KENNESAW, Ga. — One by one they have come to Georgia, a parade of political figures who have crossed former President Trump, to support a candidate he hates: Gov. Brian Kemp.
And on Tuesday, Kemp and his merry band of Trump rejects, including former Vice President Mike Pence, are expected to notch a victory over Trump’s hand-picked challenger, former Senator David Perdue. It would be a show of strength for a wing of the party the former president has dismissed as irrelevant RINOs, or “Republicans in name only,” after they failed to be supportive enough of his attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
“There are those who want to make this election about the past,” Pence said at an upbeat rally for Kemp on Monday night. He named President Biden and likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, but the line could just have easily been about Trump, who has sought to make the 2022 primaries a loyalty test after his 2020 loss.
“When you say ‘yes’ to Governor Brian Kemp tomorrow,” Pence continued, “you will send a deafening message all across America that the Republican Party is the party of the future.”
Kemp, a first-term governor who brushed off Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election in this state was riddled with fraud, has become a rallying figure for other conservative Republicans who provoked Trump’s ire by refusing to support his efforts to invalidate the election, especially as he has widened his lead over Perdue to more than 30 points in some polls. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all campaigned here over the past 10 days, as Trump issued enraged statements.
But Pence’s presence here, to support a candidate against whom Trump harbors a personal vendetta, marks the first time the former vice president has squared off so directly against the president he served for four years since the two left office, turning what may well be the final hours of the primary into a proxy battle between two erstwhile allies who are now both openly musing about running in 2024. A Kemp victory would be a rallying cry for Pence and likeminded Republicans who may have feared crossing Trump meant certain political death.
“Republicans around the country are saying, you can stand up to Trump, you don’t have to go along with them, and you can still survive,” said Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.
Relations between Pence and Trump have been tense since the president urged his vice president to reject Electoral College votes after Biden’s win—a pressure campaign that ended in Trump supporters breaking into the Capitol on Jan. 6. Pence did not say much about the president on Monday night, but Trump told a conservative radio host he was “disappointed in Mike” in an interview that also featured Perdue.
Polls open Tuesday morning after almost three weeks of early voting earlier this month drew record participation. In addition to Kemp and Perdue’s race for governor, the former football star Herschel Walker is running to be the GOP nominee for Senate, while Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who rebuffed Trump’s request that he “find” him more votes in Georgia, is trying to hold off a Trump-backed challenge. For a candidate to avoid a runoff, they need to win more than 50 percent of the vote.
Perdue is a wealthy businessman who lost his Senate re-election campaign in early 2021, when Trump’s claims about voter fraud likely depressed turnout at the polls. Yet, after Trump convinced him to run for governor in an attempt to punish Kemp, he premised his campaign almost entirely on similar claims. He has struggled to draw crowds or raise much money.
In a possible sign of waning interest in the race—and a reluctance to spend too much more of his political capital—Trump participated only in a brief phone call billed as a “tele-rally” to boost Perdue on Monday night, rather than attending another in-person rally, as he did in March.
“Tomorrow is so critical,” he said after Perdue introduced him. “It’s something we have to win.”
Trump listed his grievances against Kemp, who he called a “RINO” who allowed the election to be “stolen” from him in Georgia, and reiterated his false and vague allegations of widespread election fraud.
“Kemp and Raffensperger personally paved the way for the disaster that our country is right now in,” Trump said, predicting Kemp would lose against Abrams, who is also on the ballot Tuesday, in the fall. “Stacey Abrams totally dominates Brian Kemp.”
For his part, Perdue spent the last hours of his campaign holding a combative press conference in which he suggested he might not concede the election, and later made racist comments about Abrams at a campaign event in Dunwoody.
Perdue accused Abrams of “demeaning her own race” as he tried to assail her for saying over the weekend that Georgia is not an easy place to live.
“She said that Georgia is the worst place in the country to live. Hey, she ain’t from here. Let her go back to where she came from. She doesn’t like it here,” he said, according to the New York Times.
Back in Kennesaw, where Kemp took the stage in a soaring airplane hangar, the governor’s stump speech served as an illustration of why Trump has had trouble painting him as a secret liberal to Republicans here.
He bragged about the voting law he passed last year, which Democrats describe as suppressive but that he has claimed makes it “easier to vote and harder to cheat.” And he spoke at length about his decision to reopen the state after the COVID lockdowns of 2020.
“I was listening to the barbers and cosmetologists and the waitresses and the restaurant owners that said, ‘We can’t go another day,’” Kemp said to cheers, before Pence praised him for banning “critical race theory” and supporting a bill that would ban abortion after six weeks.
Pence also flexed his conservative bona fides by offering up praise for the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v Wade in more unequivocal terms than many in his party, including Trump, who have been more cautious in endorsing a move that may alienate less religious conservatives.
“We pray that our five justices on the Supreme Court listed in that draft opinion will have the courage of their convictions, hold firm,” Pence said. “We pray that they will send Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history where it belongs.”
Voters in the crowd of a few hundred people were quick to defend Kemp against Trump’s broadsides, and praised Kemp on economic issues.
“I work for Cobb County schools, and he gave us a $2000 raise last month,” said Belinda Fickes, 49, who was also grateful to Kemp for temporarily suspending the gas tax as inflation has driven prices upward. She does not believe the election was stolen, nor that there was anything Kemp could have done to make the election turn out differently.
“I think Donald Trump is just a hothead,” she said.
Former Congressman Jack Kingston, who is backing Kemp, predicted his cleaved party will reunite no matter what happens on Tuesday.
“I think the governor and the president have had their disagreements,” he said, “but the opposition is a lot greater than our differences within the family.”
—Globe correspondent Pranav Baskar contributed to this report.