Republicans, Motivated by Spite, Wage War Against Each Other in Georgia Governor’s Race

The Republican intraparty fight may provide an opening for Stacey Abrams, assuming that she doesn't treat her primary campaign as a coronation.

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., heads to the Senate subway following a vote in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 8, 2015. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is suing his top rival in the Republican primary for Georgia’s governor’s race, and incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp hit right back.

Perdue, who announced his run last year with former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, accused Kemp of having stacked the fundraising deck by changing the campaign laws last year; yesterday Kemp filed an ethics complaint against Perdue for illegal campaign coordination with a third-party PAC.

Kemp’s ethics complaint argues that the WinRed website of the Georgia Values Fund, an independent committee, violates state campaign financing laws by showing how to donate directly to Perdue’s campaign fund. The site also allegedly solicits cellphone numbers for Perdue’s campaign to send political push notifications. Both actions violate laws requiring independent committees to refrain from coordinated campaigning, Kemp’s complaint argues.

The Perdue campaign’s lawsuit, filed earlier this month, suggests that the changes to campaign finance laws last year are “unconstitutional and corrupt.” The new law allows Kemp to sidestep a Georgia rule barring elected officials from raising money while the legislature is in session. “Using his power as the incumbent Governor, Kemp changed Georgia law in an attempt to rig this race in his favor,” Perdue’s campaign said in a statement. “He gave himself a massive fundraising advantage and is able to fully coordinate with his so-called leadership committee that he chairs, while challengers like Perdue play by different rules.”

It’s part and parcel of what is becoming a vicious political knife fight, fueled by spite, between two political leaders who would have been considered mainline business conservative Republicans four years ago. The internal battle between conventional Republicans and the radical right has transformed into a bidding war for political war-fighting credentials.

“Millionaire David Perdue built a career putting himself first. Searching for cheap labor, Perdue outsourced jobs to countries like China. He made a fortune for himself but left communities broken, families ruined.” That’s not an attack ad from a Democrat. That’s from Kemp, taking potshots at his new primary rival.

To earn his Trumpist bonafides, Perdue joined a lawsuit questioning the 2020 general election results. Kemp, you may recall, resisted Trump’s urging to swing Georgia’s electoral votes his way. Kemp “cost us two Senate seats, the Senate majority, and gave Joe Biden free rein,” Perdue said in a video announcing his run. He accused Kemp of colluding with Stacey Abrams — a prominent Georgia Democrat, voting rights activist, and fellow gubernatorial candidate — to give the presidential election to Biden. “Think about how different things would be today if Kemp had fought Abrams first instead of fighting Trump.”

Perdue, who lost his Senate seat to Jon Ossoff last year in a tight runoff, told reporters that he wouldn’t have certified Georgia’s election results if he had been governor and that he would have called a special session of the state legislature to “protect and fix what was wrong for the January election.”

Perdue is, frankly, lying about a lot of things here, both about the election and himself, to appeal to Trump conservatives. Everyone from Georgia Public Broadcasting to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Axios is calling bullshit in very direct terms. State law does not allow a governor to withhold certification of an election, nor would it allow election rules to be changed for an election that had already occurred.

Trump made loud calls for special legislative sessions in Georgia, as well as Michigan and Arizona, to set aside the election results and declare him the winner of its electors. Perdue told the New York Post in January that he had “repeatedly called for a special session of the General Assembly to investigate,” but I can find no evidence of these repeated calls in news stories or interviews. Perdue and then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler were both booed at rallies by partisans in December demanding that they both take stronger positions on overturning the November election.

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Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams speaks during a get-out-the-vote rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on October 24, 2021.

Photo: Eze Amos/Getty Images

Trump followed that up at a rally in Perry, Georgia, with a call for Perdue to run against Kemp, saying, “Stacey, would you like to take his place? It’s OK with me. … Of course having her, I think, might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know what I think. Might very well be better.”

The crack about having called for a special election appears to be particularly galling to the Kemp camp. “David Perdue lies as easily as he breathes,” said Cody Hall, Kemp’s political spokesperson, according to a tweet by Axios reporter Emma Hurt. “Perdue never asked the Governor to call a special session. Period. In fact, his campaign — and Perdue himself — asked for there not to be a special session called. At the time, they knew that a special session could not overturn the 2020 general election, and that changes to election rules for an election already underway are not allowed under state law or court precedent. Now Perdue is a desperate, failed, former politician who will do anything to soothe his own bruised ego.”

Perdue’s time in office produced a caricature of a mean-spirited rich guy.

Perdue’s time in office produced a caricature of a mean-spirited rich guy. He held no town hall meetings and actively avoided interacting with constituents unless they were writing his campaign a check. Perdue left an indelible image when he snatched a phone from an impertinent college kid at a Georgia Tech football game. Perdue’s stock trading during the coronavirus pandemic remains an open question; if the FBI resolved its investigation into Perdue’s suspiciously well-timed Cardlytics trades, the agency has never said so publicly. (The agency rarely does so, a spokesperson said.) Ossoff made an issue of those trades in the Senate race last year, enough to prompt Perdue to chicken out of debates with him. I can’t imagine Abrams being gentler.

