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Kemp cruises to victory in Georgia, dealing blow to Trump but not his voter fraud lies

Republican gubernatorial candidate Governor Brian Kemp waves during his primary night election party at the Chick-fil-A College Football Hall of Fame on May 24, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia.Joe Raedle/Getty

CALHOUN, Ga. — Wes Greer is a self-described Donald Trump supporter who believes that mail-in ballots cost the former president the 2020 election, and should be banned.

But when the Republican educator briefly left his school to vote in the primary election here on Tuesday, he did not cast a ballot for former senator David Perdue, who turned Trump’s gripes about a stolen election into the raison d’être for his flailing candidacy.

He backed Governor Brian Kemp, the Republican incumbent who refused to indulge Trump’s desire to overturn the election, instead.

“Kemp has done what he’s supposed to do for our state,” Greer said, hours before results showed Kemp cruising to victory. The 2020 “election was what it was.”

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Kemp’s easy win over Perdue on Tuesday may seem to suggest that the former president and his baseless insistence that fraud and irregularities cost him the election have lost their iron grip on the Republican Party. Trump poured his political capital into defeating Kemp and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as revenge for 2020, only to see both men pull ahead of his hand-picked replacements.

But polling in the state and conversations with more than 15 Republican voters in rural and suburban areas on a muggy Election Day painted a more nuanced picture.Kemp had not beaten back the 2020 doubts of voters like Greer; he simply found a different way to champion them than Trump.

From this deep red district represented by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, to the more moderate Atlanta suburbs, many Republican voters expressed ongoing distrust of the nation’s election system whether or not they were backing Kemp. And the incumbent governor’s subtle appeals to that worldview, one deeply shaped by Trump, made it harder for the former president to paint him as a secret liberal who enabled that supposed fraud.

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Even though he stood up to Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election, Kemp found other ways to assuage the GOP base’s unfounded doubts about the issue. He signed a voting bill that added new hurdles to absentee voting and handed some election oversight power over to the Republican-controlled Legislature. He spoke of “election integrity” everywhere he went, while Raffensperger leaned into the issue as well.

“We passed the strongest election integrity act in the country,” Kemp said at a rally Monday night, and bragged about the ensuing firestorm from voting rights advocates and others. “Woke corporate CEOs, many that didn’t even live here, complained about the bill.”

It all helped Kemp fend off Trump’s relentless personal attacks while showing voters he was willing to address the issue — fictitious as it was — on which they were based.

“There should be an overhaul, nothing should be done behind closed doors,” said Lori Nichols, 38, a graphic designer in the Atlanta suburb of Canton, who said her doubts in the 2020 election grew stronger after she watched videos online in the months after it took place. She expects Kemp, whom she voted for Tuesday, to tighten the system.

“He should do whatever he can going forward,” Nichols said.

The myth of a stolen election in 2020 has become a foundational belief for many Republicans, both here and around the country. In a January poll taken by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, nearly 75 percent of Republicans in Georgia said they believed the elections were riddled with fraud.

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Trump has sought to make the 2022 primaries a loyalty test for those who he viewed as failing to help him stay in power. And so far, he’s put most of his political capital and resources for that fight into Georgia, where Kemp and Raffensperger resisted his pressure campaign to overturn President Biden’s win. With counting still underway, Raffensperger appeared likely to survive his challenge from Trump-endorsed challenger Representative Jody Hice, a dual blow to Trump’s ambitions in the state.

The election is likely to be studied closely by Republicans in other states for clues about how to corral Trump’s base, whether or not they have the support of the man himself, and the best way to talk about his election claims. Over the course of the campaign, Trump has seized on new conspiracy theories whenever they arise, including an outlandish new film full of vague allegations, which he urged Perdue’s supporters to watch in a tele-rally for the former senator on Monday night.

“Just go see ‘2,000 Mules’ and there’s plenty others, plenty other things beyond that,” Trump said.

But Kemp seemed to understand something Trump did not: The belief in a stolen election, while now party orthodoxy, is not voters’ only issue. And he cannily addressed it without alienating Republicans who disagree with the lie.

“I love Brian Kemp,” said Phoebe Mitchell, 46, a teacher, who attended Kemp’s Monday rally and admires him for “taking all the shouting [from Trump] and saying silently, classily, ‘Screw you.’ ”

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Mitchell, who said she has come to “hate” the former president she voted for, was backing both Kemp and Raffensperger in order to send a simple message. “I am so done with Trump,” she said.

On stage at his rally Monday, Kemp was touting his economic record, his opposition to COVID lockdowns and mask mandates, and his voting bill — the latter in particular leaving voters on Tuesday feeling he had taken their concerns seriously.

“I do not like how the last election was handled. . . . Kemp acted on some obvious flaws, he acted on correcting it,” said Bruce Stansell, another voter who backed Kemp in Calhoun on Tuesday. Stansell suggested he was expecting more from Kemp on election rules in the future.

“Maybe it didn’t go far enough,” Stansell said.

There were some signs that voters are tiring more broadly of Trump’s claims. Many voters interviewed believed Kemp had tried to protect their votes, while Trump, they thought, had acted selfishly by using his claims of fraud — and his vendetta against Kemp — to cleave the state’s Republican Party.

“He’s a sore loser,” said Tommy Jones, a retired restaurant owner who works at Home Depot and backed Kemp on Tuesday. “He just didn’t like it because he couldn’t fix the election.”

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But one of the highest-profile Georgia figures at Kemp and Pence’s Monday night rally, however, was not ready to bat down the myths about election fraud. Instead, Jack Kingston, a former congressman from Savannah, instead insisted there was proof of wrongdoing.

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“We had information on the ground,” Kingston said, without explaining what that information was. “The reality on the ground got blurred by TV lawyers.”

The presence of Kingston, a former Trump surrogate in Georgia, was a testament to another balancing act Kemp deftly pulled off: never taking the former president’s bait by condemning him in a way that might turn off his supporters. While Trump continuously assailed Kemp as a “weak” RINO (Republican in name only), Kemp was always restrained in his response.

“I did vote for Trump. I just voted for Kemp,” said Joe Patterson, 59, a Republican who lives in the increasingly blue suburb of Cobb County. “He stands up for what he believes in.”

Back in Calhoun, Debbie Barlow said she thought Kemp had done what he thought was right.

“We’re Trump supporters, but sometimes you’ve just got to be quiet,” she said. “Kemp was trying to take care of us.”


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