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Trump-backed Perdue struggles in Republican primary challenge in Georgia


By Michael Warren and Gabby Orr, CNN

David Perdue kicked off his campaign for governor of Georgia with an emphatic endorsement from former President Donald Trump.

But since then, his primary challenge to unseat Brian Kemp — the Republican governor Trump loves to hate — has been a big flop.

Perdue, a former US senator, has so far raised a fraction of what Kemp has in his campaign war chest. Very few Republican elected officials, operatives, donors and activists in Georgia have abandoned Kemp in favor of Perdue. And limited public polling hasn’t been promising, either.

“I think Perdue is on life support and knows it,” said one neutral GOP operative who requested anonymity to speak freely. “The Kemp momentum is palpable.”

The Perdue campaign is drawing attention from around the country, in part as a test case on the GOP’s tolerance for Trump’s vendettas. The former President remains exceedingly popular within the party, but his relentless focus on the 2020 election may have put him a beat behind Republicans who have moved on to other issues such as school mask mandates and the economy.

At the same time, Georgia Republicans are eager to hold on to the governor’s office in a general election race against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has only risen in national prominence since her loss to Kemp in 2018. Democrats recently won not only the presidential election but also both US Senate seats in the state, handing President Joe Biden a majority to advance his agenda while humiliating the GOP in a once reliably red state. State party leaders are keen on reasserting their dominance this fall.

Since he launched his campaign in December, Perdue — who lost a runoff last year to Democrat Jon Ossoff — has struggled to bring aboard the network of political donors and operatives that have supported him and his cousin, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, in the past. One such figure is Alec Poitevint, a former Georgia Republican Party chairman during Sonny Perdue’s governorship and a national party activist who chaired David Perdue’s successful US Senate bid in 2014. Despite Poitevint’s close ties to the Perdue family, he is supporting Kemp’s reelection campaign.

Even GOP Senate candidate Herschel Walker, the Georgia football great whom Trump has also endorsed, has so far remained neutral in the gubernatorial primary.

And although he raised more than $100 million in his Senate reelection campaign in 2020, this time, Perdue has not been able to translate Trump’s endorsement into financial or political backing from Republican bigwigs in the state.

In the first two months of his gubernatorial campaign through January 31, Perdue reported raising about $1.2 million, about half of the $2.5 million Kemp reported raising in the same two-month period. And Perdue reported far less cash on hand — just under $900,000 — than either Kemp ($12.7 million) or Abrams ($7.7 million.)

“That’s indicative of a lot of donors [who] have already committed to the governor,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a longtime Republican operative in Atlanta who helped raise money for Perdue’s Senate runoff race. “I was in weekly contact with those donors. I have not found one that has said to me ‘I’ve jumped ship.’ They’re saying ‘What is David doing? I haven’t heard from David.'”

Perdue allies who have reached out to his campaign themselves to schedule fundraisers have found his team to be unresponsive and noncommittal, according to a person familiar with such complaints.

Even Perdue and his team have sensed something is off. The former Dollar General CEO has expressed disappointment to people around him about the slow start to his political comeback, according to one person who has spoken to him and requested anonymity to speak freely.

“His team puts on the face when you talk to them about his performance, but I know people were very underwhelmed by his fundraising report and cash on hand, including in Trump’s camp,” said another person close to Perdue.

When asked several questions about the state of the campaign, Jenni Sweat, a spokeswoman for Perdue, referred CNN to a recent interview between the candidate and Augusta television reporter Brad Means.

“I’m going up against an incumbent governor. I’m a big boy, I knew that. This is no surprise. They’re going to outspend us five or six or seven times,” Perdue said. “But we’re not getting out of this race.”

The power of incumbency

Kemp’s advantages as the incumbent are numerous. Eighty-eight Republican state House members and 31 Republican state senators already have endorsed Kemp, who, not unrelatedly, controls the fate of their legislation in the ongoing session of the General Assembly.

Also in his corner is the Republican Governors Association, which has pledged to back incumbent governors like Kemp facing primary challenges. Last week, the RGA launched a $500,000 ad campaign in Georgia with a TV spot highlighting Kemp’s accomplishments.

And Kemp’s vast list of executive appointments provides him with plenty of carrots and sticks. In 2021, he appointed Poitevint to the Georgia Ports Authority board, for instance. And through his appointments to the board of regents for the state’s university system, Kemp has created a glide path for Sonny Perdue to be named the system’s chancellor. The former two-term governor, who later served as Trump’s agriculture secretary, notably has remained publicly neutral in the primary.

Allies of David Perdue complain that Kemp is employing a scorched-earth approach in Atlanta that doesn’t account for the broad appeal Perdue has with actual primary voters.

“The people that are under the bubble of the state Capitol, they’re all for Kemp,” said one Georgia Republican operative. “Everyone else is against him.”

But others aren’t convinced Georgia Republicans are itching to change horses midstream, particularly with Democrats looking to push their advantages in the state.

“A lot of Republicans don’t understand why you would challenge an incumbent Republican governor,” said Tanenblatt. “It’s very obvious former President Trump has an issue with the governor, but that’s not a really compelling reason.”

