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Inside the Republican push to stop Trump’s ‘vendetta tour’ in Georgia

GOP governors hatched a plan months ago that will culminate in a closely watched gubernatorial primary on Tuesday

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) and Gov. Brian Kemp speak to reporters at a campaign event on May 17, 2022 in Alpharetta, Ga. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Republican governors hatched the plan months ago. Meeting at the desert Biltmore resort in Phoenix in mid-November, they agreed to confront a new threat to their incumbents: Former president Donald Trump was ramping up support for primary challengers as part of what one former governor called “a personal vendetta tour.”

To protect incumbents up for reelection this year, the Republican Governors Association decided to spend millions of dollars in primaries, an unusual step for an organization that typically reserves its cash for general election matchups against Democrats.

“The focus is on 2022. I don’t believe we should spend one more moment talking about 2020,” Republican Governors Association Co-Chairman Doug Ducey said in an interview with The Washington Post. Asked if Trump’s help for his preferred candidates was worth much, the Arizona governor, who pointed to states where GOP governors avoided or defeated Trump challengers, replied: “It hasn’t been to date.”

The Post’s Annie Linskey discusses former president Donald Trump’s uneven influence across key primary races on May 17. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

Voting is surging in Georgia despite controversial new election law

The gambit is set to culminate Tuesday in Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is heavily favored to defeat former senator David Perdue in a closely-watched primary. Trump recruited Perdue and made him his marquee candidate in a larger crusade against GOP officeholders who opposed his fight to overturn the 2020 election, which was rooted in false claims about fraud.

The RGA invested some $5 million in Georgia, according to a person familiar with the group’s outlays, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive details. A parade of Republican governors and luminaries have lined up to protect Kemp. And former vice president Mike Pence, who once served as governor of Indiana, will appear with Kemp on Monday — setting the stage for Pence’s most direct confrontation yet against Trump in the midterms.

The influx of RGA money in Georgia, according to strategists on both sides of the governor’s race, has dealt a devastating blow to Perdue, who has struggled to raise funds to compete.

“This is just not the best use of our money. We would much rather use it just in races against Democrats,” said former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who is the co-chair of a 2022 fundraising arm for the RGA and described the November meeting in Phoenix to The Post. “But it was made necessary because Donald Trump decided on the vendetta tour this year and so we need to make sure we protect these folks who are the objects of his vengeance.”

The clash has brought into focus an extraordinary battle over the future direction of the GOP that extends well beyond Georgia. On one side is an aggrieved former president who retains widespread loyalty in the party from voters. On the other, conservative governors who align with Trump on many issues but have grown tired of his stolen election claims, which post-election audits have shown to be false.

And the latter has already had success.

Trump’s endorsed candidate lost badly in Idaho’s gubernatorial primary, where the RGA backed Gov. Brad Little, and the former president backed away from early rumblings that he might challenge incumbent governors in Ohio and Alabama. In Nebraska, the political machine of outgoing Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts helped sink Trump’s choice for governor in an open race, who had been accused of sexually assaulting multiple women.

Angry that Kemp refused to help him overturn the election results in a key battleground state, Trump set out to topple him. He called him “a turncoat,” a “coward” and “a complete and total disaster.” He pumped $2.64 million from his political action committee into efforts to unseat Kemp, far more than the former president has spent on any other race.

“It’s not easy to beat a sitting governor,” Trump said in a Monday interview with The Post. “I’m the one who got that guy elected. I endorsed him, and he won. He’s not good on election integrity, and he did a terrible job on election integrity. We’ll see what happens.”

Trump added that he’s heard Perdue is “surging,” though recent polls do not reflect a change in the race.

Perdue has told local media that he does not believe the outside support has helped Kemp. “The RINOs march a parade into Georgia to, in my opinion, circle the wagons around a very embattled, weak governor,” Perdue said to WSB-TV, a local station. He was using a disparaging acronym for “Republicans In Name Only.”

Weeks ago, as it appeared increasingly likely Perdue was going to lose, Trump began distancing himself from the candidate, deciding against doing another in-person rally and complaining to advisers that Perdue was not working hard in the race, according to people familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Trump is slated to hold a tele-rally with Perdue on Monday evening.

Such a posture was striking, the people familiar with the matter said, since Trump had to talk Perdue into getting in the race all along — after Perdue privately pinned blame on Trump for depressing GOP turnout in the January 2021 Senate runoff with his fraud claims.

On Friday, Trump tried to quell the notion that he has given up on Perdue, posting on his social media platform that it’s a “phony narrative” and adding “I am with David all the way.”

The Republicans backing Kemp have in recent days sought to frame the race as a potentially brutal political setback for Trump. “It’s clearly the most important race for Donald Trump in the country. He’s made Brian Kemp public enemy No. 1,” Christie said. “We have to decide if we want to be the ‘party of me’ or the ‘party of us.’ And that’s what a lot of these primaries are going to decide.”

In open defiance to the party’s de facto leader, a string of old guard Republicans, including three sitting governors, former president George W. Bush and Pence have rallied around Kemp, as they try to create a barrier to protect conservative governors from what they view as Trump’s whims.

