requested anonymity to speak freely about the internal party dynamics. “If I were advising anybody, I’m not so certain that I would advise them that it’s wise to run against Brian Kemp.”
Republicans there say that Kemp has some vulnerabilities with the most hardcore part of Trump’s base; at last weekend’s state party convention, some in the crowd booed Kemp.
But the 57-year-old governor has managed his relationships within the state party well. Notably, he’s one of the few high-profile Republicans in Trump’s crosshairs who has not been censured by his state party. (Raffensperger, on the other hand, was censured at the recent party convention.)
Importantly, Kemp’s pursuit of conservative agenda items in areas like election law and abortion and his record on economic growth have helped him parry the Trump attacks over the 2020 election.
“The problem for the Trump-only wing of the GOP is that Kemp has actually been really good on all their issues,” said Erick Erickson, the Atlanta-based conservative talk-radio host. “And by being attacked by Trump while not responding, Kemp looks like a statesman, and the suburban voters who were scared of him in 2018 like him now.”
Last December, Trump publicly floated that outgoing Rep. Doug Collins could run for governor. But Collins, who had unsuccessfully run for the Senate in last year’s special election, announced in April he would not be running for any office in 2022.
And while former state Rep. Vernon Jones (no relation to Burt Jones), who is close to several in Trump’s orbit, got into the race for governor in April, Trump has not yet backed him. A former Democrat, Jones was a fixture at Trump campaign rallies and spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2020. He switched parties this year and has become a vocal avatar for the right wing of the Republican base.
CJ Pearson, Vernon Jones’s campaign manager, told CNN that Jones spoke with Trump last month and that the former President could still endorse him.
“The President is taking his time, and we respect that. We’re committed to earning his support,” Pearson said.
Even so, Jones is not viewed credibly by many Trump allies. Georgia Republicans who spoke to CNN say the lack of endorsement from Trump at this point suggests it may never come.
The gubernatorial race is not the only one where Trump has intervened in Georgia and so far come up short.
In March, Trump publicly called on football great Herschel Walker to run for the Georgia Senate seat currently held by Democrat Raphael Warnock — a move that has effectively frozen the GOP field in place. Potential candidates, such as Rep. Buddy Carter, have said they will wait to decide on the race until Walker declares, while other, like Collins, stayed away.
But Georgia Republicans are increasingly concerned Walker’s indecision is hobbling the party’s ability to find and field the right candidate to take on Warnock in 2022. All of it has Democrats in the state cautiously optimistic.
One Georgia Democratic strategist who spoke to CNN said Trump deserves credit for Biden’s victory in November and the January runoff wins that gave Democrats the Senate majority. As the Democrats’ 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams weighs a possible rematch with Kemp next year, the strategist said it’s possible the Trump-fueled disarray could be another opening for the party.
“Donald Trump’s interventions or personal grievances or personal vendettas keep handing Democrats in the state opportunity after opportunity,” said the strategist.