By Louis Jacobson
When then-President Donald Trump lost the state of Georgia in his bid for a second term in 2020, the loss stuck in his craw more than his defeats almost anywhere else. After Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, played roles in making official Joe Biden’s victory in the state, Trump targeted them for defeat in their 2022 primaries.
Whether Trump’s high-profile gambit works is set to become clearer during Georgia’s primary.
In the lead-up to the primary, Kemp has shown a surprising amount of resilience against Trump’s hand-picked candidate, former Sen. David Perdue. A recent poll from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Kemp leading Perdue, 53%-27%, among likely Republican primary voters. A subsequent Fox News poll found Kemp leading Perdue, 60%-28%. Only 3% of those polled were undecided.
Either result would be enough to win without having to go to a runoff on June 21. Georgia requires runoffs if no candidate reaches 50%.
Analysts say that Kemp is in a good place in the primary because he’s had a record in office that resonated with voters.
“The state’s economy has been hot, with a huge budget surplus,” says University of Georgia political scientist Trey Hood. “He was able to give a tax rebate, and the rainy day fund is as full as it can be legally. He came through on the rest of a teacher pay raise. He signed a ‘fetal heartbeat’ bill on abortion and eased gun restrictions. He has things he can run on. The last thing Perdue did was lose a Senate election,” in 2020.
Kemp’s strength against Perdue may be bolstering Trump antagonists in other races. The same poll found Raffensperger leading his Trump-backed challenger, Rep. Jody Hice, 28%-26%, with 37% undecided. While this hardly makes Raffensperger a lock for renomination, it’s a much better position than many observers had expected when Trump first targeted him for defeat. Trump’s attacks had led to death threats against Raffensperger and his family.
“Just the fact that Raffensperger has a fighter’s chance says something,” Hood says.
Political observers say Trump’s disappointment at seeing Purdue trailing, combined with the blossoming of hot races in other states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, may have decreased his interest in Georgia and weakened his overall influence on the primary.
If this is the case, the impact of Trump’s Georgia endorsements on a variety of down-ballot contests may end up being a mixed bag, says Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political scientist.
“Just because Trump got mad” at Kemp and Raffensperger “doesn’t mean he gets to flout some of the axioms that political strategists have known for years,” she says. “It’s not strategic to run against an incumbent who is held in high regard. Just calling a candidate a RINO [‘Republican in name only’] doesn’t carry weight if the person’s record shows otherwise.”
Trump is highly likely to notch at least one high-profile victory on election night: Herschel Walker, the retired football star who Trump invited into the race against first-term Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, is expected to win, easing some of the initial concerns among leading Republicans, who worried about past allegations of domestic violence against Walker as well as his record in business and questions about his academic credentials.
The Fox poll found Walker leading his closest primary opponent by 58 percentage points.
Warnock, for his part, has a smooth path to renomination. The expected matchup with Walker should be highly competitive and closely watched nationally.
The results of other Georgia primaries are murkier, thanks to large and competitive primary fields for one party or the other (or for both). Once these nominations are settled, many races will remain hotly contested by both parties through November, particularly the marquee gubernatorial race between the GOP nominee and Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Here’s a rundown of contests to watch on Election Day, beyond the races for governor and senator.
The lieutenant governorship, a position Georgia elects separately from the governor, is coming open due to the retirement of Republican Geoff Duncan. Duncan decided not to seek a second term after taking on Trump by criticizing his efforts to question Biden’s victory in the state.
Both parties have multiple candidates seeking the nomination. On the Republican side, state Sen. Burt Jones won Trump’s endorsement and placed first in the most recent Journal-Constitution poll with 27%. State Senate Republican leader Butch Miller took 14%, while more than half of voters polled were undecided.
The contest is “wide open,” Hood says, and could result in a runoff.
The nine-candidate Democratic field, meanwhile, includes three state representatives – Erick Allen, Renitta Shannon, and Derrick Jackson – along with Kwanza Hall, who was briefly a congressman.
Secretary of state
Despite raising less money, Raffensperger is holding on against Hice, who attended a White House meeting after the 2020 election to discuss whether Biden’s win could be blocked in Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, according to the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. Hice also voted against certifying Biden’s Electoral College victory.
However, Hice doesn’t have the anti-Raffensperger lane in the primary to himself. David Belle Isle, a former mayor of Alpharetta who lost a runoff to Raffensperger in 2018, is running. So is T.J. Hudson, a former probate and magistrate judge.
A late April poll by SurveyUSA and WXIA-TV found Raffensperger with 31%, Hice with 20%, Hudson with 5%, and Belle Isle with 4%. But the highest total – 40% – was for “undecided.”
The Democrats also have a competitive primary for the post, including state Rep. Bee Nguyen; John Eaves, the former chairman of the Fulton County Commission; Floyd Griffin, a former state senator and Milledgeville mayor; former state Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler; and former Cobb County Democratic Party Chairman Michael Owens.
