Trump torches Kemp ahead of GOP primary that will provide ‘ultimate test’ of his influence

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COMMERCE, Ga. — Former President Donald Trump came to a former drag strip in Northeast Georgia on Saturday night for perhaps his most high-stakes rally since leaving the White House. He headlined a slate of Republican candidates, all of whom Trump endorsed and, not coincidentally, all of whom have backed his false assertion that the 2020 election was stolen.

Trump’s most caustic comments were aimed at Republican candidates in Georgia who refused to back his many efforts to change the results there. “Before we can defeat the Democrats, socialists and communists ... we first have to defeat the RINO sellouts and the losers in the primary this spring,” he said, using an acronym to refer to “Republicans in name only.”

His principal target was Gov. Brian Kemp, who Trump has been on a mission to oust since Kemp rebuffed his repeated demands that he use his office to help overturn the 2020 election results. Trump has repeatedly spread the false conspiracy theory that widespread voter fraud stopped him from winning key states like Georgia, though court challenges and bipartisan audits have found Trump’s claims meritless.

Furious at Kemp, Trump persuaded former Sen. David Perdue to challenge the sitting governor in this year’s primary, and the two fired salvo after salvo at Kemp throughout Saturday night. “Brian Kemp is a turncoat, he’s a coward and he’s a complete and total disaster,” Trump thundered from the stage.

But Kemp may be the favorite in the race. The incumbent has had about a 10-point lead, according to the most recent polls, and has opened up a significant fundraising advantage as well. Perdue’s camp is hoping that the Trump rally will begin to turn the numbers around, counting on polling from weeks ago that some 40 percent of Republicans still did not know yet about the former president’s endorsement. But that number has almost certainly dwindled considerably since then. Meanwhile, Perdue has struggled to articulate a sharp message beyond the fact that Trump has endorsed him and spurious election-fraud claims.

Former President Donald Trump.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally at the Banks County Dragway in Commerce, Ga. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

The Georgia primary on May 24 will be a major test of Trump’s relevance and power within the Republican Party. GOP candidates across the country will be watching to see whether a Trump seal of approval still packs the power it once did. “This race is the ultimate test of the enduring strength of a Trump endorsement,” said Brian Robinson, a prominent GOP political consultant in Georgia. “If Perdue wins, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a Trump endorsement has messianic influence,” he added. But a decisive Kemp win could send the message that Republicans no longer have to genuflect to the former president and that the party may finally be able to steer a new course in the post-Trump era. A weaker Trump, of course, would also have significant implications for Republicans who are thinking about running for president in 2024 — a race that may include Trump.

Whatever the impact is nationally, Trump’s endorsements certainly carried weight with his crowd of fans in Commerce, Ga. Philip Salerni, leaning over the fence to get a better view of Trump, said he planned to vote for every candidate Trump was backing “because he picks people who put America first.” Chrissy Maxwell, wearing a “bejeweled denim Trump hat,” according to the Atlanta Constitution Journal, said that she would unquestioningly vote for anyone Trump endorsed. “I trust him to tell me what to do,” she told the newspaper. “Jesus and Trump. That’s who I listen to — and sometimes not in that order.” But the sentiment was not universal. One man, who did not give his name, said he was undecided between Kemp and Perdue and wanted to hear more from them. “I hope they debate,” he said. (Perdue has so far not committed to debating Kemp.)

A Save America rally in Commerce, Ga.
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a Save America rally in Commerce, Ga. (Megan Varner/ Getty Images)

Still, it was clear that Trump’s false message that Kemp aided and abetted the stealing of the 2020 election has resonated with the crowd here. When Perdue took the stage, he made that the main line of attack against his rival: “In the state of Georgia, thanks to Brian Kemp in 2020, our elections were absolutely stolen,” Perdue said, adding, “Whoever was responsible goes to jail” if he becomes governor. The crowd broke into chants of “lock him up, lock him up.” Perdue grinned and gave a thumbs up to the crowd.

Trump’s GOP target list also includes Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state who Trump pressured in a Jan. 2, 2021, phone call to “find” 11,780 votes — one more than he would have needed to win Georgia. Raffensperger, like Kemp, refused Trump’s demands, and the former president recruited a prominent Republican challenger, Rep. Jody Hice, to challenge him.

Other candidates who spoke at the rally and were endorsed by Trump included Herschel Walker, the former Heisman Trophy winner who is running to unseat Sen. Raphael Warnock, who won in a special election in January 2020; Vernon Jones, a one-time Democrat running for U.S. House who once crowd-surfed at a Trump reelection rally; John Gordon, the attorney general hopeful who renewed his law license after the 2020 election so he could defend Trump’s false claims of fraud in court, and Patrick Witt, a former Yale University quarterback, who is running for insurance commissioner.

The non-Trump candidate who generated by far the most excitement at the rally was Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right lawmaker who introduced articles of impeachment against President Biden and has flirted with and amplified fringe conspiracy theories. Earlier in the day, she signed Trump hats and posed for selfies with adoring fans. When she took the podium, she received adorring cheers. Her biggest ovation came when she made a bizarre dig at Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s sexual orientation. “And you know what, Pete Buttigieg can take his electric vehicles and his bicycles, and he and his husband can stay out of our girls’ bathrooms,” she said. Buttigieg and his husband are gay men, not transgender women.

Greene’s remark was an allusion to a growing GOP fight over gender identity, including whether transgender female athletes should be able to participate in women's sports. No policy issue got more attention or hoots and cackles from the crowd. Speaker after speaker attacked Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson for demurring when asked by Republican Sen.Marsha Blackburn to define the word “woman.” Trump at the rally said, “The left so extreme that we have a justice who testified under oath that she can’t say what a woman is.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene signs a cap for a young person.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., greets supporters ahead of the Trump rally. (Daniel Klaidman/Yahoo News)

Other policy issues that riled up the crowd included the alleged teaching of critical race theory, gas prices and crime. They seemed mostly bored by Trump’s extensive remarks about the war in Ukraine.

But for many of the attendees, these earthly minded issues seemed beside the point. There were bigger forces out there that they felt compelled to spread the word about. Dozens of people wore T-shirts with pictures of Melania Trump, Jackie Onassis and Princess Diana on them. Dwayne Michael, who traveled to the rally in Commerce from Houston, explained the meaning behind the trinity of women. “It’s about the divine feminine working behind the scenes to take out evil.”

Meanwhile, Claudia Schuster, who traveled here from Southern Indiana, was sporting a T-shirt with the likeness of John F. Kennedy Jr. on it. A follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory, Schuster believes that JFK Jr., a late son of the former president, is set to return to earth. In November, 2021, she traveled to Dallas with many fellow believers to await his arrival. When asked what her friends and family thought about her beliefs, Schuster said, “They think I’m crazy as a loon,” and walked away with a charming smile and chuckle.