Trump washes hands of Perdue in Georgia as his campaign limps into final stretch

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Dark on TV. Trailing badly in polls. Written off by Republican political insiders nationally and in Georgia.

Former Sen. David Perdue’s once-spirited primary challenge to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp appears to be sputtering in the homestretch ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

Even the man who recruited Perdue to run against Kemp — former President Donald Trump — seems to have given his campaign up for dead, said three Republicans who have spoken to Trump. They say Trump has groused about what he believes is a lackluster campaign effort from Perdue.

Trump isn’t planning to make any more personal appearances in Georgia in Perdue’s behalf, having sunk enough of his own political capital in a race that looks like a lost cause, said a fourth source, a person close to the former president, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely about Perdue’s prospects. 

“David either has a bunch of geniuses working for him — because he’s basically spent no money — or he’s run the most flawed campaign in America,” this person said while noting that Perdue still has an outside shot at forcing a runoff.

It’s a bitter dynamic for Trump, who has made his nationwide endorsements a sign of his influence in the party and part of his implicit case to be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2024.

Trump has crusaded against Kemp after he refused to help him overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia, which helped cost him re-election. Now voters there, many of whom have grown weary of Trump’s involvement in the state GOP, could reject Perdue, as well as other statewide candidates he has endorsed. A notable exception: former football star Herschel Walker, who’s set for a big Senate primary win Tuesday and who was recruited by Trump.

“At the end of the day, Donald Trump doesn’t care about David Perdue winning. He just cared about Brian Kemp losing,” said Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican who chose not to run for re-election and incurred Trump’s wrath for defending the state’s 2020 election. “And that was a very shallow attempt at trying to unseat a perfectly fit conservative governor.”

Perdue’s campaign has scheduled $0 worth of ads for the campaign’s final week, while political action committees backing him have placed about $280,000 worth of ads on the air, according to data from the ad tracking company AdImpact. Compare that to Kemp, whose campaign is set to spend more than $1 million in ads during the campaign’s homestretch. A pro-Kemp PAC sponsored by the Republican Governors Association has readied nearly $700,000 in advertising.

Perdue’s campaign hasn’t been on the air since late last month, that data showed.

Meanwhile, Kemp leads Perdue by 60 percent to 28 percent in a Georgia Republican survey conducted for Fox News that was released Wednesday. Kemp’s most recent internal campaign survey suggests similar results, said two sources who have seen the polling but weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly.

The sense of Perdue’s implosion was apparent Thursday at Kemp’s two rallies, where he repeatedly name-checked his likely general election opponent, Stacey Abrams, and didn’t mention Perdue at all.

Kemp mentioned Tuesday’s primary just once, encouraging Republicans to go out and vote Tuesday.

“It’s hard to see how this race isn’t over,” said Matt Towery, a pollster who has surveyed the race.

“David Perdue doesn’t have commercials on TV and went dark two weeks ago, but Kemp is up,” added Towery, a former adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. “It’s almost impossible to win a major race when a popular governor is bombarding you on TV and you’re dark.”

Gingrich himself told NBC News that the chances of a runoff increase if the other, lesser-known candidates gain enough support to hold Kemp below 50 percent.

“That’s why he’s spending so much now. This is the election for him,” he said of Kemp.

As Election Day nears, some allies are looking to shield Trump from blame. For all of Trump’s popularity inside the GOP, even he can’t rescue a candidate whose performance is so weak, a close Trump ally said.

Eric Johnson, a former state Senate GOP leader and adviser to former Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s 2020 campaign, compared the race to the University of Georgia football team’s running up the score on Georgia Tech.

“Unlike Ohio and [Pennsylvania] Senate primaries, we have an incumbent with a solid record [who’s] working hard,” Johnson said in an email. “All Perdue has is a cheerleader in Florida. It ain’t enough.”

Perdue has had some cover from outside political committees that have spent money on TV criticizing Kemp’s record. All told, Perdue and his campaign have spent about $6 million on commercials — including $400,000 from Trump’s super PAC — while Kemp and the political committees backing him have dropped at least $10.5 million on air, according to AdImpact.

