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David Perdue’s Campaign Hustle
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David Perdue’s Campaign Hustle

A Trump endorsement and a mad-dash across Georgia haven’t kept the Republican afloat in the race for governor.

With the close of his Trump-backed insurgency against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp looming, you can’t say David Perdue’s not hustling to the finish line. We’re less than a month away from Georgia’s Republican primary (early voting started this week) and the former senator is in full crunch mode as he crisscrosses the state to make his case to voters: five meet-and-greets by plane one day, four by car the next. Sunday night, the third and final debate against Kemp, whom he hammered as the man who “gave us Joe Biden”; Monday night, a “telerally” with Donald Trump, who predicted a Kemp win would bring dire consequences in the form of another round of Democratic victories in Georgia this November.

Perdue has a reputation as a stiff politician with a particular dislike for the gladhanding of retail politics, but he seems comfortable on the trail this week despite the pace—shaking hands, posing for pictures, sticking close to his talking points, and relentlessly pounding his opponent over his administration of the 2020 election. The beating heart of his campaign, the theme he spends most of his time rehearsing, is the supposed fraud carried out by Democrats in 2020 to deliver the state to Joe Biden—and to sweep both himself and fellow GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler unexpectedly out of office.

“People broke the law,” Perdue says at a Thursday stop in a park in Jackson County. “If you don’t enforce the law, then what good is the law?”

During the runoffs of late 2020 and early 2021, Perdue’s tepid treatment of Trump’s stolen-election claims rubbed some Trump-happy state Republicans the wrong way. Now, he’s all in, and the voters who show up to see him and share their belief in one stolen-election narrative or another—unsupervised drop boxes, compromised Dominion voting machines, a suspicious halted vote count in the Atlanta area—walk away assured they’ve met a kindred spirit.

The only question is: Will it matter?

All week, Perdue’s audiences have been receptive, but sparse—20 enthusiastic fans here, 30 there. At Thursday’s event in Jackson County, campaign staff plus media (your correspondent and a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor) outnumbered the regular folks in attendance; Perdue abandoned his speech entirely in favor of freewheeling Q&A with about eight voters.

Bigger events, like his rally last month with Trump in Commerce, have failed to produce a polling bump as well. In fact, Kemp’s edge is growing—from a stable 7-10 point lead in the early months of 2022 to a seemingly door-slamming 15-25 point advantage all through April. Kemp isn’t pounding the pavement like Perdue this week, but he’s the one making the splashy campaign headlines—George W. Bush to headline a fundraiser for him later this month, former top Mike Pence aide Marc Short coming aboard the campaign in advance of a presumptive showdown with Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.

These grim numbers give a whistling-past-the-graveyard texture to conversations with Perdue surrogates, allies, and fellow travelers. “They’re underestimating the Trump endorsement,” Bruce LeVell—executive director of Trump’s National Diversity Coalition—tells The Dispatch. “And Kemp should know because he benefited from it. He got pushed over the finish line because of Donald Trump.” Marci McCarthy, chair of the DeKalb County GOP, waves off Perdue’s lagging polling numbers—she’s more interested in the comparatively high number of Perdue yard signs she sees as she drives around the state.

It’s not that Trump’s endorsement isn’t useful to Republicans now. Just this week, Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance rode a Trump endorsement to victory in what had formerly been a hugely chaotic primary; on Georgia’s northeast border, North Carolina Senate candidate Ted Budd seems poised to follow suit.

But in both of those cases, Trump’s favored candidates are running in wide-open, closely contested fields. Without Trump’s involvement, it’s unlikely Kemp would have faced a serious primary challenge at all. The former president may still have the biggest megaphone in GOP politics, but he doesn’t speak with the voice of God.

Perdue’s failure to land a knockout punch on Kemp—or even a solid body blow—seems easy to explain: Kemp’s conservative record is sterling, making it difficult for Perdue to corner the market on any segment of the GOP base besides those voting based on persistent hard feelings about 2020. Perdue has attempted to introduce a number of other wedge issues—repeal of the state income tax, opposition to subsidies to build a new electric-car plant, support for the wealthy north-Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead to secede from the city—to try to cobble together a majority coalition. On the heels of reports that the Supreme Court is on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade and sending abortion regulation back to the states, Perdue told The Dispatch Wednesday that he would favor a bill completely banning the practice in the state—a valiant attempt to get to the right of Kemp, who several years ago championed and then signed into law a “heartbeat bill” prohibiting abortion after around six weeks’ gestation.

But it just doesn’t seem to be sticking. Rare is the Perdue event attendee who doesn’t have at least some unprompted good things to say to The Dispatch about the current governor’s record, though they speak in one voice to deplore his handling of the 2020 election. Still rarer are those who insist, in accordance with Trump and Perdue’s dire warnings, that they’d stay home rather than turn out for Kemp in a matchup with Stacey Abrams.

At a stop at a small airport in Augusta, attendee Steve Williamson at least seemed to find it a difficult proposition: “That’s when you try to figure out if a RINO is better than a communist or a crooked politician … I don’t know. I’m going to have to do some thinking.”

The man next to Williamson, Randy Effler, BULLDOGS FOR TRUMP shirt and Trump hat notwithstanding, was less conflicted: “Even though [Kemp’s] somebody who I don’t believe in—I believe he’s a traitor to the state of Georgia and a traitor to this country—he’s still gonna be better than Stacey Abrams, who is totally corrupt.”

Even here, in other words, talking to some of Perdue’s most motivated supporters, it’s hard to find anyone truly in lockstep with the Trump theory of the race—that, as Donald Trump Jr. put it at an event with Perdue in March, “we might as well have Democrats” as a second Kemp term. For Trump and his closest allies, these statements are probably genuine: Nothing matters more than loyalty, and no loyalty test was bigger than the 2020 election. 

But Republican voters, no matter how much they love Trump, by and large have a less myopic focus on getting even with the purported villains of the last cycle. After all, Stacey Abrams looms.

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.