A recent Fox News poll found 60 percent of Republican voters backed Kemp, putting him 32 percentage points ahead of Perdue. To avoid a runoff, Georgia candidates need to win a majority of the vote.

Kemp’s backers hope that a victory will send the message that it’s possible to stand up to Trump without paying the ultimate political price. “This is an important one. Him losing gives people courage to speak out,” said Bill Palatucci, a Republican National Committeeman from New Jersey and an ally of Christie.

On the campaign trail, Kemp touts conservative policies he and the GOP-controlled state legislature enacted during his term, including an election security law that voting rights groups argued would lead to voter suppression and brought backlash from civil and business leaders in the state. Kemp has cited concerns about the 2020 election, even though he certified the results of the election that President Biden won in the state.

In this year’s legislative session, Kemp has signed laws appealing to conservative voters on a variety of issues, including measures that permit the carrying of a firearm without a license, add restrictions on the teaching of race, history, gender and sexuality in classrooms, and “the toughest abortion bill in the country,” in the governor’s words. The bill bans an abortion after a doctor can detect what they call “a fetal heartbeat in the womb,” usually at about six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant.

“We didn’t waver when we passed the heartbeat bill and Hollywood tried to cancel us,” Kemp declared Saturday during an event that attracted about 200 people in Watkinsville, Ga., with Ricketts, the Nebraska governor who is also an RGA co-chair. “And we didn’t waver when Major League Baseball pulled the All-Star Game when we passed the strongest elections integrity act in the country. Because we had seen the mechanical issues with the 2020 election that frustrated me and it frustrated a lot of other people.”

“I think he did what was right around the election, and more importantly, I believe he’s been a true conservative on all the things conservatives care about. It’s not like Brian is somebody who the president would call a RINO,” said Pence’s longtime chief of staff Marc Short. Short joined Kemp’s campaign as a senior adviser in the race.

A former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, Perdue is a known figure in Georgia whose family has been involved in the state’s business community and politics for decades. He has echoed Trump’s false election claims on the trail.

“This governor’s race right now will determine whether or not we have a conservative Republican in the White House in ’24,” said Perdue at an event on Friday.

The cousin of a former governor and heir to a major political dynasty in the state, Perdue ran as a political outsider in 2014. He lost to now-Sen. Jon Ossoff (D) in a January 2021 runoff that, together with another Senate runoff in the state, handed Democrats unified control of Congress. In his bid for governor, Perdue has taken on a strident tone as he champions false election claims.

He frequently lambastes Kemp for “dividing the Republican Party” over 2020 and warning that he cannot defeat likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams in the fall. His campaign ads feature Trump. “The Democrats walked all over Brian Kemp,” Trump says in one spot. Trump then turns to Perdue, whom he calls “smart” and “tough.”

In another, Perdue speaks to the camera and says: “Kemp caved before the election, and the country is paying the price today.”

Even with the cash infusion from Trump, Georgia political observers said there’s little evidence that the campaign is doing much with the cash.

“I’m on the biggest radio station in the state of Georgia. I haven’t heard an ad in weeks on the radio station. I’m not seeing his TV stuff,” said Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative radio host in Georgia who is backing Kemp. “By all accounts, it looks like the Perdue campaign has just totally given up.”

Erickson said that listeners call into the show to complain that Kemp didn’t do more in the 2020 election for Trump. “But they say they’re still voting for Kemp.” He said multiple Kemp volunteers had door-knocked in his suburban Atlanta neighborhood, but not a single one from Perdue’s campaign had showed up.

Republican strategists in the state said Perdue’s campaign hasn’t been as strong as his previous ones and is overly reliant on Trump’s endorsement — and the false claims of electoral fraud.

“In 2014 he ran the ultimate outsider’s campaign — Trump before there was Trump. If he ran that same campaign this year, he’d be in a different place,” said Seth Weathers, a longtime Georgia Republican strategist and initial state director for Trump’s campaign in 2016. “Instead, it’s been a boring Trump video over and over again.”

In addition to Trump’s endorsement, former Alaska Republican governor Sarah Palin and far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have appeared at campaign stops with Perdue where they promote debunked election conspiracy theories.

“That position of governor is so very important when we talk about election integrity,” Palin said in a brief stop Friday afternoon at the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport where Perdue also appeared. Palin said that she has spoken with Trump several times in the past week, and the two “talked about election integrity.”

“Trump’s like, ‘Can you imagine if all of us are in position at the same time, what it is that we’d be able to accomplish,’” Palin recounted.

Ducey, the Arizona governor, said that Kemp’s strong relations with other governors and the fact that he’s defeated Abrams before meant there was “never a moment of hesitation” in getting in the race.

“If Brian Kemp gets over the finish line in the fashion that I believe is possible,” he said, “It speaks volumes to the good people of Georgia.”

Brown reported from Watkinsville, Ga. Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.

The 2022 Midterm Elections

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What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, experts helped us game out what would happen if he wins again.

Key issue: Abortion rights advocates scored major victories in the first nationwide election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Here’s how abortion access fared on the ballot in nine states.