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How Trump pushed Perdue into the Georgia governor's race, kicking off a bitter GOP fight

In a video posted to Twitter on Dec. 6, former Republican senator David Perdue announced a bid to run for governor in 2022. (Video: @Perduesenate | Twitter)

Republican David Perdue traveled to Donald Trump’s Florida golf club, Mar-a-Lago, in February with his mind made up: He did not want to run for Georgia governor against his longtime friend, incumbent Brian Kemp, he told associates.

But Trump, still fuming that Kemp had certified Joe Biden’s victory in the state last year, had other ideas. The former president played two rounds of golf that day with Perdue, part of a relentless campaign to persuade the former U.S. senator to jump in the race, according to two people familiar with his efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Trump hosted Perdue for two more golf outings in the months that followed, commissioned a poll to show that Perdue could win, and then urged him on at a September rally in Perry, Ga., both from the stage and during a private gathering of donors.

Perdue ultimately relented, announcing Monday that he would challenge Kemp for the Republican gubernatorial nomination because, he said, he does not believe the incumbent can win against presumed Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams. His decision guarantees a bitter intraparty fight and keeps at center stage Trump’s false claims that the 2020 vote was stolen — two factors that many Republicans say will make it harder for them to win in the fall.

“This will be the ugliest, nastiest race this state has ever seen,” said one Georgia Republican who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the fraught nature of the race. “It is hyper-personal on both sides. Friendships, very long friendships, will be ruined and never recovered over this.”

In a video released Monday morning, Perdue accused Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), who both refused Trump’s entreaties to reverse his defeat in Georgia last year, of dividing Republicans.

“Look, I like Brian,” Perdue said. “This isn’t personal. It’s simple. He has failed all of us and cannot win in November.”

Cody Hall, a spokesman for Kemp, accused Perdue on Sunday of running to “soothe his own bruised ego” and risking Republican control of Georgia after bungling his runoff campaign for Senate in January and putting Democrats in charge of the Senate.

Privately, the governor’s allies blasted Perdue for losing his Senate seat and said Republicans should not to be swayed that looking backward to 2020 is the way to hold on to the governorship.

“We did the whole ‘Stop the Steal’ thing in January, and it was rejected,” said a GOP operative and Kemp ally. “It’s a sort of ‘fool me twice’ moment. I don’t see how people can argue that’s the way to win a general election next year.”

Several Georgia Republicans said the national environment, including President Biden’s poor approval ratings, remain favorable for their party. And Georgia is a purple state with a deep vein of conservatism and a large population of suburban Republicans who turned away from Trump in 2020 but are looking for a reason to come home to the party next year, they said.

“Whoever our nominees are up and down the ballot are still going to be competing in a heavily pro-Republican environment,” said Brian Robinson, an Atlanta-based GOP consultant. “Look at the Virginia governor’s race. Look at generic ballot polling for Congress. It’s a great environment for Republicans nationally, and that’s going to be true in Georgia as well.”

But Robinson and others pointed out reasons for Republicans to worry about a Kemp-Perdue matchup. Democrats are united behind their candidate, while the GOP is divided between those embracing Trump’s false claims of fraud and those who believe the focus on fraud is turning away moderates and independents.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said that Perdue told him a month ago that he was considering jumping into the race — a move that Graham cautioned Monday could hurt the GOP’s prospects. “The worst possible outcome is a contentious primary where you bleed votes in a state where you can’t afford to lose too many,” Graham said in an interview. “2022 is shaping up to be a knockout year for us as Republicans. The only way that narrative changes is if we split the party.”

Some Republicans worry that if Kemp wins, Trump will urge voters to stay home, as he hinted at during his rally in Perry in September, when he suggested he would rather see Abrams in the governor’s office than Kemp. “Stacey, would you like to take his place?” he asked, prompting cheers. “It’s okay with me.”

GOP officials also are concerned that if Perdue wins, he will be too close to Trump to pull off the high-wire act that incoming governor Glenn Youngkin succeeded at in Virginia last month, when the Republican defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in part by keeping his distance from the former president.

Either way, both candidates will emerge from the primary “bruised and broke,” another strategist said.

