KENNESAW, Ga. – The two prominent Georgia Republicans battling in a gubernatorial primary staged election eve events featuring another pair of feuding GOP celebrities: Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
"I was for Brian Kemp before it was cool," Pence told cheering supporters who gathered an an airplane hangar in an Atlanta suburb to support the Georgia governor who faces a primary challenge on Tuesday.
Pence did not mention that Trump has attacked Kemp to the point that he hand-picked a primary challenger, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue.
Trump, angry at Kemp for his refusal to help him overturn his 2020 loss of Georgia to President Joe Biden, countered Pence by phoning into a tele-town hall for his candidate, Perdue.
Arguing that Perdue is the more electable candidate in the fall, Trump raised the specter of low Republican turnout if Kemp wins the GOP nomination. "He's got too many people in the Republican Party that will refuse to vote," Trump said of the incumbent Republican governor.
Hundreds of supporters in a hangar at the Cobb County airport – many chanting "four more years!" – also expressed concern that Trump-fueled divisions within the Republican Party could doom its candidates in the fall.
For his part, Kemp spoke more about his own record while mentioning Trump in passing to praise his presidential administration.
Neither Kemp nor Pence mentioned Perdue's name at all. They focused their criticism on likely Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, whose leadership of a voter registration and turnout operation has made the Democrats newly competitive in statewide races.
"I'm here because Brian Kemp is the only candidate in tomorrow's primary who has already defeated Stacey Abrams whether she knows it or not," said Pence.
Kemp has huge leads in pre-primary polls, but Perdue and Trump expressed the hope that he could hold the governor to under 50% and force a runoff next month.
A defiant Perdue told reporters Monday that polls showing him far behind Kemp are "full of crap," and predicted he would do well if most of the state's Republicans show up to vote. Perdue said the fact that Kemp is "struggling" to get to 50% shows how he has divided the GOP in Georgia.
Pence appeared for Kemp shortly after serving notice – via a New York Times interview – that he may seek the White House himself in 2024, regardless of whether Trump runs again.
Pence's endorsement of Kemp – and his potential ambitions for 2024 – drew a sharp rebuke from Team Trump, which issued a statement faulting the former vice president for a lack of political gratitude to his patron.
“Mike Pence was set to lose a Governor’s race in 2016 before he was plucked up and his political career was salvaged," said Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Trump. "Now, desperate to chase his lost relevance, Pence is parachuting in to races, hoping someone is paying attention."
Georgia Republicans who gathered for Kemp and Pence at the Cobb County airport said they are concerned that the Trump-inspired factionalism could linger into the fall election against Abrams.
Donny Boswell, 69, a retired salesman, said he is hopeful that Kemp will prevail in the long run despite worries from many Republicans that the primary divisions will undercut Kemp in November's general election.
"There are a lot of whispers that it will," Boswell said. "But I don't think so."
Boswell expressed frustration with Trump – "I'm concerned about what Trump is doing to a sitting governor" – but added that he believes Trump will end up endorsing Kemp, especially if he is interested in running for president again in 2024.
"If he runs in 2024, he's going to need Georgia," Boswell said. "He's going to need Kemp."
Many Republicans believe Trump's protests of the 2020 election in Georgia led to low turnout and a major Republican setback in early 2021. The state's two Republican senators – Perdue and Kelly Loeffler – lost runoff races, handing control of the entire U.S. Senate to the Democrats.
Elva Dornbusch, 78, a retired Cobb County government employee who lives in Kennesaw, said she doesn't think Trump will ever endorse Kemp, even if in a race against Abrams.
"I think Trump holds grudges, I'm sorry to say," she said.
Even so, Dornbsuch said she believes Kemp and pro-Trump Republicans will surmount their divisions because party members "learned their lesson" with the Senate runoff losses.
Continuing Republican divisions certainly won't help Kemp or any other GOP candidate in the fall, others said.
"I hate it," said Julie Jacobs, 43, an attorney from Mableton, Ga. "It's dividing the party, and it's unnecessary."
JoAnn K. Birrell, a Cobb County Commissioner, said she doesn't think Trump will back Kemp, but he is not the key in Georgia anyway. She said it is up to Perdue to bring the party together, if he indeed loses the primary.
"The party is definitely divided and that needs to change," she said. "Especially in November."
Biden's victory over Trump transformed Georgia politics, and made a big crack in the Republicans' hold on the South, an essential region if the party is to regain the presidency.
The subsequent Senate victories by Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff gave Democrats control of the chamber, and underscored the new parity between Democrats and Republicans in the once-red state of Georgia, said Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta.
"The new norm is going to be closely contested races" between the parties, Gillespie said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In Georgia, the Kemp-Perdue primary is also a Trump-Pence battle