Why Trump's preferred candidates keep losing in Georgia

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(The Hill) — The state of Georgia is putting former President Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party to the test.

Trump-backed candidates have faced a handful of setbacks in recent primary races, but nowhere has that been as evident as Georgia. Trump’s revenge-driven push to take down Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) fell short, and his preferred congressional candidates failed to win their runoff races this week.

Overall, six of the president’s eight endorsed candidates in competitive races lost their primaries, with the two exceptions being Senate candidate Herschel Walker and Burt Jones, who is running for lieutenant governor.

Experts say Trump remains popular in the state, and his backing of Walker in particular made a difference in that race, but that his primary setbacks show the limits of his endorsement power and of his singularl focus on relitigating the 2020 election.

“The big takeaway of all of this is that we should be skeptical of any proposition that suggests an endorsement from Donald Trump is the be all end all of winning a race,” said Andrea Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “Endorsements are important, but you need more than endorsements to be able to win an election.”

Trump’s struggles in Georgia date back to the 2020 election, when he lost to Joe Biden by roughly 11,000 votes in a state that had not gone Democratic in a presidential race since 1992. Republicans then lost both Senate seats in the state’s January 2021 runoff elections after Trump used a campaign rally in the state to repeat false claims of fraud.

Georgia is also home to the two officials Trump perhaps blames most for his inability to keep the White House: Raffensperger, who resisted relentless pressure from Trump to overturn the results of the 2020 election and has since become a key GOP voice against the former president’s claims of fraud, and Kemp, who certified the state’s election results despite Trump’s efforts.

Both cruised to double-digit primary victories last month. Kemp defeated former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), whom Trump had persuaded to run, by more than 50 points. Raffensperger came out about 19 points ahead of Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.).

The former president’s bid to unseat Kemp was flawed from the start, experts said. Kemp, who won a first term in 2018 with Trump’s backing, is a popular incumbent who delivered on key conservative promises by enacting a restrictive abortion law, giving parents more control over their child’s education, raising teacher salaries and approving new voting laws.

Notably, some high-profile Republicans felt comfortable bucking Trump and throwing their support behind Kemp during the gubernatorial primary, including former Vice President Mike Pence, who is believed to be eyeing a 2024 presidential campaign of his own.

Raffensperger focused on outreach to Republicans and played a role in passing the new voting laws, which critics have said will make it harder for minorities to vote in certain areas.

As incumbents, both men also had the benefit of name recognition, campaign resources and the backing of other Republicans in the state.

“Perdue and Hice were running exclusively on the stolen election and nothing else,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University.

In two down ballot races, Trump-backed candidates also came up short in statewide primaries for insurance commissioner and attorney general. In both cases, the former president had endorsed challengers to allies of Kemp.

On Tuesday, Trump’s difficulties in Georgia continued. 

Vernon Jones, a former Democrat who fully embraced Trump two years ago, lost by 20,000 votes in a runoff in the 10th Congressional District, while Jake Evans lost by nearly 14,000 votes in the 6th Congressional District.

In those cases, experts said Trump’s preferred candidates were up against better known and better funded candidates. In Jones’s case, he did not have ties to the district and was encouraged by Trump to run there instead of in the governor’s race.

Taken together, experts and strategists said the underwhelming performance of Trump’s preferred candidates in Georgia underscores the risks of his often emotional endorsements and reflects how the former president’s stamp of approval is often not enough to carry a lesser-known candidate over the finish line.

Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, chalked it up to a combination of “bad candidates and not being willing to put money behind them.”

But Bullock and others cautioned against assuming Trump’s poor track record in Georgia meant voters in the state were ready to move on from him entirely. Bullock recounted seeing scores of Trump-Pence yard signs still visible in the northwest corner of the state, and polls have shown a significant number of Georgia Republicans still believe the 2020 election was stolen.

Seth Weathers, a Georgia Republican strategist, said he believes there is some fatigue with Trump among voters who likely didn’t support him in 2016 “but then got on board once he was in office.”

“But I think if he were to be on the ballot today in Georgia he would win by a pretty large majority,” Weathers said.

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