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Trump is struggling again in Georgia, with 2022 endorsements driven by his 2020 loss

Former President Donald Trump held a rally in Commerce, Ga., last Saturday with candidates he's backing in the state's May primary elections.
Megan Varner
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Former President Donald Trump held a rally in Commerce, Ga., last Saturday with candidates he's backing in the state's May primary elections.

When Donald Trump took the stage at a windy rally 70 miles northeast of Atlanta on Saturday, he promised Republicans would win big in November.

But first, he said, there was more pressing business.

"We have a big primary coming up right here in your state. We're going to throw out a very, very sad situation that took place, your RINO Gov. Brian Kemp," he said before calling Kemp a "turncoat," "coward" and "a complete and total disaster." (RINO is a pejorative acronym, standing for "Republican in name only.")

The governor's race is one of seven in Georgia where Trump has endorsed insurgent candidates to unseat incumbents — or stamp his brand of conservatism on a race — from U.S. Senate down to the relatively obscure insurance commissioner.

Most of these candidates are running to challenge Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and their allies after they certified President Biden's narrow victory in 2020.

"Let's get one thing straight, let me be very clear — very clear: In the state of Georgia, thanks to Brian Kemp, our elections in 2020 were absolutely stolen," said former Sen. David Perdue, Kemp's chief challenger who spoke at the Trump rally.

Georgia's elections were not "stolen" — in fact the outcome was verified by three separate counts of the results.

Trump's endorsement has been a golden ticket for many Republicans seeking to stand out in contested primary elections, and the former president has made more than 120 endorsements in the 2022 election cycle across the country, so far. Kemp himself was a beneficiary of Trump's endorsement that helped him win the GOP nomination for governor in 2018.

But after 2020, the former president has embraced more longshot candidates and is seeking to oust incumbents who did not overturn his defeat. In addition to the governor's race, Trump recruited challengers to unseat Georgia's sitting secretary of state, attorney general and insurance commissioner, along with choices for leader of the state Senate, a wide-open Republican congressional primary and a battleground U.S. Senate race.

Georgia Republicans seem less sure Trump-backed candidates will win this year

As governor, Kemp's record on issues like abortion, voting laws, the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy are about as conservative as it gets. A frequent target of the left for these policies, Kemp now finds himself trying to defend his Republican bona fides to the party's base against attacks from the party's leader.

Brian Robinson, a Republican strategist in Georgia, said Kemp's record speaks for itself and will be front of mind when voters head to the polls, especially given the way he handled the pandemic and despite the significant power a Trump endorsement has carried.

"Georgia voters know that Kemp stood up against mask mandates, that he cut their taxes, that he's strongly pro-life, that he's passed gun rights expansions," he said. "You can't give them a half story — because they know the full story. It's got to match up with what they already believe to some degree."

At a recent Kemp campaign stop in heavily conservative northeast Georgia, voters like John Ford said current Republican incumbents have delivered for voters, so it's still possible to support them — and Trump.

"He was the president, Brian Kemp is our governor," Ford said. "He's my governor, and he has my vote, and I feel like David Perdue running as a primary candidate is divisive to the cause. We need all the help we can get pulling in the same direction."

Perdue lags behind Kemp in fundraising and polling, and former football star Herschel Walker, who is running for Senate, is the only clear frontrunner among Trump's Georgia picks.

That leads to a concern among Republicans here that the primary infighting could harm them in November, especially in a state that will likely be decided by razor-thin margins.

It's not just Georgia where Trump's picks have struggled

In Pennsylvania, Senate candidate Sean Parnell dropped out last November after abuse allegations. And last week, Trump un-endorsed Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks for the Senate race there after Brooks' campaign stumbled in the polls.

Even Trump himself seemed to leave the door open that his endorsements wouldn't be as successful as they once were, in an interview with Real America's Voice this week.

"These are not sure things," he said. "And if I lose one along the way — and you have to, right? — they're going to say, 'This was a humiliating experience.' "

At the rally in Georgia, state Sen. Burt Jones, who is running with Trump's support to be lieutenant governor, reiterated that the outcome of Georgia's May 24 primary election affected more than just the seven candidates on the ballot.

"It will set the stage for '24, because all eyes will be on Georgia this year," he said. "And if we don't win big — if we don't have a red wave — then it doesn't play well for us to put Donald Trump back in the White House in 2024."

That sentiment was echoed by Trump at his rally, who said he hoped Perdue would become governor, otherwise he "wasted a hell of a lot of time here tonight."

Copyright 2022 Georgia Public Broadcasting

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Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.