Former President Donald Trump’s crusade for vengeance suffered a devastating blow on Tuesday after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp won his primary despite rejecting Trump’s entreaties to overturn his 2020 election defeat in the state. That’s a complication for the former president’s hopes to return to the White House in 2024.
Voters also demonstrated an openness to embracing scandal-plagued candidates — depending on the candidate, and the scandal.
Here are some takeaways from Tuesday’s primary elections in Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Minnesota:
TRUMP’S BIGGEST PRIMARY DEFEAT
Trump had hoped to turn Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp into an example of the danger in defying him. Instead, Kemp on Tuesday became an example of how Republican incumbents might not have as much to fear from Trump as the former president would like.
Kemp cruised past former US Sen. David Perdue in the Republican primary, easily clearing the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff. The victory came a year and a half after Kemp rejected Trump’s demands to help overturn the presidential election by declaring Trump the winner in Georgia instead of Joe Biden, who actually won.
Despite the former president’s efforts, Kemp comfortably led in polls and fundraising throughout the primary campaign. The institutions of the Republican Party also swung into action to protect Kemp. He earned the support of Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, who appeared with him at a Georgia rally on the eve of the primary. The Republican Governors Association paid for ads supporting him. High-profile Republican governors including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey campaigned with him.
Perdue’s campaign fixed on Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, but Kemp won by flexing the power of his office. To rally the base, he signed laws allowing most Georgians to carry guns without a permit and banning most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected — something that can happen into pregnancy as early as six weeks. He also announced an investment by Hyundai in a new plant in the state to make batteries for electric vehicles.
Now Kemp will face Democrat Stacey Abrams in a rematch of their 2018 gubernatorial clash. Unlike Trump in 2020, Perdue accepted his defeat Tuesday night, even seeming to brush aside some supporters who took up a chant suggesting there was fraud.
“I’m sorry, but what we’re going to do right now is make sure Stacey Abrams is not the governor of this state,” Perdue said.
DANGER OF ELECTION DENIAL
The Georgia governor’s race wasn’t the only Trump grudge match that backfired on the former president. He also was falling short of his goal of ousting Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who personally rejected his calls to “find” enough votes to declare Trump the winner of Georgia.
Trump recruited US Rep. Jody Hice from a safe congressional seat to challenge Raffensperger in the Republican primary. But although it was too early to call the race, Raffensperger was well ahead of Hice on Tuesday, and the main question was whether he’d earn more than 50% of the vote and avoid a runoff.
Either way, it’s clear the former president’s harping on 2020 simply did not speak to a Republican voter in Georgia, the country’s newest battleground state.
“Georgia underscores one of Trump’s big problems if/when he runs again,” Brendan Buck, a former spokesperson for onetime House Speaker Paul Ryan, tweeted Tuesday. “He, of course, won’t be able to let go of the 2020 nonsense, and nobody wants to hear his whining about it anymore.”
Trump has registered some primary victories with election deniers — most significantly last week in Pennsylvania, when Republican voters there chose his preferred gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who said he wouldn’t have certified Biden’s 2020 win of the state. More will win in the weeks to come.
But multiple Republicans have made clear they’re eyeing 2024 presidential bids, including Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. And they have distanced themselves in ways large and small from Trump’s election claims. Elections are usually about the future, and by the time the 2024 GOP primary rolls around, November 2020 will be ancient history.
DECLINING POWER OF SCANDAL
Trump did notch some wins Tuesday. They came with baggage, but that didn’t seem to stop them.
Former football great Herschel Walker, Trump’s pick for US Senate in Georgia, dominated the Republican challengers in his primary. Party leaders had first shed away from him because of his checked history.
Walker, in his autobiography, admits struggling with mental illness. His ex-wife said that during their marriage he held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her. She later obtained a restraining order against him after he reportedly threatened her for dating other men. He claimed to have founded a chicken processing company employing hundreds but reported only eight workers when applying for a loan during the coronavirus pandemic. He lied about finding a charity to help veterans get aid with mental health — he actually is paid $300,000 a year to work as a spokesperson for a for-profit company that others founded to recruit veterans for mental health care.
Eventually even Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell ended up embracing Walker as the party’s best chance to oust Democratic US Sen. Raphael Warnock. The bet is that voters won’t care as much about scandals in post-Trump America.
That theory certainly got a boost Tuesday in Texas, too. Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted in 2015 on securities fraud charges and is still awaiting trial. He’s under investigation for corruption by the FBI and by the state bar of Texas for his role in trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Yet he easily won’t his primary against Land Commissioner George P. Bush, powered by his ability to use his office to cater to conservative causes by, for example, investigating the parents of transgender children.
Back in Georgia, firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene won her Republican primary, shrugging off challenges who complained Greene was giving the party a bad name by engaging in Holocaust denial and other headline-grabbing, bombastic behavior. Unlike Madison Cawthorn, a provocative congressman who lost his GOP primary in North Carolina last week, Greene didn’t change districts, have a long string of personal scandals or infuriate Washington Republicans by alleging they participate in orgies.
Trump set the model in 2016, and his followers are perfecting it — never let a scandal get in the way of winning an election.