In January of this year, a runoff election sent two Democratic senators to Washington, tipping the balance of power ever so slightly in the Dems’ favor. The outcome of that election spun Georgia’s GOP into a very public identity crisis—over election security, and over Donald Trump’s double defeat. 2022 is set to be just as frantic as the runoffs, because all those questions are about to be dredged up one more time as Georgia’s Republican governor faces reelection. The gubernatorial field is crowded, but you really only need to pay attention to three people: current Gov. Brian Kemp, former Republican Sen. David Perdue, and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who played a big role in delivering Georgia and its Senate seats to Democrats during the 2020 election. The candidate with the most at stake is the governor himself: He’s a very conservative Republican, who’d vowed to crack down on reproductive rights, champion “religious freedom,” and loosen restrictions on guns—and followed through on these promises. Yet, because he chose to maintain the rule of law in Georgia and certify the election results that gave the state’s electors to Joe Biden, he’s facing a strong primary challenge from his right. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Greg Bluestein about the stakes of the Georgia governor’s race—for the GOP, for Trump, for Kemp, and for Abrams. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Why is Gov. Brian Kemp vulnerable right now?
Greg Bluestein: The former president was infuriated that Kemp didn’t try to call a special session to invalidate the election results, that he didn’t go on TV and promote these false claims of election fraud. Kemp would always say, Look, I’m just following the law. I had to certify the election. He said he’s done everything he could to get on better terms with Trump, but clearly there’s nothing the governor could have done to soothe those tensions. Trump would be in Georgia at rallies saying, Next year, I will be back here to campaign against your incumbent governor and people. Thousands in the crowd would cheer.
In the time since Biden’s election was certified and two Democrats were elected to be senators from Georgia, I’m curious what Brian Kemp has done. Has he shored up his relationship with the Republican Party?
The governor started the year in really prickly territory—not so great poll numbers, questions about his viability in 2022. Then, Republican lawmakers pushed for elections overhaul, which included new obstacles to voting meant to placate the pro-Trump crowd, and got his support. That helped him shore up some of his standing. But these things are seesaws. It’s like a roller coaster. So he looked like he was in good shape back in April, and then Trump and some of his allies started stepping up their attacks, with Kemp getting booed at GOP rallies in certain quarters. So he’s faced a lot of backlash from the grassroots. And I’ll say this too, though he hasn’t, he has not backed down. He’s not been ducking these events and // you know, I’ve been to many events where he’s been booed and then he goes out right up to the people and says, Hey, let’s talk.
Earlier this month, Kemp got his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams. This was kind of expected, but it’s still a big deal because it’s a rematch, right?
This is enormous. I mean, this is the democratic icon, the titanic political figure, not just in Georgia but around the nation. Someone who has built herself from her 2018 campaign into an even bigger figure.
2018 was the year Stacey Abrams first ran for governor. Back then, Brian Kemp was Georgia’s secretary of state—which meant that, technically speaking, it was his job to oversee the very election he was running in. Abrams and her allies alleged that Kemp depressed her voters’ turnout by understaffing their polling places and purging voter rolls.
To say that these two candidates hate each other is an understatement. There is real deep vitriol between them. Kemp would like nothing more to do than focus on Stacey Abrams, but he can’t because of David Perdue in the race.
David Perdue is a local millionaire and former senator. He comes from a long political dynasty—his cousin Sonny was the first executive to return the Georgia governor’s mansion to Republican control after more than 100 years. But last year, David Perdue lost his Senate seat to Jon Ossoff in a runoff election. That might have been the end of his political future—except that earlier this year, Trump began courting him to challenge Kemp.
Trump and Perdue went golfing at Mar-a-Lago shortly after the latter’s defeat in the runoffs, and Trump encouraged Perdue to keep on fighting and to stay in the political world. He went to Georgia in September and staged a rally where he publicly called for Perdue to run. They went to a golf retreat a few weeks earlier before Perdue officially announced. So it was very much on top of his mind Trump to entice Perdue: He wanted a loyal Republican to beat Brian Kemp.
A few hours after Perdue announced, Trump followed up with a glowing endorsement and a long line of attacks targeting Kemp. That’s huge in the Republican primary vote right now. I mean, our polls still show that a significant majority of Republican and conservative voters in Georgia value Trump and hold him in very high esteem.
What do the candidates in this governor’s race say the upcoming election’s all about?
I talked to Perdue once he got in the race and asked, The big question everyone’s asking me that I want to ask you is, how can you say that you’re running to unify the Republican Party when you are challenging the incumbent GOP governor who has no plans to back off? What he says is that he likes Brian Kemp personally, has nothing against him, but that this is about beating Stacey Abrams in 2022. He thinks that if Kemp is the nominee, Abrams sweeps to victory and undoes two decades of GOP policies. But what he’s also saying, and not even between the lines, is that he thinks Kemp is a weak, ineffective leader who didn’t do enough to fight for Trump, who didn’t promote these false conspiracy claims that Trump is backing, and who isn’t being strong enough of a conservative leader for the state of Georgia.
The other big question we’ve had for David Perdue, who has been critical of Kemp for not doing enough to “help” Trump, is: What would you have done if you were in office? He says, I wouldn’t have certified the election results. In Georgia, that is illegal. The governor of Georgia must certify the election results and is bound by law to do so. Perdue also said in an interview with me that he would have called a special session that for lawmakers to investigate “claims of ballot fraud” in absentee mail-in ballots. But by that point, we knew that there was no evidence backing that up.
Right, there had been investigations.
There have been multiple tallies that confirmed Biden’s victory in Georgia, and there had been an audit of about 15,000 mail-in ballots in suburban Cobb County. It didn’t find a single instance of voter fraud. So you already had evidence that there was no there is no sort of any sort of inkling of proof behind these unfounded lies about election fraud in Georgia. And that is what David Perdue sort of opened his campaign with by playing into them.
What are the Democrats doing right now? Stacey Abrams has a little less than a year here, and the primary is going to be in May for this governor’s race. How does she use this moment?
Right now, there’s sort of a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Democrats are watching Republicans fight, and are wary of trying to make any misstep that would refocus attention. They’re very much enjoying the Republican infighting while quietly—and maybe not so quietly—working to rebuild the infrastructure that helped them win in 2020. The big question for Democrats after 2020 is: Can they rebuild that coalition of moderate-leaning suburbanites, newcomers from liberal areas, minority voters, voters of color—all of whom helped fuel Abrams’ near-miss in 2018 and Biden’s victory in 2020? Can they rebuild that coalition without Donald Trump on the ballot? Abrams helped lay the groundwork for that coalition a decade ago when she first started getting involved in Georgia politics. Meanwhile, she’s promoting broad-based issues that the polls show a majority of Georgia’s electorate supports, like expanding Medicaid, boosting education funding, and improving public health systems.