But the pace of Kemp’s spending has only accelerated, and fresh from a legislative session in which he cut taxes and signed conservative bills into the law, he also enjoyed the benefits of incumbency by earning more free media coverage while raising more money.

“It is incredibly difficult to beat a Republican incumbent, especially when by most measures the incumbent did a good job on the economy and [enacting] conservative policies,” said Jay Williams, a Georgia-based GOP strategist. “Even Trump couldn’t make miracles happen and turn Perdue into a good candidate with a good message.”

Perdue’s campaigning — or its alleged lack thereof — has also come under question in Georgia, where The Atlanta Journal Constitution this week asked “Where in the world is David Perdue” in a report about his hard-to-find events. A Perdue spokesperson, Jenni Sweat, disputed the report as “wrong.”

“Hard to find? You must be kidding,” Sweat said by email, pointing out that NBC News reporters have covered and will continue to cover his events, which she noted “are posted publicly on our website”

As of Thursday evening, Perdue’s website showed six events scheduled for Friday and Saturday in the race’s final days. One such event, set for Friday, features Perdue unveiling an endorsement from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as she also seeks to resurrect her political career by running for Congress in her home state.

Two Republicans who have spoken with Trump about the Perdue campaign, however, indicated he believed Perdue needed to do more. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they didn’t have authorization to publicly discuss internal deliberations, said Trump’s political operation relayed its displeasure to the Perdue campaign, which they said made excuses or denied there was a problem.

“Donald Trump has worked harder to elect David Perdue than David Perdue,” a Trump adviser said, noting Trump held two rallies for Perdue, spent money on TV for him, paid for digital advertising and sent out emails and text messages in his behalf.

Duncan said the end of Perdue’s bid for governor reminded him of Perdue’s efforts at the tail end of his failed runoff bid against Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., who defeated him.

“I don’t know if it’s bad advice or confidence lacking,” he said. “I’m not certain what it is. I’ll let him describe it. But you know, we saw the runoff. He didn’t show up to a debate. He wasn’t making a lot of appearances. It was just a low-energy run through the finish line. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know you’re supposed to sprint through the finish line. And certainly, it’s exciting to watch Brian Kemp do exactly that.”

Trump also helped persuade another candidate in the primary, former state Rep. Vernon Jones, to leave the contest and instead run for Georgia’s 10th Congressional District to give Perdue an easier chance to beat Kemp in a one-on-one race without the threat of a runoff.

In response to Jones’ entry in the governor’s race, Republican candidate Patrick Witt left the congressional race to challenge Insurance Commissioner John F. King, an ally of Kemp’s. Trump then endorsed Witt.

Trump also endorsed a little-known challenger to state Attorney General Chris Carr, another Kemp ally who refused to help overturn the 2020 election. And Trump backed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice in an effort to unseat Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who also refused to help overturn the 2020 election and said the state’s election was secure.

Raffensperger’s office secretly recorded Trump trying to persuade Raffensperger to “find” votes to somehow make him the winner in the race — a request that’s now part of a local criminal investigation into Trump.

Raffensperger’s campaign expects to make it to a runoff, while Carr’s and King’s campaigns expect to win outright, said advisers to the three campaigns who all spoke anonymously to share internal campaign thinking. Trump-endorsed state Sen. Burt Jones appears poised to win outright in his race for lieutenant governor — perhaps the only other win expected for Trump on Tuesday night aside from Walker’s likely victory in the GOP Senate race.

While the influence of Trump’s endorsement is limited in the various Georgia races, Republicans still admire and like him. But his level of involvement in the races has bothered some conservatives.

Mary Patrick, the GOP chairwoman in Jasper County, on the outskirts of the Atlanta metro region, said many were mad that Trump decided to endorse celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz in the Senate race in Pennsylvania, where he’s locked in a too-close-to-call race.

“It really bothered people here that he endorsed Dr. Oz,” Patrick said, because Oz's conservative bona fides have been in question. “But in Georgia, based on what people say here, he needs to back off, just stay out of it. We like his policies, especially compared to what we have now, but most people think he’s gotten way too involved in things that shouldn’t matter to him.”