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A Georgia primary battle tests the power of Trump

David Perdue, who is seeking the Republican nomination in the Georgia governor's race, at a campaign stop in Covington on Feb. 2.John Bazemore/Associated Press

JESUP, Ga. — Former president Donald Trump materialized on the projector screen, a life-size apparition flanked by the enormous wooden fish and water skis adorning the empty seafood restaurant, and told the small group of voters gathered here what to do.

“Brian Kemp has to be defeated,” a steely Trump said, referring to the state’s Republican governor. “David Perdue must win for the good of the USA.”

Left unsaid was that Perdue, the former Republican senator who lost reelection last year, may also have to win for the good of Trump — to protect both his image and his political clout.

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The ex-president, still fuming over his failed bid to overturn the 2020 election, has waded into over 100 primaries nationwide in the 2022 midterms as he seeks to shore up his hold over the GOP ahead of his own expected presidential run in 2024.

Nowhere is he more eager to flush out disloyal Republicans than Georgia, where Kemp certified Trump’s narrow loss despite his baseless protests and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger rebuffed his requests to “find” more votes. But in this race, Trump’s chosen candidate is struggling to catch fire, leaving the power of his endorsement in question.

Kemp, who Trump routinely brands as a “RINO,” or Republican in name only, appears so far to be sailing above the former president’s contempt. Drawing on the expansive power of his incumbency, he leads Perdue in polling and fund-raising, and on a recent weekend when both men held campaign events on opposite ends of the state, Kemp greeted enthusiastic crowds and dismissed the avalanche of criticism he has faced as “noise.” Perdue, meanwhile, played his Trump endorsement video to a smaller group and faced pointed questions from voters about how effectively he is making his case.

Kemp’s supporters cited the governor’s handling of the pandemic, which includes resisting mask mandates, for their support. And even some deeply devoted Trump supporters — people who believe his false narrative about a stolen election — were reluctant to lay those imagined balloting problems of 2020 at Kemp’s feet.

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“Trump wanted Brian to overturn the election — I don’t think Kemp could do that,” said Kris Yardley, a financial adviser at a standing-room-only Kemp event in Cleveland, Ga., who described himself as a “huge Trump fan” and a longtime supporter of Kemp.

With three months to go before the May 24 primary, the race is shaping up not only to be a test of the power of Trump’s endorsement, but of voters’ patience for his efforts to exact revenge on his enemies. Also in question: just how motivating are his fictions about the 2020 election two years later.

“A jockey in the Kentucky Derby only gets one horse, and this is David Perdue’s horse,” said Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in the state. “If Kemp wins, it’s a chink in the armor. If Perdue wins, it’s confirmation that (Trump’s) endorsement is still strong as steel.”

Trump’s chosen candidates in some other key races are stuck in tight contests as well, including Senate hopefuls in North Carolina and Alabama. The stakes in Georgia are higher for the former president, after he spent months personally railing against Kemp and persuaded another Republican in the field to drop out to boost Perdue. If the governor survives, it proves there is life after angering Trump — and Republicans weighing 2024 bids will likely take notice.

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“The question is, can you recover from anything that is being seen as remotely disloyal?” said Liam Donovan, a Republican lobbyist and former aide to the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. “Any would-be challengers . . . they’re going to feel a lot more comfortable putting the pieces in place with the expectation that, even if Mr. Trump gets mad and fires off some nasty press releases, that’s not going to be a dealbreaker with the voters.”

Trump, angry over a TV segment that questioned the effectiveness of his backing of Perdue, released a statement earlier this month calling his endorsement the most “powerful” in US political history.

In some ways, the Georgia race feels more like a soap opera than a political campaign. There have been episodes of betrayal and revenge, allies-turned-enemies, and the burning, even obsessive, anger from a former president looking to settle the score.

Kemp, a longtime fixture of state government who beat Democrat Stacey Abrams in the 2018 governor’s race, drew Trump’s ire in late 2020 when he refused to fully indulge his conspiracy theories about the election, which Trump lost here by fewer than 12,000 votes. Abrams, the former House minority leader and a voting rights icon for many Democrats, is running again, and Trump is so disgusted with Kemp, he has suggested he would prefer her.

“Of course, having [Stacey Abrams] I think might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said at a rally in Georgia in September.

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Seeking someone to blast Kemp out of office, Trump turned to Perdue, the former CEO of Dollar General who was elected to the Senate in 2014. Perdue lost reelection to Democrat Jon Ossoff in the January 2021 runoffs after Trump made two trips to Georgia to complain about imagined voter fraud, and many Republican voters stayed home. (A second Republican senator, Kelly Loeffler, also lost her runoff to the Democrat Raphael Warnock. He is expected to face the Trump-endorsed Republican football star Herschel Walker in his reelection battle this fall. Walker’s candidacy has been undercut by allegations of domestic abuse.)

