The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

David Perdue’s historically bad comeback attempt

How his 52-point loss stacks up to others in recent years.

Republican gubernatorial candidate David Perdue walks off the stage after his concession speech Tuesday night. (Alyssa Pointer/Reuters)
3 min

An early lesson of the 2022 primaries seems to be that voters have little time for candidates they’ve previously rejected.

That much isn’t new in American politics, but it’s particularly pronounced now — and especially in the remarkable rebuke Georgia voters just delivered to David Perdue.

Seventeen months ago, Perdue was a U.S. senator who had come up just a hair shy of winning reelection without a runoff. Then he lost to Jon Ossoff, helping hand the Senate to the Democrats. Then he let Donald Trump talk him into challenging Gov. Brian Kemp (R). Now, he’s lost that race by a stunning 52 points.

The scale of that loss shouldn’t be undersold. This is a recent former statewide officeholder — one whose 2014 outsider Senate campaign was viewed as something of a model for the party — taking just 21 percent of the vote. Kemp surely did plenty right, but Perdue’s campaign was a mess from the start. And his efforts to transform himself into a stolen-election crusader who offered dog whistles to the base fell completely flat.

While Perdue’s failed comeback is surely among the worst in recent history, losing such a bid is hardly without precedent.

Earlier this month, former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory (R) attempted one in the state’s open Senate race after losing reelection in 2016. He lost to Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) by more than 30 points, taking 25 percent of the vote.

In Nevada, former senator Dean Heller (R), who lost reelection in 2018, is running for governor. It looks like he too won’t win his party’s nomination; he trails by double digits in early polls, the most recent of which pegged him at just 11 percent of the vote. (The primary is in three weeks.)

It’s difficult to find other comeback candidates who fared so poorly in their own party’s primaries in recent years.

Many have lost general elections after retiring or losing. Former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) lost by 16 points in a run for his old seat in 2012, while former senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) lost by 10 under the same circumstances in 2016. Former senators George Allen (R-Va.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) also ran for their old seats after losing them, losing them again by competitive margins.

In recent years there have also been a couple primary defeats for former statewide officeholders.

Former senator Bob Smith (R-N.H.) attempted a comeback in the 2014 Senate race after losing a 2002 primary for the same seat. He wound up getting 23 percent of the vote and finishing in third place in the primary.

Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer (D) attempted to launch his post-scandal redemption slowly, running for New York City comptroller in 2013. But even for that much lower office, he narrowly lost a primary.

Former senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) in 2020 ran for the seat he had vacated to become Trump’s attorney general, alienating Trump in the intervening years. The onetime Alabama institution wound up taking less than 40 percent against now-Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.).

Even these, though, pale to what just happened to Perdue. Smith and Spitzer had marginalized themselves before they ran again (including Smith having toyed with a run for Senate in Florida), and Sessions still took nearly 40 percent — about double what Perdue wound up with. Perdue faced a more established opponent, but in a race in which he had the backing of none other than a former president still popular with the GOP base. And he jumped right back in very shortly after his last loss.

Perdue had initially resisted Trump’s entreaties to run for the seat in early 2021. It looks like he should’ve gone with his gut.