Much of Commerce, a rural city south of Athens, was swathed in patriotic colors, and merchants hawked Trump 2024 merchandise outside gas stations as thousands of the Trump faithful, many in vehicles festooned with Trump flags and bumper stickers, convened at Banks County Dragway in the hopes of reviving some of the magic of 2016.
The shirts on the backs and the signs in the hands of the attendees were largely pro-Trump or anti-President Joe Biden, but for the former president, the rally was a chance to reassert his kingmaking role in the GOP by stumping for his slate of preferred statewide candidates for Georgia’s upcoming May 24 primaries, led by former Sen. David Perdue.
“Before we can defeat the Democrat socialists and communists, which is exactly what we’re running against at the ballot box this fall, we first have to defeat the RINOs, the sellouts and the losers in the primaries in the spring,” Trump said, using an acronym for “Republican in name only.” “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 governor, Brian Kemp, and we’re going to replace him with a very strong person and a fearless fighter and somebody that, frankly, got screwed in the last election, David Perdue.”
Kemp and Trump were once allies, but their relationship soured when Kemp did not illegally overturn the election.
Trump and Perdue continue to maintain the 2020 election was rife with cheating in states including Georgia, claims that have not held up in multiple lawsuits and recounts.
“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 Perdue, who also lost following the 2020 election.
A Monmouth University poll conducted in January found 61% of Republicans believe Biden’s win was due to voter fraud, and 30% say there is definitely or probably still a path to reverse the results and reinstate Trump before 2024.
The 2022 primary will be a test of the extent to which those beliefs will affect their ballot box behavior.
Recent polling has shown Kemp with a significant lead among the party: a Fox News poll of likely primary voters released March 8 shows Kemp with 50% of the vote to Perdue’s 39%.
Attendees Saturday, many of whom wore Perdue stickers on their shirts, largely said they will back the former senator in the primary, but few shared Trump’s scathing assessment of Kemp’s performance in office.
“I don’t have any issues with Governor Kemp, I just think that David Perdue, with his experience, and his agenda is the same agenda as President Trump,” said Missy Jarrott of Savannah.
“That’s why I’m voting for everyone that President Trump has endorsed.”
“He has done a good job, but with president Trump’s endorsement of Perdue, I think we need to get Perdue in there as governor,” said Scott Jones of Banks County.
A few rally goers were on the fence, like Cyndie Morris of northwest Georgia. Morris said she is still put off by Perdue’s decision not to debate now-Sen. Jon Ossoff in 2020.
Photos of Ossoff on a debate stage next to Perdue’s empty podium were heavily featured in Ossoff’s campaign materials.
“I need answers,” Morris said. “I need to know why David Perdue did not show up for the debate. That was inexcusable to me. And the fact that he never gave a reason or an excuse. I think you show up for a debate. I understand that he is Trump’s guy, and he may be my guy, but I want to know why he didn’t show up for that debate when he was supposed to, and he didn’t apologize, and he didn’t have an excuse, and he never even addressed it.”
A Trump endorsement is important, but not the only criteria, said Morris’ northwest Georgia friend Cliff Rhodes.
“We pay attention closely to what President Trump has to say as far as endorsements, but we also listen to the candidate, what his policies are,” he said. “You’ve got to see what he or she does, but yeah, I would say that his recommendations are highly regarded, especially seeing everything that’s going on today.”
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Rhodes said he’s ruled out voting for Kemp in the primary because of his concerns over the election, but he hasn’t landed on Perdue either.
A few other Republican candidates have signed up to run for governor, and the most notable may be Kandiss Taylor, a south Georgia educator whose slogan, “Jesus, guns and babies” was displayed on a smattering of signs and stickers among the crowd.
Republican strategists would prefer for Trump to quit fixating on supposed election fraud, fearing it could discourage GOP voters from casting their ballots in what could be nailbiter races for the governor’s office as well as the Senate, where former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker is Trump’s favorite to defeat Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. If Trump is aware of these concerns, he paid them no heed Saturday.
“If Kemp runs, I think Herschel Walker is going to be very seriously and negatively impacted, because Republicans that happen to like
Donald Trump, MAGA Republicans, are not going to go vote for this guy, Kemp,” he said. “And if they don’t vote for Kemp, they’re not going to be able to vote for a great man right there, Herschel Walker, and we don’t want that to happen.”
Republicans sitting out the Senate runoffs after Trump’s loss in 2020 likely played a role in Warnock and Ossoff’s victories, but of the more than a dozen rally attendees the Recorder spoke with Saturday, only one person said they plan to stay home if Kemp is the candidate.
The majority said they’ll back Kemp in the general election if he is the nominee, some with their noses held, others with their heads held high.
For many, that is more of a response to the perceived flaws of presumed Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams than the qualities of Kemp.
Madeline Burns of Columbus, who refers to the governor as “Kemp the wimp” and “not an honorable man,” said she blames him for the party’s election losses in the state, but would still back him against Abrams.
“Abrams is dirty,” she said. “She will turn Georgia into California. We are doomed if we get her.”
For their part, Democrats are happy to cash in on the Trump fissure in the GOP, airing an ad featuring a parody country song lamenting Trump and Kemp’s “break up” and sending a mobile billboard to Commerce claiming the Republican agenda will cut Georgians’ access to health care.
“While Democrats are fighting to improve Georgians’ health care, the Republican agenda puts Trump first and Georgians last, and will keep people from accessing essential health care in communities all across the state,” said Georgia Congresswoman Nikema Williams in a press conference ahead of the rally. “We can’t let that happen.”
Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: email@example.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.