Trump returns to Georgia and faces test of his hold on GOP

In Donald Trump’s push to fundamentally transform the Republican Party, few places have a higher priority than Georgia.

The former president has issued coveted endorsements in races ranging from governor to state insurance commissioner. His endorsement of soccer legend Herschel Walker essentially paved the way for the party’s nomination for a crucial US Senate seat.

Trump has taken a particularly active role in shaping the governor’s race, recruiting former Senator David Perdue to challenge incumbent Brian Kemp in retaliation for not going along with lies about the stolen 2020 election. And in an effort to clear the way for Perdue, Trump pushed another Republican in the running — Vernon Jones — to run for Congress instead.

Trump returns to Georgia Saturday night for a rally with Walker, Perdue, Jones and other Republicans he supports ahead of the May 24 state primary. The campaign is shaping up to be an early, critical test of whether the former president can live up to his avowed role as kingmaker in the GOP.

“I think it could be the beginning of a – I don’t want to use the word – downfall, but it could be the beginning of his influence,” said Eric Tanenblatt, former chief of staff to former Georgia Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and a former fundraiser for David Perdue, who supports Kemp in the primary.

There are warning signs for Trump. While Walker marches to the primary with minimal opposition, other races are more complicated. Jones, for example, is now attending a crowded congressional primary where no one is allowed to cross the 50% threshold required to avoid a runoff.

Meanwhile, Perdue could pose an even bigger challenge for the former president. He’s struggled to raise money and trailed Kemp 50% to 39% in a Fox News poll released this month. If this momentum continues, Kemp would be within striking distance of winning the primary directly and avoiding a runoff.

Trump has been obsessed with this one-time Republican stronghold since the aftermath of the 2020 campaign, when he became the first GOP presidential candidate to lose the state in 28 years. It could again be central to his political future if he decides to run for the White House in 2024.

For this reason, his activity in the state is particularly noteworthy, as Trump essentially rally voters behind candidates who could play a crucial role in certifying future elections he contests. He has already shown an exceptional willingness to urge officials to overturn results he does not like. During his final days in office, Trump pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s victory, a talk now the subject of an Atlanta grand jury investigation .

The results in Georgia were confirmed after a trio of recounts, including one that was conducted partially by hand. They all confirmed Biden’s victory.

Elsewhere, federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there was no credible evidence the election was rigged. The former president’s fraud allegations have also been firmly dismissed by courts, including judges appointed by Trump.

Given the former president’s particular focus on Georgia, a stumble here could weaken his efforts elsewhere to campaign for candidates who have pledged allegiance to his vision of the GOP, which is dominated by electoral lies and cultural clashes around race and gender. Some of these candidates are already struggling.

Trump on Wednesday rescinded his endorsement of Alabama’s struggling Republican Senate nominee Mo Brooks. He will travel to North Carolina next month to try to improve his pick in the controversial North Carolina Senate primary, Republican US Rep. Ted Budd, who has lagged behind former Gov. Pat McCrory in polls and fundraisers. Trump’s election in the Pennsylvania Senate GOP primary failed, and Trump has not yet sided with a party-violating candidate in the Ohio and Missouri Senate primary.

A Trump spokesman did not respond to questions, but the former president, allies say, was frustrated by Perdue’s failure to gain ground. While Trump has placed much emphasis on his support record, he has so far refused to open his checkbook — despite his PAC opening the year with $120 million.

Meanwhile, some top Trump national antagonists, including Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, have not shied away from seeking re-election despite Trump’s promise for more than a year that he would ensure that they will be defeated.

Kemp, who holds his own Saturday meeting with the Columbia County Republican Party in suburban Augusta, reported that he had $12.7 million in his main campaign account as of Jan. 31. In doing so, he far surpassed Perdue, who had less than $1 million in cash on hand in January.

The incumbent governor has pledged to provide an initial investment of at least $4.2 million in television advertising ahead of the Georgia primary. Other Trump critics are ramping up spending, including GOP 2.0, a super PAC led by Lt. gov. Geoff Duncan, who is not seeking re-election but has been harshly criticized by the former president for his defense of the Georgia 2020 election results.

Duncan, a Republican, said Trump’s endorsement is no longer the “golden ticket” it once was and his group is launching its first 30-second TV spot, timed to coincide with the former president’s rally. In it, Duncan denounces politicians “who prefer to talk about conspiracy theories and past losses and let liberal extremists lead them in the wrong direction”.

“You almost feel sorry for David Perdue. For (he) to walk off the plank that Donald Trump put up for him here in Georgia,” Duncan said in an interview. “We’re going to see a rally that will confuse Georgians again and who knows what Donald Trump will say,” Duncan said.

“He’s looking to settle scores,” Duncan added, referring to Trump, “and that’s no way to keep a conservative leadership in power.”

Despite these concerns, Trump is not backing down. Just this week he put his support behind the virtually unknown John Gordon to challenge Attorney General Chris Carr. He also backed Patrick Witt to run against Insurance Commissioner John King. Republican incumbents are the statewide officials most closely associated with Kemp, the prime target of Trump’s wrath.

Randy Evans, Trump’s former ambassador to Luxembourg, said the former president making so many endorsements up and down the Georgia vote will allow Trump’s preferred candidates to reinforce each other.

Evans said Saturday’s event could lift that group: “Trump’s deserved media just changes every dynamic.”

But Tanenblatt countered that Trump is trying to sway so many races — including obscure voting — just to anger Kemp over a 2020 election long since decided, “nearly trivializing the president’s endorsement.”

“I don’t think he’s the former president and someone that Republicans would prefer to President Biden, if he endorses someone it doesn’t automatically mean he’s the obvious heir who will win,” he said.

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Weissert reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed from New York.

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