On the final day of a campaign that lost the plot as soon as it was announced, ex-Sen. David Perdue—Trump’s pick to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in Georgia—decided he might as well get the media to call him a racist for a last-minute push.
Stacey Abrams, the Democrat who will now face Kemp in a rematch in November, was “demeaning her own race,” Perdue said Monday, referring to 2018 comments from Abrams about how Georgians should have better work options than agriculture or hospitality.
And then, in reference to a more recent comment by Abrams—“I am tired of hearing about being the best state in the country to do business when we are the worst state in the country to live,” Abrams said Saturday—Perdue said that if Abrams doesn’t like it in Georgia, she should “go back to where she came from.”
He topped off this embarrassing day with a press conference in which he said the polls showing him getting crushed by Kemp were “full of crap,” and that he wouldn’t necessarily accept the election results, depending on whether there was “fraud.”
The polls were not full of crap, as Kemp handily defeated Perdue Tuesday night, with Perdue trailing Kemp by about 50 percentage points when he called the governor to concede. He was nowhere close to making a runoff, and the call came early.
“I hope everyone made dinner reservations,” Perdue said as he broke the news at his election night party.
The defeat should mark the nadir for Perdue, a once-successful figure in Georgia business and politics turned into a twice-losing errand boy for Donald Trump.
It’s been quite the ride.
When Perdue arrived onto the political scene as a candidate for Senate in 2014, he wasn’t one of the crazies. The GOP primary that year was a crowded, messy affair, with candidates of all stripes leapfrogging each other to get further and further to the right. Consider, for example, then-Rep. Paul Broun, famous for having described the Big Bang theory and evolution as “lies straight from the pit of hell.”
Perdue, meanwhile, was viewed as a responsible option: A wealthy former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, a cousin of the popular ex-Gov. Sonny Perdue, and an outsider who was conservative, certainly, but not yoked to faddish ideological flourishes or self-defeating tactics. He argued against using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip in fiscal negotiations, even. He won the primary and defeated Democrat Michelle Nunn that November.
But like so many Republicans in Congress, Perdue recast himself in Trump’s image following the 2016 presidential election. On immigration, for example, he co-introduced a bill with Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton that would have reduced overall immigration by 50 percent over a decade, marking the GOP’s shift from one that sought to reduce illegal immigration to one that sought to reduce legal immigration levels as well. Prior to Trump, this was a fringe view pushed by an obscure policy aide to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. After Trump’s election, that aide—Stephen Miller—was running point on the White House’s immigration policy, and Perdue was a lead vessel for that policy in Congress.
In late 2020, he was running once again for Senate and was up against Jon Ossoff. He should have beaten him—if, for no other reason, than because of the transitive property. Ossoff had lost a (ludicrously overfunded) 2017 special congressional election to Karen Handel, whom Perdue had comfortably defeated in the 2014 Senate primary. And despite the blue-trending nature of the state, Georgia was still Georgia. Perdue still had the advantage of incumbency. And Republican senators have a history of performing well in Georgia runoffs after a Democratic presidential victory.
You can point to a few reasons why he lost. It didn’t help, for one, that he was sharing a runoff ticket with Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who possessed as much political skill and authenticity as a Tide pod.
But Perdue was also a lazy, entitled campaigner. “I think he may not be terribly comfortable going out soliciting people for votes,” Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, told me. “His career has been that of a CEO—you give commands, you tell people what to do.” As a senator, Bullock said, you’d hear Perdue “was not around the state, interacting with folks.”
And yet, Perdue may have gotten away with it, even after skipping debates, if Trump hadn’t gone out of his way to blow the runoffs for both Perdue and Loeffler. His yammering about the stolen election and Kemp’s inability to overturn the state’s results depressed Republican turnout relative to Democrats’ in the January 2021 runoffs, allowing Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to win their races and give Democrats control of the Senate.
A person with dignity who’d just lost his Senate seat because of Trump’s 70-plus years of untreated insecurities might refuse to ever speak with Trump again. But when Trump, looking for a proxy through which to exact revenge on Kemp for refusing to throw the election his way, came calling, Perdue took up the task. Even more debasingly, Perdue made the same unfounded gripes Trump was making about the “stolen election”—yes, the gripes that cost Perdue his reelection—the centerpiece of his campaign for governor.
It’s not that Georgia Republican primary voters think there’s nothing to Trump’s big lie about the stolen election. They still have questions! And it’s not that they dislike Trump. They think he’s swell! The underlying problem for Trump and Perdue is that Georgia Republican primary voters also like Brian Kemp. Trump and Perdue couldn’t persuade them otherwise.
“Voters know who Brian Kemp is,” Bullock told me. “They’re not that dependent upon cues from Donald Trump to tell them who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy.”
Maybe there was a poll or two in 2021 that showed Kemp with poor numbers among Republicans in a moment of weakness. Perdue’s mistake was believing that moment might last. Kemp is a conservative governor who’s done everything for the MAGA movement except overturn an election. (See: limiting ballot access; stoking the culture wars; doling out tax refunds, and signing a gas tax holiday to overlap neatly with the final stretch of his primary.) You’ll need more heresies than that to oust an incumbent in a primary.
Perdue seemed to have recognized this well before primary day. He didn’t devote as much of his fortune to this race as he has in past races, and both his ads and his public appearances conspicuously dried up in the closing weeks of the race. His attention, and his money, seem more focused on completing the 12,000-square-foot mansion he’s constructing on St. Simon’s Island.
Perdue could’ve retired and built this dream mansion in 2013. Each day, he could’ve played golf, at which he excels, and then gone home, had a few cocktails, and passed out on the couch until the morning. Repeat, repeat, repeat. His business reputation and family name in Georgia would’ve remained intact.
Instead, he chose to embark on a decade-long quest—the highlight of which was six years commuting to Washington D.C. on a weekly basis to have lunch and vote for judicial nominees—that would end with his reputation sullied, the last active day of which he spent performing casual racism. He let Donald Trump play with, and break, his Senate career, and then returned to offer himself up as human cannonball in a Trump revenge scheme. The shot missed, and now Perdue’s out to sea. He shouldn’t expect Trump to send help.