May 23

By Susan Milligan

A high-profile Senate race that could determine control of the chamber. A GOP governor at odds with the national leader of his party. A major test of the political direction of a state that has gone from being comfortably red to nationally watched battleground.

It’s 2020 all over again for Georgia voters, who go to the polls Tuesday to nominate candidates for governor, Senate, secretary of state and congressional seats. But there is so much more on the ballot, as former President Donald Trump seeks to settle scores with officials who refused to endorse his claims of a stolen 2020 election in Georgia.

“It’s all happening at once here. We’re the No. 1 battleground. I think we are the new center of the political universe,” says Brian Robinson, a longtime GOP political operative in the Peach State.

“We’ve got this unique situation where the people on our ballots are known nationwide. It’s very rare for state figures” in Georgia, where elections were mainly of local concern before 2020, he says.

Despite warnings from Democrats that stricter voting laws would suppress the vote, turnout in early voting has already broken 2020 records, a sign of the critical importance of Georgia’s elections this year.

For Trump, Georgia is the ultimate grudge match, with GOP incumbents Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on the primary day ballot.

Ratffensperger refused Trump’s request to “find” enough votes to reverse the Republican president’s loss in Georgia in 2020, while Kemp rejected Trump’s request that the governor refuse to certify the results and convene a special session of the state legislature to name a new slate of GOP electors.

Trump recruited former Sen. David Perdue to challenge Kemp for the Republican nomination for governor and has endorsed GOP Rep. Jody Hice in his race to unseat Raffensperger in the primary.

But despite Trump’s support, polls show Kemp poised for a big win on Tuesday. Raffensperger and Hice are in a close race, polls show, and political analysts expect they are headed for a runoff. In Georgia, if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters face off in a runoff election.

“Perdue’s campaign appears to be imploding,” while Hice – who was well ahead of Raffensperger in April – is now trailing the incumbent secretary of state in polls, said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor. For Trump, “my guess is it’s not going to be a good day for him,” Bullock adds.

Far from boosting Hice’s candidacy, Trump’s endorsement in the race of his 2020 Georgia nemesis has been accompanied by a Raffensperger surge, Robinson notes.

“He’s gone from being crushed to being competitive,” Robinson says. Polls show a large percentage of undecided voters, and it’s unclear how those votes will finally go.

Trump’s endorsed candidate for the GOP nomination for Senate, former NFL star Herschel Walker, is expected to coast to victory Tuesday and will likely face Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock in November. Warnock’s runoff win against GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler in 2021 gave Democrats majority control of the Senate – a status that is endangered this fall.

Walker – a former University of Georgia football player and Heisman Trophy winner – has huge name recognition in Georgia and “didn’t need Trump’s endorsement” to advance his campaign, says Martha Zoller, a conservative radio talk show host and former GOP candidate for Congress.

“Trump will take credit for it, but he didn’t need Trump’s endorsement” in the crowded field for the GOP nomination for Senate, Zoller adds.

Trump has had a mixed record with his 2022 endorsees this election season, helping to spur J.D. Vance to an upstart victory in the Republican primary for Senate in Ohio, but seeing his candidates lose to establishment Republican candidates for governor in Idaho and Nebraska. His endorsee in Pennsylvania’s race for Senate, Mehmet Oz, is leading David McCormick by a hair. A recount is expected.

Georgia is more personal for Trump, since both Kemp and Raffensperger directly rebuked his efforts to overturn the 2020 election there.

But Kemp has been very successful in touting his own conservative bona fides, experts say, undercutting Trump’s argument that Kemp is not a loyal Republican.

The governor signed legislation for an open-carry gun law, a severely restrictive abortion law, and a measure allowing schools to ban transgender students from competing in the gendered team of their choice, while also banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” about race in public schools. That has made him popular with the GOP base.

“Anything you can think of as a hot button, he delivered,” Robinson says.

Should Kemp win, he is headed to another face-off with Stacy Abrams, a voting rights activist and former Democratic minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives who is uncontested for the Democratic nomination for governor Tuesday.

Kemp barely eked out a victory against Abrams in 2018, and Democrats hope that demographic changes in Georgia will help put her over the top this year

Raffensperger, meanwhile, has underscored his own ultra-conservative credentials, including his successful effort to tighten voting rules in Georgia. Raffensperger was an early supporter when Trump ran for president in the 2016 election.

Trump has dialed down his public campaign for Perdue. Monday evening, the former president is doing a tele-rally for the trailing candidate. Meanwhile, Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, will appear Monday evening at a rally with Kemp, a bold rebuke of Trump and a sign that Pence sees Kemp, and not Perdue, as a useful ally should Pence indeed seek the presidency in 2024.

“This is going to be a very big test of Trump’s endorsement” power, Zoller says. Trump’s stamp of approval is “less important now than it was three months ago, and will be even less important three months from now.”

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