But according to Perdue, none of this explains the former senator’s 55,232-vote gap on about 4.5 million cast that led to his loss in the January runoff. Of course not. It was all Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Kemp is fighting for his political life, under conditions that he helped create. Kemp has done little to arrest the far-right drift of the Republican Party, the descent into conspiracy and unthinking denial of evidence, politics as an exercise in tribal loyalty. Kemp was booed at the Republican State Convention in June — a convention at which Perdue introduced him to speak, warning delegates to “focus right now on what we have to do to win in November 2022.” Kemp avoided the party’s formal censure there, but Raffensperger did not.

Kemp and Perdue will tear each other apart in the primaries. Both burned the mechanisms for reconciliation on Trump’s altar last year. Initial polling from Fox 5/Insider Advantage showed a dead heat between Kemp and Perdue after Trump’s endorsement, 34-34 with 18 percent undecided. The most likely scenario right now is Perdue taking Kemp to a runoff, because straphangers like former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones and QAnon-adjacent Kandiss Taylor are going to cost the front-runners 5 to 10 percent of the vote.

Trump’s endorsement of Perdue must be galling to Jones, who has been begging for Trump’s attention ever since appearing at the “Stop the Steal” rally preceding the January 6 Capitol attack. Months of sycophancy and illegally placed campaign signs across North Georgia, printed double-size and wired to fences on abandoned property, led instead to being picked over. The pitiful campaign started as an extension of pillow tycoon Mike Lindell’s marketing; now it seems clear that’s all it would ever be.

Brian Kemp, governor of Georgia, speaks during a news conference at a mass covid-19 vaccination site at the Delta Flight Museum in Hapeville, Georgia, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2021. Delta Air Lines Inc. partnered with Georgia to host the state's largest COVID-19 vaccination site. Photographer: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Brian Kemp, governor of Georgia, speaks during a news conference in Hapeville, Georgia, Feb. 25, 2021.

Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Kemp-Perdue primary presents a political awakening to Republicans in Georgia of the real possibility of losing political power next year. In one sense, the Georgia contest resembles others in which Trump has decided to assert his revenge on insufficiently loyal Republicans like Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, by promoting primary challengers. Doing so maintains his political relevance until the 2024 election cycle begins in earnest.

But Georgia’s politics have unique qualities.


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One-third of Georgia’s electorate is Black, and almost exactly half the state is made up of people of color. The racial dynamic between Abrams’s bid to become the first Black governor of Georgia makes for sharply different politics than those of, say, Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost the governor’s race to Republican Glenn Youngkin. The initial political take in Virginia was that McAuliffe underperformed with Black voters; this is incorrect. McAuliffe lost because some moderate white voters stayed home. McAuliffe’s Black voter support was consistent with Democrats in previous cycles. It was not supercharged in the ways that Abrams’s candidacy was in Georgia in 2018, when she narrowly lost to Kemp.

If Kemp wins the primary, a determinative number of Perdue’s voters will assume fraud and stay home, which would be good news for Abrams, who increasingly appears to be viewed as an iconic generational leader by Black voters across the left side of the political spectrum in Georgia. The political environment for Democrats in a midterm is difficult, but the Republican intraparty fight may provide an opening for Abrams, assuming that she doesn’t treat her primary campaign as a coronation.

Two other issues will complicate the campaign cycle in Georgia.

For one, the U.S. Supreme Court will hand down its decision on the Louisiana abortion rights case in the middle of the primary season. Georgia’s primary election takes place on May 22 and the runoff (if necessary) on June 21. Georgia’s “heartbeat” abortion law would take effect immediately if the court invalidates Roe v. Wade, subject to its consideration of a similar law in Texas. Abrams’s candidacy will be thrown into stark relief in a state that would likely lose practical abortion access overnight.

The Republican-dominated Georgia General Assembly may make abortion laws even more strident during the session, given the fear of a potential Abrams veto in 2023 — making the governor’s race an instant referendum on abortion access.

If Willis brings charges, all hell breaks loose in Georgia.

Second, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis called for a special grand jury to examine the election interference case against Trump for his furtive phone call to Raffensperger, during which the former president pressured Raffensperger to change the results of the 2020 election. A special grand jury allows Willis to call witnesses who are not cooperating with her probe to testify. That brings the circus to town, with Trump’s inner circle dodging subpoenas and obstructing justice just like they are with the January 6 commission in Congress.

If Willis brings charges, all hell breaks loose in Georgia. The case will dominate political discussion. Trump may call on elected officials to interfere in the prosecution, either by the intervention of the attorney general’s office or by the legislature — if not by Kemp himself.

As it stands, political figures on the right are now looking for four-year appointments or other ways to set themselves up for an Abrams term. There is almost no public discussion about capturing more voters of color. The assumption is that Senate hopeful Herschel Walker, a Black Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Georgia, will do that job with his candidacy. The idea of compromise on any of the policy positions that Black voters or Latino voters might want to see remains anathema.

Instead, both Perdue and Kemp are telegraphing campaigns against allowing “the city” and the “woke” left (read: Black people) to take over the state. “Fight Biden’s overreaching mandates like Florida’s doing, instead of caving to liberals in the city,” Perdue says. “In the last year, we’ve had record economic success, secured our elections, and stood up to Stacey Abrams and the woke mob when they tried to cancel our state,” says Kemp.

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