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Perdue Had Trump. In Georgia, Kemp Had Every little thing Else.


In September 2021, former Senator David Perdue was hemming and hawing about running for governor of Georgia. Over dinner with an old friend on Sea Island, he pulled out his iPhone and showed the list of calls he’d gotten from Donald J. Trump, lobbying him to make the leap.

“He said Trump called him on a regular basis,” said Martha Zoller, a former aide to Mr. Perdue who now hosts a chat radio show in Gainesville, Ga. “He showed me on his phone these multiple recent calls and said they were from the president.”

Ms. Zoller and a legion of other former Perdue aides and advisers told the previous senator that running was a foul idea. He listened to Mr. Trump as an alternative.

Now, Mr. Perdue is staring down an epic defeat by the hands of Gov. Brian Kemp, the Republican whom Mr. Trump has blamed for his 2020 loss greater than another person. The Perdue campaign is ending the race low on money, with no ads on television and a candidate described even by his supporters as lackluster and distracted.

“Perdue thought that Trump was a magic wand,” said Newt Gingrich, the previous House speaker and a Trump ally, who was amongst Mr. Perdue’s highest-profile Georgia supporters. “On reflection, it’s hard to grasp David’s campaign, and it’s definitely not the campaign those of us who were for him expected.”

Mr. Perdue’s impending downfall in Tuesday’s primary for governor looms as the largest electoral setback for Mr. Trump since his own defeat within the 2020 election. There is probably no contest during which the previous president has done more to attempt to influence the consequence. Mr. Trump recruited, promoted and cleared the sector for his ally, while assailing Mr. Kemp, recording television ads and giving $2.64 million to groups helping Mr. Perdue — by far essentially the most he has ever invested in one other politician.

Yet the race has exposed the bounds of Mr. Trump’s sway, especially against entrenched Republican incumbents.

Mr. Perdue’s failures were not only of his own making. He was outflanked by a savvy incumbent in Mr. Kemp who exploited the powers of his office to chop off Mr. Perdue from allies — including Mr. Perdue’s own cousin Sonny, a former governor and Trump agriculture secretary whom Mr. Kemp’s allies appointed chancellor of the University System of Georgia.

Mr. Kemp also appeared to punish those that crossed him: One congressional seat was drawn to exclude the house of a candidate whose father, a Perdue supporter, had publicly criticized the governor.

And he offered goodies to voters, including a gas-tax holiday that conveniently runs through the top of May, just past the first.

On Thursday, as Mr. Perdue campaigned outside the Semper Fi Bar and Grille in Woodstock, Ga., he was not conjuring up a path to victory but haggling over the scope of his widely expected defeat, after a Fox News survey showed him down 32 percentage points.

“Hell no, I’m not down 30 points,” insisted Mr. Perdue, whose campaign didn’t reply to requests for comment for this text. “We may not win Tuesday,” he added, “but I guaran-damn-tee-you we aren’t down 30 points.”

The important thing threshold on Tuesday is 50 percent: Mr. Kemp must win an outright majority within the five-candidate field to avoid a one-on-one runoff in June.

The story of Mr. Perdue’s effort is less one among political collapse and more of a failure to launch. From the moment he announced his candidacy in December, Mr. Perdue never demonstrated the identical commitment to winning that he displayed in his first Senate race in 2014.

His case for ousting Mr. Kemp was all the time largely based on support from the previous president. Mr. Perdue argued at his campaign introduction that the governor had so alienated the party’s Trump faithful that they might not rally around Mr. Kemp against Stacey Abrams, the presumptive Democratic nominee and a number one villain for Republicans.

But Mr. Perdue, 72, a wealthy former chief executive of Dollar General, never got here near matching the $3.8 million of his own money he put into his 2014 Senate race. He invested just $500,000 in his bid for governor.

That’s lower than he and his wife spent last 12 months for a waterfront lot on a secluded peninsula on scenic St. Simons Island, a purchase order made not long after his runoff defeat by the hands of a then-33-year-old Democrat that delivered Senate control to Democrats. A permit to construct a virtually 12,000-square-foot mansion value an estimated $5 million — on land including “over 625 feet of lake frontage,” in line with the listing — was granted two weeks after he declared his candidacy, records show.

Mr. Trump has concurrently invested heavily in Mr. Perdue, together with his $2.64 million, and sought to avoid blame because the candidate has faltered, telling The Recent York Times in April that the news media’s focus “ought to be on the endorsements — not the David Perdue one” to measure his influence.

Mr. Trump’s last rally in Georgia got here in late March. He didn’t return, as Perdue allies had hoped, as an alternative holding a conference call for supporters in early May.

“I’m with David all the best way because Brian Kemp was the WORST governor within the Country on Election Integrity!” Mr. Trump insisted Friday on his Truth Social messaging platform.

Mr. Perdue, like candidates for governor in Idaho and Nebraska this month, learned that a Trump endorsement alone doesn’t assure the support of Trump voters or Trump donors.

