CANTON, Ga. – Days away from the primary election in which his party’s leader had hoped to make him public enemy number one, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has settled into what looks like a winning response: Donald Trump who?
In his 15-minute stump speech, the first-term Republican disparages the Democratic president, Democrats in Congress, and most enthusiastically, the Democrat who nearly beat him when they both ran in 2018 and who will almost certainly be his opponent this fall.
“We’re getting up every single day to make sure Stacey Abrams is not going to be your governor or your next president,” he says, sometimes more than once at a single event.
A name that does not come up: that of the former president who has made it his mission to end Kemp’s political career after he refused to help Trump overturn his 12,000-vote election loss in Georgia in 2020.
“I appreciate what President Trump did for our state. I appreciate what Mike Pence did for our state,” Kemp told reporters Tuesday, following an appearance under the expansive porch of a local brewery that featured former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who remains an influential fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association. “I’ve never said a bad word about their administration. I don’t plan on doing that.”
Pence, Trump’s vice president, is scheduled to campaign with Kemp on Monday, the evening before the election.
Kemp doesn’t even bother to mention the challenger Trump personally recruited to run against him, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, in his remarks, and instead just asks his audiences to vote for him next week so he can start consolidating GOP voters statewide.
Three hours later and 100 miles to the southeast, Perdue’s message was almost entirely the opposite.
“How many of you have seen ‘2,000 Mules?’” he asked during a Morgan County Republican meeting, referring to a new downloadable movie that recycles long-ago disproven claims that Trump lost because the election was stolen from him. “If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth the 20 bucks. It really is.”
“I’m not trying to rehash what happened,” he said 20 minutes later, but in reality, repeating Trump’s lies about the election was primarily what Perdue did during his entire 35-minute appearance at the Farmview Market’s meeting room – even going so far as to promise that he would end Georgia’s use of voting machines from Dominion, a company that pro-Trump conspiracy theorists have demonized.
Perdue offered up hopeful nuggets to his crowd, including the statistic that a large percentage of voters who have cast early ballots this spring had not voted at all in 2018, when Kemp was first elected.
But that optimism was belied by recent polling that shows Kemp with a comfortable, double-digit lead. Perdue appears to have pulled his television ads, and even his supporters have begun redefining success on Tuesday as keeping Kemp from breaking 50% and thereby avoiding a June runoff.
Perdue’s most pragmatic argument to potential supporters was that Kemp could not win the general election in November because he would not be able to motivate hard-core Trump supporters, so-called “Make America Great Again,” or “MAGA,” voters.
“If he gets 90% of the MAGA voters, he loses. He needs to get us all. I don’t think he can do that. That’s why I’m running,” Perdue said.
Kemp, at an appearance in Thomaston Wednesday, said he wasn’t particularly interested in Perdue’s theories. “I wouldn’t worry about taking the advice of somebody that got beat by Jon Ossoff as an incumbent U.S. senator,” he said, referring to Perdue’s 2020 loss to a Democrat whose only previous political experience was losing a special election for a House race three years earlier. “I’m focused on what Georgians want, not what a failed politician from Washington, D.C., is saying.”
Trump, despite losing the election by 7 million votes nationally and 306-232 in the Electoral College, became the first president in more than two centuries of elections to refuse to hand over power peacefully. His incitement of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol ― his last-ditch attempt to remain in office ― killed five, including one police officer, injured another 140 officers and led to four police suicides.
Nevertheless, Trump remains the dominant figure in the Republican Party and is openly speaking about running for the presidency again in 2024.