ATLANTA – Primary challengers to Georgia’s last two sitting Republican governors’ reelection bids didn’t fare well.
Ray McBerry garnered only 11.6% of the vote against then-Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2006. David Pennington did a little better against then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2014, collecting 16.7% of the vote.
Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue likely will eclipse those numbers against Gov. Brian Kemp in the May 24 GOP gubernatorial primary.
Perdue entered the race last December at the urging and with the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, who was angered over Kemp’s refusal to help overturn the 2020 election that saw President Joe Biden win Georgia’s 16 electoral votes.
Trump turned to Perdue after the former CEO lost his bid for a second Senate term to Democrat Jon Ossoff early last year.
Although the presidential election took place 18 months ago, Kemp’s inaction following complaints of widespread voter fraud in the election’s aftermath has been Perdue’s main theme on the campaign trail. He has hammered away at that argument despite repeated court rulings that the allegations were unsubstantiated.
“Our governor allowed radical Democrats to steal our election,” Perdue said last month in a contentious one-on-one debate with Kemp. “We have evidence that is compelling. Yet, nothing has been done.”
Kemp said he followed the law and the Constitution, which gave him no wiggle room to intervene in certifying Biden’s victory in Georgia.
The governor pointed instead to the Republican-controlled General Assembly’s passage of an election-reform law last year that added restrictions to absentee voting.
“We passed the strongest election integrity law in the U.S.,” he said. “We’ve tied photo ID to absentee ballots. We’ve secured drop boxes.”
Kemp has been leading in the polls and has drubbed Perdue in fund-raising. The governor is hoping to avoid a June 21 runoff rematch with Perdue.
But amassing the 50%-plus-one vote margin needed to win the Republican nomination outright will be difficult in a field crowded with five GOP candidates.
Besides Kemp and Perdue, the race includes educator Kandiss Taylor, conservative activist Catherine Davis and retired software engineer Tom Williams. All are polling in the single digits.
While Perdue has focused much of his fire at Kemp’s handling of the “rigged” 2020 election, the ex-senator also has criticized the governor’s handling of rising crime and his approach to economic development.
Perdue supports this year’s passage of legislation backed by Kemp to let Georgians carry firearms without a permit to help citizens defend themselves.
But Perdue cites an alarming rise in murder and rape in Atlanta, which are on track this year to beat last year’s record. While much of the responsibility for combating violent crime in Georgia’s capital goes to the city police department, Perdue said the state has 15% fewer troopers than when Kemp took office.
“What we have is a runaway crime situation,” Perdue said. “This governor is not enforcing the law.”
Kemp said the recent graduation of 75 new trooper candidates lifts the force back to where it was when he was elected. He also cited his creation of a multi-agency Crime Suppression Unit that has arrested 7,450 people with outstanding warrants, including 26 wanted for murder.
“We have taken stolen weapons off the street,” he said. “We’re going to continue doing that.”
On economic issues, Perdue argued a $1 billion phased-in state income tax cut championed by Kemp doesn’t go far enough. Perdue is calling for eliminating the tax entirely, as other Southern states that compete with Georgia for jobs have done.
“Florida, Tennessee and Texas are eating our lunch,” he said.
Kemp touted the success of the Georgia Department of Economic Development in landing job-generating projects, particularly in rural Georgia. Last year, 74% of private sector investments in Georgia as well as half of the new jobs went outside the 10-county Atlanta region, he said.
“We’re bringing in 7,500 jobs to rural parts of our state,” Kemp said, referring to plans by electric-vehicle startup Rivian to invest $5 billion in a manufacturing plant east of Atlanta. “[Perdue] has spent his whole business career outsourcing jobs to China.”
Perdue and Kemp are on the same page when it comes to the education issue that is drawing the most attention: efforts to restrict how racism can be taught in Georgia schools.
The General Assembly passed a Kemp-backed bill this year prohibiting the teaching of nine “divisive concepts,” including that the United States and Georgia are systemically racist and that no race is inherently superior or inferior to any other.
“History is proper. We want to teach history,” Perdue said. “[But] we’ve let the liberal school districts supersede the power of our government.”
“I’ve never said we don’t need to teach about race or slavery,” Kemp added. “But it needs to be facts, not somebody’s ideology.”
The highly charged issue of abortion inserted itself late in the primary campaign when a leaked draft of an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court ruling indicated the justices are poised to reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.
Perdue is calling for a special session of the General Assembly to enact a total ban on abortion – with no exceptions – if the court rules as expected and turns the issue back to the states.
Kemp has called the “heartbeat bill” he pushed through the legislature in 2019 banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected – typically about six weeks – the most restrictive anti-abortion statute in the nation. The law is on hold pending the Supreme Court ruling.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.