By Michael Warren and Gabby Orr, CNN
Donald Trump’s endorsed candidates in Georgia are steering clear of his deeply personal vendetta against Gov. Brian Kemp — the Republican Trump says betrayed him in the 2020 election and whom he has set out to dethrone.
Instead of steamrolling through Georgia, Trump is struggling to get his own allies to back former GOP Sen. David Perdue, the man handpicked by the former President last December to challenge Kemp. Perdue has been slow to gain traction as an insurgent candidate, a task that will become even more difficult in the final weeks before Georgia’s May 24 primary. Even Trump called him a “long-shot” candidate earlier this week in an interview with the online right-wing outlet Real America’s Voice.
Trump’s relatively lonely mission to defeat Kemp reveals how the former President’s priorities can often be out of step with those of Republicans who are actually on the ballot in 2022. The series of upcoming GOP primaries in May may be a mixed bag for Trump. And his overall record in the 2022 midterms will depend on an untested premise: Do Republican primary voters remain aligned with Trump?
None of Trump’s preferred candidates in three of the highest-profile statewide races in Georgia — Herschel Walker for US Senate, Burt Jones for lieutenant governor and Jody Hice for secretary of state — have endorsed Perdue. And in their remarks at a Trump rally in Georgia on Saturday, none of them mentioned the gubernatorial primary.
“I think that (Trump) has staked so much of his endorsement clout on Georgia — more than any other state — there is a part of me that (thinks) if any part of him is serious about running in 2024 and his highest-profile endorsed candidate loses, he would maybe consider recalibrating his approach a little bit,” said one person close to Perdue, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about Trump.
CNN has also learned that the Georgia state GOP is organizing a “unity rally” for all statewide Republican candidates, to take place after the primary or any necessary runoffs. At least some of the campaigns on Trump’s endorsement slate are already participating in the planning of the rally, signaling that those candidates are ready to embrace Kemp if he wins the nomination despite Trump’s bitter criticism of the incumbent governor. Trump’s political aides are also aware of the rally, according to a person familiar with the planning.
“The governor looks forward to uniting Republicans … to keep Georgia red this fall,” said Cody Hall, a spokesman for Kemp’s campaign. The Perdue campaign did not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
“It’s always going to be odd when you have an event right after the election when the losers show up with the winners,” said Republican strategist Seth Weathers, who ran Trump’s Georgia campaign operation in 2016.
But in the pre-primary landscape, unity among Trump’s slate of candidates has proved elusive. There is no indication that any of the top candidates in Georgia belonging to Trump’s “MAGA” ticket will be backing Perdue before the May 24 primary.
“Herschel is laser-focused on winning the primary in May and the general in November,” said Mallory Blount, a spokeswoman for the Walker campaign, when asked if the leading GOP Senate candidate will be endorsing in the gubernatorial primary. The Burt Jones and Hice campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.
A person close to Perdue noted that Walker and Kemp have known each other for decades and that Perdue’s campaign has never expected an endorsement from the former NFL star. Walker reportedly told a crowd earlier this year that he doesn’t support “either” Perdue or Kemp, and he has publicly complained about “intersquad fighting.”
“We cannot continue to go out there and fight among each other when we got this country that is hurting,” Walker recently told conservative radio hosts Clay Travis and Buck Sexton.
Trump contends that Kemp’s renomination would be disastrous for other Georgia Republicans on the ballot in November.
“If Kemp wins, I think Herschel Walker is going to be very seriously and negatively impacted because Republicans that happen to like Donald Trump — MAGA Republicans — are not going to go and vote for this guy Kemp,” Trump told the crowd at his Saturday rally.
But Walker, Jones, Hice and the others aren’t treating a Kemp primary win as a threat to their own electoral prospects. They’re also tacitly dismissing Trump’s political judgment in Georgia.
“Their behavior doesn’t show confidence in the [Perdue] endorsement,” said a Georgia Republican strategist who is neutral in the governor’s race but requested anonymity to speak frankly.
One of the few Trump-backed candidates to endorse the former GOP senator is Vernon Jones, whom Trump convinced to exit the gubernatorial primary in February and instead run for the US House.
Trump’s difficult task
The mission to sink Kemp has its origins in December 2020, when Trump called the Georgia governor and asked him to convene state legislators to select pro-Trump electors after Joe Biden won the Peach State in the presidential election.
Kemp, who had already approved the certification of Georgia’s electoral votes for Biden, told Trump he had no authority to do anything to change the election results.
Trump then publicly blasted Kemp as a “RINO,” or Republican in Name Only, and later said he was “ashamed” to have endorsed Kemp in 2018. During an appearance in Georgia before US Senate runoff elections in January 2021, Trump vowed to campaign against Kemp before the 2022 primary.
But Trump’s search for a champion against Kemp sputtered for most of 2021. He initially floated former US Rep. Doug Collins, who ran unsuccessfully for US Senate in 2020. But by April, Collins announced he would not run for any office in 2022.
In early May at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump met with Burt Jones, a state senator, and Jones’ father, a wealthy pro-Trump donor. The former President told them he wanted the younger Jones to run against Kemp in the primary. But by the end of the meeting, Jones made it known to Trump that he was unsure about taking on Kemp and that he preferred to run for lieutenant governor — which he ended up doing, with Trump’s endorsement.
Meanwhile, Democratic state Rep. Vernon Jones (no relation to Burt) had been an outspoken surrogate for Trump’s reelection in 2020. After leaving office in early 2021, he appeared at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on January 6, where he announced he was switching to the Republican Party. Months later, Jones announced his run for governor with an expectation that Trump might return the favor and endorse.
But that support never came, and earlier this year, Trump nudged Jones to drop out of the governor’s race and instead run for Georgia’s 10th Congressional District. Trump then promptly endorsed Jones in the House race.
After months of cajoling from Trump, Perdue jumped into the governor’s race in December 2021. Despite the Trump endorsement out of the gate, Perdue’s initial fundraising was underwhelming, and he has since failed to find much support from party bigwigs in the state.
Kemp allies, meanwhile, had vowed to make Perdue’s life a “living hell” with their superior campaign budget. And the Republican Governors Association has backed up its own promise to support its incumbent governors with a significant TV ad buy touting Kemp’s accomplishments.
Public polls have not been encouraging for Perdue. A Fox News poll conducted at the beginning of March found Kemp leading Perdue, 50% to 39%, among Republican primary voters. The same poll found Kemp and Perdue had nearly equal favorability ratings (68% and 66%, respectively).
Georgia Republicans watching the race have long questioned how Perdue’s campaign — premised on Kemp’s failure to deliver for the GOP and Trump in the 2020 election — could win over enough primary voters, who are largely favorable toward Kemp.
“I don’t know that they’re plowing fertile ground,” said the Georgia Republican strategist.
On the other hand, Trump’s own popularity among Georgia Republicans remains high and steady. The same Fox poll found that 79% of primary voters had a favorable view of the former President.
“He’s still strong enough that you’d be a fool not to placate him for his endorsement, but he ain’t strong enough to hold all these guys together,” said a second Republican strategist in Georgia.
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.