Although sowing voters’ distrust in the state’s election system arguably cost him his Senate seat, Perdue has made the false fraud claims central to his campaign for governor. Days after he entered the race, he filed a lawsuit aimed at inspecting absentee ballots from the 2020 election, and he has attempted to blame Trump’s loss on Kemp. He has said he would not have certified the 2020 election if he were governor.

“We fought alongside each other to get reelected, and right after the election, we’ve been fighting alongside ever since to find out what happened,” Perdue said here in Jesup, where he described the modest crowd of perhaps two dozen voters, as “encouraging” and warned voters that the governor’s race could determine control of the White House in 2024.

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“We cannot let Stacey Abrams win because if she’s governor, there’s no way any Republican’s going to win the president’s race,” he said.

Kemp has the support of 49 percent of GOP primary voters, compared with Perdue’s 40 percent, according to a poll released earlier this month by the Trafalgar Group, a conservative firm. But that doesn’t necessarily portend an easy win for Kemp, since the winning candidate would need 50 percent support in the primary election to avoid a runoff.

Trump has been more successful in shaping other races. His endorsement of Walker helped clear the field of serious contenders for that Senate contest, while most Republicans have left Raffensperger, another frequent Trump target, to fight for reelection without their support.

Asked why his Trump endorsement hadn’t further boosted his poll numbers, Perdue, who frequently plays the Trump endorsement video at campaign events, said in an interview that many voters may not know about it.

“Only about 50 percent know of the endorsement among Republican primary voters,” Perdue said, adding that he believes his campaign will get a major boost if and when Trump comes to the state to stump for him.

“I think we’re planning that — he’s planning that, too,” Perdue said.

Perdue, some strategists believe, can close the 9 percentage point gap with more TV advertising tying him to Trump — although Kemp has a significant cash advantage, with nearly $13 million on hand at the end of January to Perdue’s less than $1 million. Perdue has not yet reported putting any of his own considerable financial resources into the race.

And he has had to combat doubts from some voters spooked by his 2021 loss. In Jesup, one voter, Larry Brantley, 68, asked him about his “lack of battle” in trying to keep his Senate seat.

“What happened in 2020, I can put at the feet of Brian Kemp,” Perdue said.

Some Republicans say Perdue’s troubles say more about his shortcomings as a candidate than Trump losing his touch. Perdue, a millionaire who lives on exclusive Sea Island, can seem stiff in front of base voters who are not exactly his social peers. On Saturday, after his event in Jesup, he spent 12 minutes addressing just a handful of voters at an empty restaurant in Douglas before heading out to his next event.

“Trump is probably finding that it’s not like you can just wave a magic wand and your guy is in there,” said Jay Williams, a Republican strategist in the state. “You can’t have a candidate that can’t talk to people . . . at these events, he’s not getting the reception.”

The feeling was different at a series of campaign events Kemp held the day before Perdue in the northeastern part of the state. There, in small towns tucked into the mountains, Kemp drew standing-room only crowds — often made up of Trump supporters who had decided to stick with the governor.

“I’ve had a lot of people beating up on me for well over a year now, probably close to a year and a half,” Kemp said in an interview. “And I just don’t think people are paying attention to a lot of the noise outside of their everyday lives.”

As the sun set in Cleveland, Ga., Kemp hobnobbed with voters before his campaign speech, slapping county commissioners on the back before taking the microphone and casting himself as a staunch defender of the state and Republican principles.

In a sign of just how much Trump has shaped his party’s rhetoric, Kemp was quick to acknowledge Republican discontent about the 2020 election, but said he had tried to address it by passing an election law that added new restrictions to absentee voting.

“When I signed it, I immediately went on the offensive and then I stayed on the offensive even when big companies were trying to target us,” Kemp said, before speaking just as proudly of the “flak” he took for tangling with localities over mask mandates and for lifting lockdown measures earlier than even Trump wanted him to.

Some of the Republicans there said Trump ought to butt out of the race, even though they had voted for him twice.

“It pisses me off,” said Terry Goodger, 81, a Republican county commissioner who is supporting Kemp and blames the former president for “causing a division in the Republican Party by endorsing someone else.”

“I was real proud that Brian Kemp stood up for what was right,” said Lee Underwood, 74, a retired farm systems worker who said he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 but never would again.

In Douglas, Becky Metts, the local county GOP treasurer who was one of just a handful of voters who came out to see Perdue last Saturday said she was “probably” supporting Perdue because of Trump’s endorsement.

But even she had kind words for Kemp.

“He has done a good job,” she said, “especially with business.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.