National

Kemp wins in Georgia, defeating Trump-backed challenger

Former Governor Chris Christie said voters had rejected “the DJT Vendetta Tour.”

Voters cast their ballots at a polling place in Lost Mountain, Ga., on primary Election Day, Tuesday, May 24, 2022. Alabama, Arkansas and Texas are also holding primaries and runoff elections that will offer new hints of where voters stand on national issues and Donald Trump’s standing in the Republican Party. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)


ATLANTA — In a landslide victory that represented a resounding rebuke of Donald Trump, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia won the Republican nomination for a second term Tuesday, turning back a Trump-fueled primary challenge and delivering the former president his biggest electoral setback of the 2022 primaries.

Trump had made defeating Kemp a top priority, seeking retribution for the governor’s decision to certify the 2020 election in Georgia and not acquiesce to the former president’s subversion demands. Trump personally recruited former Sen. David Perdue to run for governor, worked to clear the field for him, recorded television ads, held a rally and even transferred $2.64 million from his political accounts to help him.

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Kemp won anyway — leading by roughly 50 percentage points with nearly three-quarters of the vote counted, far more than enough to avoid a runoff.

Perdue had anchored his candidacy on promoting falsehoods about fraud about the last election, blaming Kemp both for Trump’s defeat and for his own loss in a 2021 runoff that gave Democrats control of the Senate.

The outcome Tuesday exposed the limits of Trump’s hold on his party’s base, marking the third consecutive week a candidate he had backed for governor had lost. It also was a sign of the waning potency of Trump’s obsession with relitigating his 2020 loss two years later, as his pick to unseat the secretary of state was also trailing.

Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and a one-time Trump adviser, who had campaigned with Kemp, celebrated on Twitter, declaring that voters had rejected “the DJT Vendetta Tour.”

The victory for Kemp, 58, sets up a rematch of his 2018 battle with Stacey Abrams, 48, who won the Democratic nomination unopposed Tuesday, in what will be one of the most closely watched governor’s races in the nation this fall. His most urgent imperative is reuniting a Republican Party fractured by the divisive primary.

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Standing on the artificial turf of a football field inside the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame in downtown Atlanta, Kemp refused to rhetorically spike the football. He thanked his opponent “for the spirited debate” and said Perdue had endorsed him in a phone call.

In a moment that underscored the bitterness of the race, Perdue said in a short concession speech that “everything I said about Brian Kemp was true” while still urging his backers to rally against Abrams, calling Kemp a “much better choice.”

While Georgia received top billing Tuesday, several other states held primaries, including Texas, where a mass shooting at an elementary school left 19 children dead and a nation in mourning. Kemp had delayed his victory speech until after President Joe Biden addressed the tragedy from the White House.

In Georgia’s U.S. Senate race, Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia football star who was also recruited by Trump, won the Republican nomination and will face Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, in November. The matchup in the fall, the outcome of which could tip control of the Senate, is a rare general election contest in the South pitting two Black candidates against one another.

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While Walker glided through the primary, his tumultuous past — including accusations of domestic abuse and his exaggerated and false claims about his business success — is expected to receive a more thorough airing in the general election.

Both parties expect Walker to be the subject of coming commercials questioning his competence and credentials. His Democratic opponent, Warnock, 52, one of the best fundraisers in the nation, has been on the television airwaves for months already, focusing largely on positive messages.

With nearly 200 endorsements so far, Trump has set up the 2022 primary season as a rolling referendum on his influence in the party. He has scored notable big successes, such as J.D. Vance in Ohio, and suffered defeats in Nebraska and Idaho. But no state so far has been as much a focus for Trump as Georgia, where he not only set out to oust the governor but also Kemp’s allies across other statewide offices.

Trump’s pick for attorney general lost in a landslide and his choice for insurance commissioner was far behind, as well. His choice for the open lieutenant governor’s office was ahead but possibly headed to a runoff.