“Sherman left more standing than this primary will,” said Robinson, referring to the Union Army general who laid siege to Atlanta during the Civil War. “It’s going to be personal, it’s going to be nasty, and it’s going to play out over a very divisive issue — the 2020 election.”

Trump issued a statement Monday evening formally endorsing Perdue as “a Conservative fighter” and attacking Kemp as “a very weak Governor,” saying “the MAGA base — which is enormous — will never vote for him.”

“Brian Kemp has failed Georgia,” the former president added. “He caved to Stacey Abrams before the 2020 Election and allowed massive Election Fraud to take place.”

Trump wants to campaign in Georgia next year as part of the race, according to an adviser: “He’ll take any chance he can get to criticize Brian Kemp.”

Even some allies of Trump, however, questioned whether Perdue’s bid would prove to be good for the party. Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump adviser, said Monday on his daily podcast that “there’s no difference between Kemp and Perdue,” describing Perdue as a “classic country-club” Republican.

Erick Erickson, a GOP radio show host in Georgia, said he received overwhelmingly negative calls about Perdue jumping in, with most of the callers saying they do not want to see a bruising primary.

“I don’t dispute that Kemp is vulnerable, but I don’t see the argument in, ‘Vote for me, the guy who can’t beat Jon Ossoff,’ [rather] than Brian Kemp, who already beat Stacey Abrams,” Erickson said in an interview.

As Abrams enters governor’s race, Georgia becomes a key 2022 battleground

Compounding the challenge for Republicans: Abrams faces no competition for her party’s nomination.

“While David Perdue and Brian Kemp fight each other, Stacey Abrams will be fighting for the people of Georgia,” Lauren Groh-Wargo, a top Abrams aide, posted on Twitter, adding, “Only Stacey Abrams will lead to create One Georgia in which all of our people, regardless of zip code, background or access to power, have the opportunity to thrive.”

Abrams campaign spokesman Seth Bringman said Monday that notwithstanding potential political head winds, the Republicans have lost their share of the vote in statewide elections every year over the past decade. Several Republicans privately agreed that Georgia’s changing demographics could complicate the GOP’s efforts.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who leads the Republican Governors Association and has also incurred Trump’s wrath for certifying his state’s 2020 result, has indicated that the group would back the incumbent.

Former vice president Mike Pence recently addressed the RGA and said he would help all incumbent Republican governors get elected, according to people with knowledge of his remarks.

Perdue’s decision to run could drive a wedge between Kemp and a powerful political family he worked with on his rise to power. A Perdue cousin, former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue, appointed Kemp secretary of state in 2010. The former governor, who went on to serve as Trump’s agriculture secretary, appeared at a rally with Kemp this summer after Kemp backed his effort to become chancellor of the University of Georgia.

David Perdue himself introduced Kemp at the Republican convention in Georgia this summer.

Trump calls Georgia governor to pressure him for help overturning Biden’s win in the state

In his announcement, Perdue tried to take advantage of Kemp’s unpopularity among Trump loyalists while also skirting the issue of election fraud. He focused instead on some of the same issues that resonated for Youngkin in the Virginia governor’s race last month, including parental rights in schools, low taxes and defeating the “woke left.”

“My bold vision for our state is very simple,” Perdue said. “Completely eliminate the state income tax. It’s time. Make our cities and states safe again. Take charge of our schools. Put parents in charge, not the woke left. And fight Biden’s overreaching mandates like Florida’s doing, instead of caving to liberals in the city.”

Perdue also hinted at how he plans to attack Kemp’s handling of election fraud accusations, criticizing the governor for “caving to Abrams” — a reference to a legal settlement the state signed with Democrats in 2020 that changed the way signatures are verified on mail ballots.

Trump has falsely claimed that the consent decree prevented local election officials from verifying ballot signatures, when in fact it simply mandated that voters be given a chance to fix their ballots if their signatures are rejected.

“Instead of protecting our elections, he caved to Abrams and cost us two Senate seats, the Senate majority and gave Joe Biden free rein,” Perdue said in the video. “Think about how different it would be today if Kemp had fought Abrams first instead of fighting Trump.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Kemp signed a legal settlement with Democrats in 2020. It was a lawyer for the state of Georgia who signed the agreement. The article has been corrected.