The SurveyUSA-WXIA poll found Nguyen, a progressive with the backing of such influential groups as Emily’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America, leading the pack, but with just 12%. Owens was second with 9%, followed by Eaves and Hawkins-Haigler with 7% each, and Griffin with 6%. No fewer than 60% were undecided.
The race is expected to be competitive in the fall, especially if a Trump-aligned candidate wins the GOP nomination.
Christopher Carr, who is seeking a second full term, also faces a Trump-endorsed challenger, attorney John Gordon.
Carr first became attorney general through an appointment by then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2016. Earlier, he served as chief of staff to the late Sen. Johnny Isakson and as state economic development commissioner.
Like Kemp and Raffensperger, Carr has said that Biden won the state and the presidency legitimately. He said the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 was “one of the dark days in American history,” the Associated Press reported.
Two credible Democrats are vying for the nomination. The front-runner is state Sen. Jen Jordan. She faces former Fulton County (Atlanta) prosecutor Christian Wise Smith.
The post of agriculture commissioner is coming open because the incumbent, Republican Gary Black, is running against Walker for the Senate nomination.
The GOP is settled on farmer and state Sen. Tyler Harper as the party’s nominee. Democrats have a three-way race between state Rep. Winfred Dukes and farmers Nakita Hemingway and Fred Swann.
Republican John King, a former police chief, is seeking a full term after being appointed to the office by Kemp in 2019. (His predecessor, Jim Beck, was suspended while under investigation for embezzlement-related charges that predated his tenure as commissioner. He was subsequently sentenced to prison.)
King does not have a free ride to the nomination: Trump has endorsed Patrick Witt, who previously worked for his administration and on his legal team.
The Democratic primary includes three candidates: Janice Laws Robinson, who ran for the office in 2018 and lost with 47% of the vote; state Rep. Matthew Wilson; and insurance broker Raphael Baker.
Superintendent of schools
Incumbent Republican Richard Woods, who’s been an ally of Kemp, is seeking another term, but he first needs to get past a former state school superintendent, John Barge, in the GOP primary.
Democrats have four candidates in the race: former state Rep. Alisha Thomas Searcy; Cobb County School Board member Jaha Howard; former teacher Currey Hitchens; and teacher and coach James Morrow.
Incumbent Republican Mark Butler is retiring. The two leading Republicans in the primary are Mike Coan, a former state representative and current deputy labor commissioner; and state Sen. Bruce Thompson.
The leading Democrats in the race are state Sen. Lester Jackson; state Rep. Will Boddie; and businesswoman Nicole Horn.
Congressional District 2
The 16-term House member representing this heavily rural district in southwestern Georgia is Sanford Bishop. Bishop, who is Black, is running again in the 49% Black district, but he faces a large field of Republican challengers, with the expectation that whoever faces Bishop will make it a competitive race in November.
The six-candidate GOP field is led by developer and Air National Guard member Chris West; Wayne Johnson, a former official at the federal Education Department during the Trump administration; and West Point alumnus Jeremy Hunt, who has been the biggest fundraiser and has been endorsed by GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri,.
Congressional District 6
During the recently completed round of redistricting, this seat in the Atlanta suburbs and exurbs was transformed from one that leans Democratic to one that is heavily Republican. The shifts were dramatic enough that the incumbent, Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath, rolled the dice by challenging a fellow Democratic House member, Carolyn Bourdeaux, in a more comfortably Democratic district.
Due to the line redrawing, the main action in this district will be in the GOP primary, which features nine candidates. The top tier includes former state ethics commission chair Jake Evans and physician and former Marine Rich McCormick. The next tier includes former state Rep. Meagan Hanson; Mallory Staples, a teacher who is emphasizing parents’ rights; and conservative activist Suzi Voyles. Each of these candidates has run to the right in order to secure the nomination.
Congressional District 7
This is the Democratic-leaning suburban Atlanta district where Bourdeaux will face off against McBath, along with state Rep. Donna McLeod. Bourdeaux already represents more of the voters in the district, but McBath has amassed a higher national profile from her advocacy on gun violence prevention, which was prompted by her son’s murder a decade ago. McBath leads Bourdeaux in fundraising, but both candidates are collecting enough to be competitive.
Meanwhile, the GOP has a five-way primary, including former state Sen. and state Rep. Mary West. But the winner of the Democratic nomination would start the general election campaign as the favorite.
Congressional District 10
This is the seat being vacated by Hice, the challenger to Raffensperger. The district, which runs between Atlanta and Augusta, is heavily Republican, and the GOP primary has attracted eight hopefuls.
Trump has endorsed former state Rep. and former DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones. Jones is a former Democrat who later became a staunch Trump supporter. But he’s not the only prominent Republican in the race. Others include Mike Collins, a businessman and son of former Rep. Mac Collins; former Rep. Paul Broun; state Rep. Timothy Barr; and former state Revenue Commissioner David Curry.