Kemp, meanwhile, has done nothing to try to play nice with Trump to appeal to his die-hard supporters. In a recent interview with a local radio talk show host, Kemp dismissed a question that Trump’s animus could be a factor in his reelection bid.

“I can’t worry about a bunch of noise from, you know, people in other states,” Kemp said.

Is the Trump factor waning?

Perdue’s lackluster start to his campaign illustrates the limits of Trump’s ability to dictate the terms of intra-Republican fights. The fervor with which Trump and his allies have been looking to punish disloyalty — such as Kemp’s unwillingness to overturn Biden’s narrow 2020 victory in Georgia — is unmatched by those in the party looking toward future elections and fights.

The negative reaction from donors and party elders to the Republican National Committee’s recent censure of Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger reflects this shift in tolerance for Trump’s obsession. And the explicit rejection of Trump’s claims about the 2020 election by other leaders in the party, from moderates like Larry Hogan and Chris Christie to onetime allies like Mike Pence, are further evidence Republicans are not taking their marching orders from the former president.

The Republican gubernatorial primary in Georgia will be a case study for the GOP’s tolerance for Trump’s vendettas, with the state’s professional political class as the tip of the spear.

“I’m sure that President Trump still has the expectation that when he endorses someone, they are going to win by 30 points, but we might be moving into a time when that doesn’t happen anymore,” said the person close to Perdue. “A Trump endorsement doesn’t guarantee a runaway victory anymore.”

The party’s lukewarm reaction to a Trump-heavy primary fight illustrates how acutely the party has felt recent challenges to its dominance in Georgia — and how the former president might be misreading the political environment in the current ground zero of American politics.

Democratic gains in the suburbs of Atlanta in 2018 were a warning sign to the GOP. So was Biden’s slim victory two years later, even as Trump falsely claimed that widespread voter fraud there and in other swing states had “stolen” the election from him.

But it was their double loss in early January 2021 in a pair of runoff races for both US Senate seats that rocked Georgia Republicans. The victories by Ossoff over Perdue and Raphael Warnock over Sen. Kelly Loeffler flipped control of the Senate to the Democrats and seemed to finally force the GOP into a period of reflection.

In the weeks and months following the runoffs, Republicans privately and publicly fumed that Trump’s caterwauling about voter fraud had depressed GOP turnout.

But the former President and his allies continued to focus their ire on Kemp, who had insisted publicly that he was constitutionally unable to intervene in the counting or certification of Georgia’s results. Trump began the search for a primary challenger to Kemp and vowed to oust him from office.

In March, Kemp blunted the criticism from Trump by signing into law a series of changes to the state’s voting and elections process — including shortening the early voting period, requiring photo ID for absentee ballots and outlawing elections officials from mailing out unsolicited absentee ballot applications.

The reaction from the left was fierce. National Democrats and large corporations condemned the law as too restrictive. Most notably, Major League Baseball announced it would move the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver in response to the law.

The backlash to the law worked in Kemp’s favor, rallying Republicans to his defense against a corporate America deemed too “woke” by conservatives.

Trump, however, saw the moment in Georgia differently. As Republicans around the country praised Kemp for standing up for the law, Trump released a statement blasting him for passing a law that was not restrictive enough and accusing Kemp of “caving” to corporate America.

Meanwhile, Trump’s efforts to find a primary challenger to Kemp faltered throughout much of 2021. One potential recruit, state Sen. Burt Jones, declined the former President’s overture during a meeting at Mar-a-Lago. Jones decided to run for the open lieutenant governor’s seat instead.

Months later, during a rally in Georgia, Trump floated the idea that it “might be better” if Abrams, not Kemp, were governor. His suggestion that Georgia Republicans’ enemy number-one should be given the top job was met with confusion and boos from the crowd.

Even Trump’s limited influence on the gubernatorial primary may be misguided. With Trump’s backing, former state Rep. Vernon Jones, a Democrat-turned-pro-Trump-Republican who was also running for governor, dropped out of the race to instead run for a congressional seat. The push from the former President’s team may have been designed to cull the field and set up Perdue as the only viable alternative to Kemp. But Jones’ departure from the race increases the chances of Kemp winning an outright majority in the primary and avoiding a runoff against Perdue.

Whether or not Trump perceives trouble in Perdue’s campaign to rid him of Kemp is unclear.

One top GOP operative noted that Perdue has not yet put his own money into the race, which has raised questions inside Trump’s orbit about his level of commitment. A second person, who is close to Trump, said the former President has told people he is aware Perdue’s effort has been underwhelming. Trump has also noted, according to this person, that he has yet to do a rally on Perdue’s behalf.

“David Perdue is running a strong campaign and is well positioned to become Georgia’s next governor,” said Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Trump, when asked if the former President was concerned about Perdue’s performance so far.

But to many Georgia Republicans, the safe bet at the moment is on Kemp.

“I’m a big David Perdue supporter,” said Tanenblatt. “I just don’t understand it.”

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