On its face, Tuesday’s primary election for the Republican party’s gubernatorial nominee in the U.S. state of Georgia was nothing remarkable. Brian Kemp, the sitting governor, faced off against former U.S. Senator David Perdue and comfortably won his party’s nod to pursue another term in office by 73% to 22%.
Normally, two veteran politicians slugging it out over the chance to win a state’s highest office wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. But some wonder whether the Georgia race presages a larger fight in the GOP that will play out in both the 2022 midterms and the 2024 general elections.
That’s because the two highest-profile supporters of Kemp and Perdue were, respectively, former Vice President Mike Pence and former President Donald Trump.
Trump’s influence varies
A clear takeaway from Tuesday night is that the Trump endorsement doesn’t carry the weight it used to and that the former president’s inner circle appeared to believe it did just days ago.
As Pence prepared to campaign for Kemp in Georgia on Monday, a spokesman for Trump said in a statement, “Mike Pence was set to lose a governor’s race in 2016 before he was plucked up and his political career was salvaged. Now, desperate to chase his lost relevance, Pence is parachuting into races, hoping someone is paying attention. The reality is, President Trump is already 82-3 with his endorsements, and there’s nothing stopping him from saving America in 2022 and beyond.”
That, however, was not how things played out Tuesday. And according to Charlie Cook, founder of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, Perdue’s weakness in Georgia highlights the limits of Trump’s power over individual races.
“In a Republican primary, when the voters don’t know much about either candidate, the Trump endorsement is enormous,” Cook told VOA.
But in a high visibility race like Georgia’s, where a sitting governor ran against a challenger who had served as one of the state’s U.S. senators, Trump’s influence is clearly less potent, Cook said.
“If it’s a blank slate, his endorsement means a lot in a Republican primary,” he said. “But if they already knew a lot about both people, it doesn’t mean nearly as much.”
Deeper conflict in GOP
There are multiple reasons Pence and Trump, who spent four years together in the White House, find themselves on different sides of the Georgia gubernatorial race.
One is that Pence is clearly testing the waters for a run, possibly against Trump, in the GOP presidential primary in 2024.
But the most significant factor is the ongoing battle within the Republican Party for control of the narrative surrounding the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, when Trump supporters — some threatening to “hang” Pence — disrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.
“This is a proxy conflict between the former president and the former vice president,” William A. Galston, a senior fellow in Brookings’ Governance Studies program, told VOA as ballots were being cast on Tuesday.
“And it is a conflict not just over the candidates that they’ve backed but also about the two very different stories about the end of the Trump administration, and January 6, that each of them represents.”
Galston said that he had begun to notice “a steady undertone” of resistance to the former president’s fixation on his 2020 loss, even among Republicans who supported Trump during his presidency.
“They don’t think it’s helpful to the party or the country to continue this endless retrospective on the 2020 presidential election, and Mr. Trump keeps it up,” Galston said. “He may well be opening the door for candidates who strike Republicans — including staunch Republicans, including Trump Republicans — as more forward-looking.”
A likely Trump challenger
That Pence would challenge his former running mate was not always clear.
Trump, both on the day of the Capitol riot and after, criticized Pence for his refusal to reject the electoral votes submitted by a number of states after it had become clear that Joe Biden had won the 2020 presidential election. Trump and a number of his advisers had come up with a plan to throw the election to the House of Representatives, where Republican lawmakers could have voted to declare Trump the president.
The plan was illegal, and Pence refused to go along with it, inciting the fury of both Trump and the crowd that stormed the Capitol.
In the year that followed the January 6 assault, Pence slowly and cautiously distanced himself from his former running mate.
Pence steps away
After more than a year of remaining mostly quiet, Pence delivered a speech to the conservative Federalist Society in February in which he publicly broke from the former president, saying that Trump’s claims about Pence’s ability to reject electoral votes were incorrect.
“President Trump is wrong,” Pence said. “I had no right to overturn the election.”
He added, “The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone. And frankly there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”
That same day, Trump issued a statement repeating his false claim that the 2020 election results had been marred by fraud. “I was right and everyone knows it,” he said. “If there is fraud or large-scale irregularities, it would have been appropriate to send those votes back to the legislatures to figure it out.”
Trump targets Kemp
The Georgia gubernatorial primary became a flashpoint between Pence and Trump because Kemp had been one of the Republican elected officials who had refused to go along with the former president’s effort to overturn the election.
Georgia, which Trump lost in 2020 by just under 12,000 votes, was one of the states where Trump and his advisers had hoped to reverse the election results. Kemp, however, publicly refused their request that he decertify the election results and appoint electors who would vote for Trump.
Trump has been highly critical of Kemp ever since, and when Perdue announced his campaign in December 2021, Trump endorsed him immediately.
Perdue’s loss on Tuesday suggests that the former president’s consistent focus on the results of the 2020 election may not continue to pay political dividends.