In the secretary of state race, Brad Raffensperger, the Republican incumbent whom Trump pressured to “find” the sufficient votes to overturn the election in early 2021, was significantly ahead of a Trump-backed challenger, Rep. Jody Hice, hovering right around the 50% threshold needed to avert a runoff.

The secretary of state serves as Georgia’s top elections official, and the winner in the fall will have great sway over how the 2024 presidential campaign will be conducted in a key battleground state.

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Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, the right-wing firebrand, handily cast aside a more moderate challenger, carrying more than two-thirds of the vote.

In Texas, the last scion of the Bush political dynasty, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, was defeated in the state attorney general’s race, losing to the scandal-plagued incumbent, Ken Paxton. And in a Democratic contest along the border, Rep. Henry Cuellar, one of the most moderate Democrats in the House, was deadlocked against a progressive challenge from Jessica Cisneros that has drawn national attention.

In Alabama, three Republican candidates were vying to make the runoff to succeed retiring Sen. Richard Shelby: Rep. Mo Brooks; Mike Durant, the helicopter pilot portrayed in “Black Hawk Down”; and Katie Britt, a former chief of staff to Shelby. Trump had initially endorsed Brooks early in 2021. But as Brooks sagged in the polls, he rescinded that endorsement.

Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama was seeking to avoid a runoff against two right-wing challengers.

And in Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House press secretary and the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, easily won the Republican primary for governor and Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas avoided a runoff against Jake Bequette, a former football star, in a race that has seen more than $7 million in television ads.

In Georgia, Kemp had methodically locked up the support of the state’s biggest political players and donors in anticipation of a Trump-fueled primary challenge. He signed into law numerous conservative priorities, including a restrictive new voting law in 2021 and a gas-tax holiday that extends just past the primary. He also expanded gun rights, raised teacher pay and dispatched tax rebate checks that went out in recent weeks.

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All those maneuvers and more left Perdue isolated, with little to lean on beyond the support of Trump, who has seethed for 18 months about Kemp’s refusal to attempt to overturn the 2020 election results in his state.

“His endorsement is still important, but it comes with an asterisk,” said Stephen Lawson, a Georgia-based Republican strategist, adding that the Perdue campaign’s failure was “proof positive your message has to be more than that.”

Even before the election was over, Perdue’s own allies began openly criticizing the Perdue effort as lackluster. And many national Republicans rallied behind Kemp, as the Republican Governors Association took the unusual step of intervening to spend more than $5 million on ads in the primary. Ambitious potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates campaigned for him, including former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and, on the eve of the election, former Vice President Mike Pence.

Despite Trump’s ire and public attacks, Kemp never fired back at the former president. “I’ve never said anything bad about him,” Kemp said Monday. “I don’t plan on doing that. I’m not mad at him. I think he’s just mad at me.”

Now Kemp must hope that discipline pays off and that Trump — who mused at a rally in Georgia last fall that Abrams “might be better than having your existing governor” — does not actively work to torpedo him in November.

Walker tried to stay neutral in the governor’s primary, declining to endorse or even say who he was voting for. The 60-year-old political newcomer avoided any debates during the primary and mostly ignored his rivals in a field that included Georgia’s agriculture secretary, Gary Black.

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Black had warned repeatedly that the untested Walker would prove unelectable — “he’ll never win,” Black said in a recent interview — and that Republicans would come to regret his anointment.

One of the ways Trump attempted to ease the path for Perdue was to push another ally, Vernon Jones, out of the governor’s race and into an open congressional contest.

Georgia Republicans redrew district lines ahead of 2022, cramming two House Democrats into the same suburban Atlanta district and diluting the Democratic strength of another seat in the state’s southwestern corner held by Rep. Sanford Bishop. Bishop, a Democrat, faces his first serious challenge in years this fall.

As a result, Republicans could grow their share of the congressional delegation. from 8-6 to 10-4.

In the primary that placed two Democratic incumbents against each other, Rep. Lucy McBath beat Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux on Tuesday.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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