WASHINGTON – Former Sen. David Perdue said Monday he is challenging incumbent Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, after urging from former President Donald Trump, setting up one of 2022's most divisive Republican intraparty battles.
Trump encouraged Perdue to run against Kemp, who earned the former president's wrath by refusing to help him overturn President Joe Biden's victory in Georgia in the last presidential election.
Perdue, who in January lost a U.S. Senate run-off election to Democrat Jon Ossoff, blamed Kemp for his defeat, saying the GOP governor has "failed all of us and cannot win in November.” Perdue said he is the only Republican in Georgia who can defeat the likely Democratic nominee, voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018.
"Think about how different it would be today if Kemp had fought Abrams first instead of fighting Trump,” Perdue said in a video announcement. “Kemp caved before the election and the country is paying the price today. It's time for a change.”
I’m running for Governor to make sure Stacey Abrams is NEVER Governor of Georgia. We need bold conservatives who will stand up to the woke left, not cave to their radical demands. Join me in this fight to Stop Stacey and Save Georgia. pic.twitter.com/iQMMV97ynw
— David Perdue (@Perduesenate) December 6, 2021
Kemp has repeatedly noted that Perdue at one time backed his reelection bid and said he would not enter the Georgia primary.
"All I know is what Sen. Perdue has told me," Kemp told reporters last week. "I hope he'll be a man of his word, but again that's not anything I can control."
In endorsing Perdue via a written statement, Trump also blamed Kemp for Republican reversals. Trump said he can't imagine that the incumbent governor "can do well at the ballot box (unless the election is rigged, of course)."
The Georgia Republican primary is scheduled for May 24.
Abrams enjoying 'big bag of popcorn'
Perdue’s entry once again thrusts Georgia into the spotlight of national politics, and reignites a civil war among Georgia Republicans over Trump’s continued gripes and false assertions about losing the 2020 election.
State GOP leaders and conservative activists had hoped to mend those fences in anticipation of Abrams running for governor again in 2022.
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said an ugly GOP primary is good news for Abrams, given how close the Peach State has become electorally.
“I think she’ll get a big bag of popcorn, a king-sized Coke, and sit down and watch what happens on the other side,” Bullock said.
— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) December 4, 2021
Georgia now more competitive
Since last year, political observers have repeatedly called attention to the increased diversification of the South’s population, which has made statewide races in Georgia more competitive.
The Abrams campaign noted to NBC News this weekend how roughly 1.3 million Georgians have registered to vote since she lost in 2018. It said its modeling shows 47% of those new voters are people of color and 43% are younger than 30.
"Georgia is growing and its is changing," the Abrams campaign said in a Dec. 6 tweet. "New voters, especially young people and people of color, have catalyzed the political transformation of our state."
Georgia is growing and it is changing. New voters, especially young people and people of color, have catalyzed the political transformation of our state, and the numbers speak for themselves:
2021 (+1.2 and +2.0%) https://t.co/FKpaF5MgiA
— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) December 6, 2021
Georgia has seen a swing of about 300,000 votes away from Republicans in the past four years when compared to Trump's win of about 211,000 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Abrams lost to Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial contest by about 55,000 votes. Two years later, Biden beat Trump in the Peach State by roughly 11,779 votes.
A few months later, Democrats won the two Senate run-off elections, where Ossoff won over Perdue by just over 55,000 votes and the Rev. Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Kelly Loeffler by approximately 93,000 votes
"Stacey Abrams has an ability to motivate her supporters to go to the polls with the right strategy," Bullock said. "Going back to when she starts talking in 2014 or so about new voters, she is going to mobilize people who haven't voted in the past."
Erick Erickson, a conservative political commentator, who hails from Georgia, said on his website Monday that Perdue joining the race "gives Abrams clear sailing" and stalls any of Kemp's momentum.
"Perdue getting in before the Georgia General Assembly meets in January means the Georgia GOP will tribally divide thereby delivering an impotent legislative session that deprives the GOP of any significant pre-election accomplishments," Erickson said. "The Perdue supporters in the legislature won’t want to give Kemp anything to run on."
— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) December 4, 2021
Abrams' allies see the primary battle on the Republican side as an opportunity to offer voters a united front and message in the coming months.
"While David Perdue and Brian Kemp fight each other, Stacey Abrams will be fighting for the people of Georgia," said Lauren Groh-Wargo, CEO of Fair Fight Action, a national voting rights organization.
Trump's role could 'upend the race'
Trump’s political operation has been relentless in its pursuit of Kemp and other incumbent Republicans who haven't followed the former president's marching orders or talking points.
In August, Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio released a survey of 500 likely GOP primary voters in Georgia that found an endorsement from the former president "would completely upend the race" in Perdue's favor.
The poll showed Perdue more than doubling his share of the GOP electorate from 16% to 41% with Trump's backing, "while Kemp sees a huge chunk of his voters slip away" going from 41% to 26%, according to the poll, which was paid for by Trump’s Save America PAC.
But speaking to CNN on Monday, Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said Kemp is arguably the state's "most conservative governor in history" and that the former president should butt out.
"We don't need the traveling circus of Donald Trump to stay here in Georgia," Duncan said. "We need it to stay down in Mar-a-Lago, working on his handicap playing golf and let us be conservatives here in Georgia and move forward"
Yet Trump is expected to campaign for Perdue, having long encouraged the former senator to take on his nemesis Kemp.
During a September political rally, the former president told a crowd of his backers: "Are you going to run for governor David Perdue? ... He's a great guy and he loves this state."
In his announcement video, Perdue did not say what Kemp should have done with respect to the presidential election. But he did take jabs at the governor and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who also faces a GOP primary challenge from a Trump-backed challenger.
Kemp and Raffensperger, who is also facing a primary challenge from a pro-Trump candidate, said they lacked the legal authority to answer Trump's demands that they "find" votes to overcome Biden's margin in Georgia.
Kemp spokesman Cody Hall said Perdue lost his Senate seat on his own, and would also lose to Abrams. He cited questionable financial transactions and Perdue's decision to avoid a debate with Ossoff during the run-off elections.
"Governor Kemp has a proven track record of fighting the radical left to put hardworking Georgians first, while Perdue is best known for ducking debates, padding his stock portfolio during a pandemic, and losing winnable races," Hall said.
Republicans in Trump's sights
Perdue's decision to run follows through on Trump's vow to defeat Republicans who opposed his efforts to overturn the election.
That includes 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump has endorsed Wyoming Republican Harriet Hageman in a primary against Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the most prominent House Republican to support the impeachment of Trump. House Republicans voted earlier this year to remove Cheney from her House leadership position.
In terms of statewide races, Trump has endorsed Kelly Tshibaka, a U.S. Senate candidate in Alaska. She is challenging incumbent Lisa Murkowski, one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump of impeachment charges that followed the Jan. 6 riot.
Georgia could see two Kemp-Perdue battles next year. If neither candidates wins 50% of the vote in a crowded May primary, there will be a run-off in June.
Another Republican candidate for governor, Vernon Jones, noted that Perdue has supported Kemp until very recently, and he questioned whether either would be able to defeat Abrams.
Jones described the two Republican antagonists as "peas in a pod."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: David Perdue challenges Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia governor's race