“The Trump endorsement could be very vital, nevertheless it’s only an endorsement,” said former Representative Jack Kingston, who lost the 2014 Senate primary to Mr. Perdue and is a former Trump adviser. “It’s not a military of infrastructure and door-knockers the best way it might be if you’ve gotten the Sierra Club or the N.R.A. or the A.F.L.-C.I.O.”

The juxtaposition between the Kemp and Perdue camps was particularly stark on Friday.

Mr. Kemp was outside Savannah, announcing that Hyundai was investing $5.5 billion in an electrical battery and vehicle manufacturing plant, one among the most important economic development projects in Georgia history. There was a champagne toast.

Mr. Perdue was nearby holding an endorsement event with Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, who’s making her own comeback attempt in a House race in Alaska.

“I’d somewhat be standing on the stage announcing 7,500 jobs than standing next to Sarah Palin,” said Mr. Kemp’s lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, a fierce Trump critic who opted to not run for re-election this 12 months.

Randy Evans, a Perdue supporter who served as ambassador to Luxembourg within the Trump administration, said the Kemp operation had been ruthless in using what he called the “bullying” powers of the governorship.

Mr. Evans’s son, Jake, is running for Congress within the Atlanta suburbs. When Kemp-aligned Republican legislators drew recent lines in redistricting, the younger Mr. Evans was suddenly drawn out of the district during which he had been planning to run.

“They cut a sliver in regards to the size of your little finger,” the elder Mr. Evans said. “Jake had to maneuver, buy a recent house.”

Mr. Kemp, 58, leveraged the powers of incumbency in other crucial ways. He signed a measure to supply tax refunds of as much as $500 for married couples, then announced on May 11, after early voting had begun, that those checks were within the mail. He appealed to rural Georgians by raising pay for teachers, and pleased conservatives by signing sweeping laws to limit voting access, expand gun rights and forbid school mask mandates.

Mr. Perdue’s efforts could seem feeble as compared. In March, he attacked Mr. Kemp for recruiting an electrical truck maker to open a factory in rural Georgia — creating hundreds of jobs — because George Soros, the outstanding Democratic donor, had recently invested in the corporate.

The Kemp-Perdue contest was steeped within the drama of private betrayal.

Mr. Kemp had spent weeks campaigning with Mr. Perdue before the senator’s defeat within the January 2021 Senate runoff election. By then, Mr. Kemp had infuriated Mr. Trump by defending the legitimacy of Georgia’s presidential results.

Last spring, Mr. Kemp’s aides said, Mr. Perdue assured Mr. Kemp that he didn’t intend to run for governor. That June, Mr. Perdue introduced the governor on the Georgia Republican Party’s annual convention.

But Mr. Kemp, cannily, had already begun the strategy of installing Sonny Perdue, a preferred former governor, to run Georgia’s state universities — an appointment that effectively put him on the sidelines. (Sonny Perdue, through a spokesman, declined to comment.)

Mr. Kemp also pre-emptively secured the loyalty and fund-raising might of Alec Poitevint, a South Georgia businessman who had served as campaign chairman for David Perdue’s Senate campaigns and Sonny Perdue’s campaigns for governor — one among some ways the Kemp operation boxed out Mr. Perdue financially.

Mr. Poitevint said he was amongst a number of longtime David Perdue supporters who had urged him to not run.

“I didn’t think it was serious,” Mr. Poitevint said. “I expressed the undeniable fact that I didn’t agree with it, that I believed that the governor had done a fantastic job and deserved re-election.”

Shunned by the state’s political establishment, Mr. Perdue tried framing himself as a political outsider — “I’ve been an outsider since I got into politics,” he said on Thursday — but that could be a difficult case to make for a former senator boasting of his support from a former president.

Even Mr. Trump’s $2.64 million infusion was swamped by the $5.2 million in television ads paid for by the Republican Governors Association to assist Mr. Kemp.

For all of Mr. Trump’s attacks on Mr. Kemp, the governor never struck back. Mr. Kemp’s advisers imagine that discipline helped provide permission for even essentially the most devoted Trump supporters to stick to the governor.

Mr. Perdue’s campaign, meanwhile, was laser-focused on falsehoods about 2020 — repeating Mr. Trump’s lie and blaming Mr. Kemp for President Biden’s election.

Mr. Evans, the previous ambassador who in early 2021 had tried to broker a peace deal between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kemp, campaigned for Mr. Perdue but said he saw little effort to define a particular platform.

​​ “So far as having an existence that existed independent of Trump, I actually didn’t see that materialize,” Mr. Evans said.

Mr. Kemp’s lieutenant governor, Mr. Duncan, summarized the arc of the Perdue candidacy.

“David Perdue made a foul bet six months ago when he jumped within the race and thought, ‘Because Donald Trump likes me, I’m going to win,’” Mr. Duncan said. “He bet fallacious.”

Maya King contributed reporting. Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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