Georgia Primaries Will Test Trump's Revenge Campaign Against GOP Incumbents

Former President Donald Trump will face his biggest test yet of the midterm primary season Tuesday, when two candidates he is backing in Georgia go up against Republican incumbents who rejected Trump's efforts to overturn the state's 2020 election results.

Trump has already played a central role in some of the early Republican nominating contests this year, turning races in Pennsylvania and other states into a referendum on his popularity in the Republican Party.

But the former president has arguably more at stake in Georgia than in any other state that has voted so far.

Trump went to great lengths in Georgia to try to overturn the 2020 election results, prompting prosecutors last year to launch a criminal investigation into his actions. Earlier this month, a special grand jury was selected to determine whether Trump should be charged with illegally interfering in Georgia's election in 2020.

The former president has also leveled some of his harshest personal attacks on the state's two Republican officials — Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — who blocked his attempt to claim a victory over President Joe Biden in the state.

"Georgia is very personal for Trump," said Jay Williams, a prominent Republican political consultant in the state.

On Tuesday, Trump will seek his revenge. Kemp and Raffensperger face primary challenges from David Perdue, a former U.S. senator from Georgia who lost his race in the same election cycle as Trump, and U.S. Representative Jody Hice. Both Perdue and Hice embraced Trump's election lies and received his endorsement.

The races are being closely watched to see if more far-right candidates across the country can follow in the footsteps of Doug Mastriano, who won Pennsylvania's Republican primary race for governor last week by running a campaign focused on pushing Trump's election falsehoods.

Perdue has used the same playbook as Mastriano, but polls suggest it won't be enough. Kemp pulled away from Perdue in the last few months, and entered the final stretch of the primary campaign with a commanding double-digit lead in recent polls.

"His whole message has been election fraud," Williams said of Perdue. "There's a segment of the population that cares about that. But I don't think you'll be able to beat an incumbent Republican governor on that message alone."

Trump on American Freedom Tour
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the American Freedom Tour at the Austin Convention Center on May 14, 2022 in Austin, Texas. The national event gathered conservatives from around the country to defend, empower and help promote conservative agendas nationwide. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Kemp, in contrast, has focused on the steps he took to keep the state's economy open during the pandemic, while largely ignoring the role he played in refusing to cooperate with Trump to overturn Georgia's 2020 election results.

"Kemp has just been kind of keeping his head down, not talking about Trump, and talking about his successes. And it's worked," Williams said.

The winner of the gubernatorial primary contest will move on to a general election matchup with Stacey Abrams, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary for governor. Abrams, a former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018.

Trump's pick in the Republican primary for secretary of state may also be headed for a loss. A recent survey found Raffensperger ahead of Hice by 11 percentage points, with 40 percent of voters still undecided. The top two finishers in the contest would advance to a runoff election if no candidate receives a majority of the vote.

State Representative Bee Nguyen has a slight lead in the crowded Democratic primary field for the state's top elections post. There is more interest than usual in the typically obscure position because of concerns about future election meddling should Trump's pick win in November, said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic political consultant.

"Voters are paying very close attention to both primaries for secretary of state, because they want a leader who will not break the law," said Johnson, who served as a senior adviser to the Biden campaign in Georgia.

Primary victories by the Republican incumbents would deal an embarrassing blow to Trump, who has repeatedly lashed out at Kemp and Raffensperger for their roles in certifying Biden's win in Georgia in 2020.

Kemp refused Trump's request that he call a special legislative session and appoint a new slate of electors that would declare him the winner. Kemp said at the time that Trump's only option to contest the election results was in the courts. The Trump campaign and its allies lost dozens of lawsuits contesting his loss, in Georgia and in other battleground states.

David Perdue
A cardboard cutout of former U.S. President Donald Trump is seen at a campaign event for former U.S. senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate David Perdue on February 1, 2022 in Dalton, Georgia. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Raffensperger drew national attention in early January, 2021, by rejecting a plea from Trump to intervene in the election. Trump asked Raffensperger during a phone call in the days before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to "find" enough votes in Georgia to hand him a win. Biden won the state by 11,779 votes.

Since leaving office Trump has continued criticizing Raffensperger and Kemp. Trump slammed them at a rally in March for the candidates he's supporting in Georgia, calling them "losers" and "RINO sellouts," using the shorthand insult for Republican-in-name-only.

Trump drew criticism for taking a similar approach ahead of the special elections for two Senate seats in Georgia in January, 2021. Democrats won both races, handing the party control of the Senate.

The strategy may have backfired for Senate Republicans, but polls show Trump has succeeded in convincing most Republican voters the 2020 election was fraudulent.

A Gallup poll taken right after Biden was declared the winner found 83 percent of Republicans didn't trust the result. The skepticism among Republicans hasn't changed much since then. In a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll taken in December, 71 percent of Republicans said they did not think Biden's victory was legitimate. Overall, just 58 percent of Americans said they believed Biden's victory was legitimate, while 33 percent said it was illegitimate, according to the survey.

"Through all those court cases and everything else, we never saw any real evidence" of voter fraud, said Benjamin Hovland, a member of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent, nonpartisan government agency.

Brad Raffensperger
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger holds a press conference on the status of ballot counting on November 6, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Nevertheless, Hovland said, Trump's "disinformation campaign" has ensured "reason and facts and logic are not necessarily winning the day with a lot of Americans."

In Georgia, the primaries Tuesday will offer a preview of primaries across the country in coming months featuring Trump-backed candidates who have promoted lies about the 2020 election. They include Adam Laxalt, who is running for Senate in Nevada and has called the 2020 election "rigged," and Kelly Tshibaka, who is running against Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Trump has also endorsed Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt's bid for governor. After the 2020 election Schmidt joined a lawsuit by other conservative attorneys general to overturn the election results. Kari Lake, who has pushed conspiracy theories about the 2020 race, received Trump's endorsement in the Republican primary race for governor of Arizona.

House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection are also in his crosshairs in upcoming primaries. The former president has endorsed a number of their challengers, including Harriet Hageman, who is running against U.S. Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, one of Trump's most outspoken critics in the Republican Party.