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Georgia Gov. Kemp defeats Trump-backed challenger, former Senator Perdue in GOP primary

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ATLANTA — In a major blow to Donald Trump’s reputation as the Republican kingmaker, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp trounced former Sen. David Perdue in the GOP primary for governor. The double-digit blowout came despite the fact that Trump had endorsed Perdue and cleared the field of other challengers, while making Kemp his single biggest target for defeat during the primary season.

Georgia has been the object of Trump’s obsession since losing the state in the 2020 presidential race and waging a conspiracy-laden and ultimately unsuccessful pressure campaign to overturn the results. Backing Perdue was the primary focus of his revenge campaign, a strategy that has now been soundly repudiated by Georgia voters.

“I want to be crystal clear with all of you here tonight: Our battle is far from over tonight,” Kemp said to supporters at his Atlanta-area victory party late Tuesday evening. “Tonight, the fight for the soul of our state begins to make sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be our governor or the next president.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp campaigning on Monday in Kennesaw, Ga. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Kemp’s win will reverberate in the Republican political world, including among 2024 presidential hopefuls as they continue to assess how much electoral muscle Trump will have going forward.

“This was the biggest political fight of the midterms for Donald Trump and he lost it by double digits,” GOP operative and Trump critic Mike Murphy told Yahoo News. “Governor Kemp has proven that a conservative with a strong record who is not afraid to square off against Trump can not only fend off the Donald, but can actually beat the former president quite badly.”

Kemp’s strong showing, leading by nearly 50 points with 33% of the expected vote reported, when the Associated Press called the race only 34 minutes after polls closed, means that he avoids a runoff with Perdue and can now focus exclusively on his rematch with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who he defeated in 2018. Abrams, running unopposed, won today’s Democratic primary.

In the other closely watched race in Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, another prized scalp for Trump, is leading in his primary race against Rep. Jody Hice. Trump had endorsed Hice and castigated Raffensperger as an “enemy of the people” for resisting his pressure in a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s win in Georgia.

With the large majority of the votes having been counted, Raffensperger has over 51% of the vote. That margin, if it holds, would deliver what is arguably the most stinging defeat of all for the former president. If Raffensperger finishes with more than 50% of the vote, he will be the winner. If neither candidate breaks 50%, the two will face off in a June runoff.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, center
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, center, and his wife, Tricia, arrive for an election night party on Tuesday. (Ben Gray/AP)

A chipper Raffensperger arrived at an election night party at a restaurant in Norcross, a suburb of Atlanta, expressing confidence that he will prevail but saying he was fully prepared for a runoff against his Trump-endorsed challenger, Rep. Jody Hice.

“I’ve been in more run-offs than anybody else in Georgia politics,” he told reporters, pointing out that he had prevailed in multiple run-offs in his career, ranging from a local City Council race to his 2018 victory to become secretary of state, making him the last Republican to win a statewide race. Raffensperger appeared to get a boost from crossover votes from Democrats, as became clear when early returns showed he was getting over 60 percent in largely Democratic Fulton County, helping to put him just barely over the magic 50 percent figure needed to claim outright victory. There’s no party registration in Georgia, but state officials say as much as 18 percent of the 453,942 ballots cast early in the GOP primary were from voters who had previously cast ballots in Democratic primaries.

Raffensperger, however, disputed that he was benefiting from Democratic voters, pushing back on a view that that could hurt his chances if the race does go to a run-off. When asked about estimates that 18 percent of past Democratic voters had voted in the GOP primary, Raffensperger said that total represents a substantial number of traditional Republican voters who switched to vote against Trump in 2020. “These are Republican voters coming back home,” he said. Also in Georgia, former football star Herschel Walker handily won his primary for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. He will take on Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who won the seat in a special election in Jan. 2021.

But no race was more closely watched than Kemp-Perdue, because it was regarded as a test of Trump’s continuing hold on GOP voters. Trump was fully invested in the race; he aggressively recruited a lukewarm Perdue to run in the first place, traveled to Georgia to stump for him, held fundraisers and poured $2.64 million from his own political committee to fuel Perdue’s campaign. “If David Perdue loses, it won’t be because of Trump,” said one Trump aide, recounting how Trump worked harder for Perdue than any other candidate this cycle.

Meanwhile, Trump obsessively trained his fire on Kemp, whom he reviled for refusing to help him overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. At a rally in Georgia in March, Trump said: “Brian Kemp is a turncoat, is a coward and is a complete and total disaster.”

For his part, Perdue ran virtually as a single-issue candidate, bashing Kemp over and over again for failing to go along with Trump’s effort to subvert the 2020 presidential election.

None of it worked.

Republican candidate for Georgia governor and former Sen. David Perdue
Republican candidate for Georgia governor and former Sen. David Perdue campaigning in Rutledge, Ga. (John Bazemore/AP)

While the Kemp win will be viewed by many Republicans as a sign that they may not have to genuflect to Trump or slather him with praise while they campaign, it requires political deftness to separate yourself from Trump and still prevail. Kemp’s campaign provides a playbook for Republican candidates.

Political observers credit Kemp with exhibiting iron discipline in resisting getting drawn into a fight with Trump, who attacked him mercilessly throughout the campaign. “Kemp never swung back at Trump,” said Brian Robinson, a prominent GOP political operative in Georgia. “You know it had to kill him inside, but the discipline paid off.”

At the same time, Kemp touted his hardline conservative credentials and achievements while also using the powers of incumbency to his advantage. According to Robinson, he checked all the boxes for every portion of the Republican coalition. For gun rights advocates, Kemp pushed a constitutional carry law through the Legislature; for opponents of abortion, he helped pass a bill banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected; he secured two massive economic development projects for the state, a Rivian electric truck plant and a Hyundai auto factory. And he managed to secure a $500 tax rebate for married couples that landed in bank accounts just as early voting was starting. (The issue of gun control returned to the fore again on Tuesday when at least 18 children died in a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school.)

People grieve outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center
People grieve outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center, where students had been transported from Robb Elementary School after a mass shooting, in Uvalde, Texas. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

“Kemp was able to stroke all of the erogenous zones of Republican base voters in Georgia,” Robinson said.

But not every Republican candidate will have the good fortune, incumbency advantage or political skill set of Brian Kemp. Trump’s cult of personality may have been tarnished in some precincts of the Republican Party, but Trumpism is still alive and well. Even those GOP candidates who were not backed by Trump or, like Kemp, were targeted by him for defeat, fully embraced Trump’s policy agenda and were careful not to criticize him.

Most GOP candidates who were outright critics of Trump either lost their primaries or chose not to run in the first place. A case in point is Charlie Baker, the moderate Republican Massachusetts governor who — despite being the most popular governor in the country with a 74 percent approval rating — chose not to run for reelection. Baker was facing the likely prospect of losing in the Republican primary to a candidate endorsed by Trump.

Despite Trump’s repudiation on Tuesday, the drama surrounding Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia is far from over. Raffensperger said Tuesday that he’s fully prepared to testify in Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s investigation of Trump’s efforts to overturn the Georgia election results when, as expected, he gets a subpoena to do so in the coming weeks.

“We’re prepared to testify when and if we’re called,” Raffensperger said. But there is little doubt that his refusal to bow to Trump’s demands that he “find” enough votes to change the Georgia election results had defined him for most voters. “It was the most courageous act of a Georgia politician in my lifetime,” said one longtime friend at the party and Republican Party activist who, reflecting the fear of alienating Trump supporters, asked that he not be identified by name.

Tom LoBianco contributed reporting.