MARIETTA, Georgia — David Perdue was supposed to be former President Donald Trump's ace in the hole, a red-blooded MAGA-loving loyalist who was once known as Georgia's political giant-killer.
Trump tapped the former senator to take down Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who refused to overturn President Joe Biden's 2020 Georgia win, the first by a Democratic nominee since 1992. Kemp shrugged off massive pressure by Trump and his allies to meddle with the results. Since then, Trump has turned Kemp into a verbal punching bag, vowing revenge and knocking him at every turn. The sitting governor has been harassed, called unpatriotic, and told he single-handedly is to blame for inflation and the war in Ukraine.
Georgia's May 24 primary election is one of the biggest tests of Trump's influence on the Republican Party since leaving the White House. Unfortunately for him, his star pupil isn't performing as planned.
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Perdue, a wealthy former business executive, proved a political wunderkind in his 2014 Senate race, the first time he pursued elective office. Perdue won the Republican nomination by beating three sitting House members and claimed the seat that November over the daughter of former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, whose last name brought widespread recognition in the state.
But Perdue lost his reelection bid to now-Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff in a 2021 runoff race and has been struggling to find footing among voters in the GOP gubernatorial primary Trump pushed him to run in. Though he endorsed Perdue late last year and the former senator has continued to push unfounded claims of election fraud every opportunity he gets, the efforts have not paid off. Now, with less than two weeks to go before the primary contest, even Trump has had his doubts on Perdue's chances of winning.
"Remember, you know, my record is unblemished," Trump falsely suggested in a New York Times interview. "The real story should be on the endorsements — not the David Perdue one — and, by the way, no race is over."
Trump's endorsement record in the 2022 cycle gives him some bragging rights, but it's not unblemished. Trump backed the eventual winner of a fierce Ohio Republican Senate primary, author and investor J.D. Vance. And months ago, he endorsed Rep. Ted Budd for the North Carolina Senate nomination, a bet likely to pay off handsomely in the May 17 primary because Budd leads the GOP field by a wide margin. Trump also endorsed Rep. Alex Mooney of West Virginia, who on Tuesday beat a fellow House member in the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary.
But on Tuesday, another Trump endorsee, Nebraska Republican gubernatorial hopeful Charles Herbster, lost to an establishment GOP candidate.
In each of those cases, Trump issued his endorsements after the candidates were well into their races. In the Georgia Republican gubernatorial fight, it was Trump who nudged Purdue into the contest in the first place.
For Trump, losing in Georgia to his same-party nemesis would be a huge blow and could change the trajectory of his influence on the Republican Party.
To make sure that doesn't happen, he has poured tons of time and money into the governor's race. His political committee, Save America PAC, made its first major donation to help Perdue, forking over $500,000 in April to a group tasked with creating negative ads against Kemp. Perdue also loaned himself $500,000, but even that wasn't enough to keep pace with Kemp's fundraising machine. And, despite Trump's looming presence in the state election, Perdue has been steadily losing ground.
BRIAN KEMP SURGES AHEAD OF TRUMP-BACKED DAVID PERDUE IN GEORGIA GOP PRIMARY: POLL
After Trump held a rally in northeast Georgia for Perdue that had low attendance, he decided to phone in an appearance at a telerally on May 2, the first day of early voting.
During the 9-minute call, Trump predicted that if Kemp won, it would be a drag on other Republicans and their effort to restore GOP dominance in a state that saw significant Democratic gains in 2020. He added that he didn't "believe Republicans are going to go out and vote for Brian Kemp" in the general election against Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams and that "if they're not voting for Brian Kemp, they're not going to be able to vote for [other Republicans]."
A recent statewide poll of 886 likely GOP primary voters showed that Kemp had increased his lead over Perdue and could meet the majority-vote threshold needed to avoid a June runoff.
Kemp led Perdue 53% to 27% in a poll conducted April 10-22 by the University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs on behalf of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The survey has a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points.
Augusta native Sandra Jacobs told the Washington Examiner she was tired of him rehashing the 2020 election.
"It's time to move on," Jacobs said. "The election was in 2020. We can't keep having this fight. It's dividing the party, and it's not doing David Perdue any favors."
Perdue's appearance at a May meet-and-greet event at the Cobb County Republican headquarters pulled in a paltry 15 or so supporters.
Most walked out of the one-story building clutching blue-and-white Perdue posters, and when it began to rain, bent those same signs to cover their heads as they ran to their cars.
One supporter, Karyn Boothe, told the Washington Examiner she had been on the fence when it came to who would be best suited to govern Georgia. She voted for Kemp during the last election but decided to go with Perdue this time after Kemp's "late-night, midnight deal."
Kemp created backlash when he signed a law that would let him create "leadership committees" that could raise unlimited campaign funds, including during the legislative session. In late April, a federal judge ruled that the governor's special campaign committee could not raise money unless and until he secured his party's nomination. The same judge ruled that Abrams also could not take in unlimited contributions through her leadership committee, One Georgia, until she was named as her party's nominee in the May 24 primary election. Abrams is running unopposed on the Democratic ticket.
Boothe also took issue with comments Kemp made about narrowing his sights on a November matchup with Abrams.
"It's a disservice to at least half of us voting in the primaries," she said, later admitting that many of her GOP friends had already jumped ship to support the governor's bid.
Unlike Perdue, Kemp's reelection strategy has been to tout a number of conservative policy wins he's racked up during his first term in office and the 2022 legislative session, including teacher and state employee raises, permitless firearm carry legislation, as well as tougher restrictions on election rules and abortion. He's also taken credit for Georgia's robust economy.
"Last fiscal year, we had a record year for economic development where 74% of the 379 projects that total $11 billion went outside the 10 metro counties, furthering my commitment to strengthen rural Georgia, not to mention rural broadband that we have done," he said during a debate with other GOP gubernatorial hopefuls.
Lisa Monroe, a conservative who lives near Rome, Georgia, told the Washington Examiner that even though she had been a Perdue supporter, she has been swayed by Kemp's record.
"I am still upset over the election, but you can't discount his record," she said about Kemp. "He has done really good things for Georgia."
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican who is not running for a second term, echoed the sentiment.
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"Donald Trump fans are realizing how conservative a leader Brian Kemp is, and that's why we see the polling go in that direction," he said.