Susan Crabtree: Georgia Thwarts Trump’s ‘Kingmaker’ Role

In the end, it was much ado about nothing in Georgia except for political grandstanding.

Since the state swung narrowly in Joe Biden’s favor in 2020, Donald Trump vowed to seek revenge. The improbable targets of his ire were Georgia Republicans, specifically Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Although both men had backed the former president in his reelection bid, neither would join Trump in contesting the GOP ticket’s razor-thin loss. Trump recruited newly defeated Republican Sen. David Perdue to challenge Kemp for his seat, appeared in TV ads, and spent millions from his political action committee on Perdue’s behalf. Trump also endorsed Rep. Jody Hice, who challenged Raffensperger.

Millions of words were written and much airtime expended handicapping whether Georgia would show that Trump had molded the Republican Party in his own likeness. It didn’t happen Tuesday night, at least not in Georgia. Kemp maintained his early lead in the polls while earning the endorsement of former Vice President Mike Pence along the way and cruising to an easy victory – as did Raffensperger. Pence, largely written off by the media, looked more prescient, if not instantly relevant. In an appearance with Kemp on the eve of the election, Pence called a vote for Kemp a “deafening message” that the Republican Party is “the party of the future,” stirring new headlines that he is positioning himself for a presidential run in 2024.

In the end, Kemp easily bested Perdue, more than tripling the votes the former senator received and setting up a rematch election against Stacey Abrams, whom he defeated in the 2018 general election.

But Georgia is only one state. Trump has racked up a mixed record in contested primaries so far this year while wading into various contests to settle old scores or establish himself as a kingmaker. J.D. Vance, the Yale law school graduate and venture capitalist turned author, undoubtedly has Trump to thank for his win in Ohio’s GOP Senate primary. Likewise, Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor backed by Trump in Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate race, leads by just under 1,000 votes in a race against hedge fund executive David McCormick, which appears headed for a recount.

Trump has exercised less influence in gubernatorial races – with recent losses from candidates he endorsed in Nebraska and Idaho. He secured one solid win Tuesday night with his strong backing of Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia football star and pro football running back who easily won his Republican Senate primary in the same state. Walker defeated six other GOP candidates, including Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black. In November, he’ll face Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in a race expected to be hotly contested and key to which party controls the Senate.

“There’s nobody like this man. He’s a winner and he’s a champion, and we all love him,” Trump said during a call into the Walker victory party Tuesday night. “And congratulations to everybody in that room.”

Kemp, recognizing Trump’s continued sway within the party, carefully avoided attacking Trump by name, instead spending time courting the state’s biggest donors and promoting legislation popular among pro-Trump voters. In addition to the election integrity bills, Kemp during his time in office has signed into law a bill banning abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, and another approving a “constitutional carry” law that allows Georgians to carry firearms without a permit.

“Georgia Republicans went to the ballot box and overwhelmingly endorsed four more years of our vision for this great state,” Kemp told supporters at his victory party Tuesday night.

Perdue, a 72-year-old one-term senator, was fresh off his loss to Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff in a hotly contested runoff election in early 2021 when Trump recruited him for his grudge fest with Kemp. Trump tapped him even though Perdue was in a weak position to take on a sitting governor based solely on Trump’s line that Kemp betrayed Republican voters by rejecting his pressure to contest the 2020 results.

Trump also didn’t help Perdue’s cause when he said during a rally last fall that electing Abrams as governor “might be better than having your existing governor, if you want to know the truth,” eliciting boos from the crowd. Trump cited her fighting spirit and unwillingness to concede. Still, Georgia Republicans were in no mood for that kind of talk after Abrams had spent the better part of the last year and a half labeling them as racists for passing new election laws.

The 2018 Kemp win over Abrams sparked the first cries of voter fraud and suppression in the Peach State – this time from the left. To this day, Abrams has never conceded to Kemp and has maintained that the election was stolen from her even though the tally put Kemp 55,000 votes ahead. As late as October, Abrams said in a confusing twist on Trump’s refusal to concede, “Just because you win, doesn’t mean you won.”

The simmering Democratic resentment over that loss prompted Abrams to lead a registration drive across Georgia, signing up more than 800,000 new Democratic voters in the once red state, voters that undoubtedly helped elect Biden in 2020.

The closely fought race for governor propelled Abrams to national political stardom on the left, giving her a platform to talk about voting rights. She and several other Democrats including President Biden denounced Georgia’s new election laws, which the legislature passed to roll back looser voting rules instituted during the COVID pandemic, as attempts at minority voter suppression. Biden infamously labeled the post-2020 election laws passed by the Georgia state legislature, which included voter ID requirements, as “Jim Crow 2.0” and “an atrocity,” helping spur an economic boycott that resulted in MLB pulling the all-star game from the state.

But Abrams this week had a tough time explaining why voter turnout was soaring ahead of the Georgia primaries, including among black voters. Last Friday, Raffensperger’s office announced that more than 565,000 Georgians had voted early, a 153 percent increase from the same point in the early voting period in the 2018 primary and a 189 percent increase from the 2020 primary election.

“We know that increased turnout has nothing to do with suppression,” Abrams said at a press conference Tuesday. “Suppression is about whether or not you make it difficult for voters to access the ballot.”

This assertion spurred derision from the right. Abrams, who was uncontested in the Democratic primary, must now try to prove her voter-suppression arguments still make sense. She’ll also try to capitalize on her registration inroads to prove her surprise success in 2018 wasn’t just a one-off but has truly helped turn the state bluer.

Other Tuesday primaries also produced mixed results for Trump. Two-term Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who spearheaded a lawsuit that sought to overturn the 2020 election, got a boost from a Trump endorsement. On Tuesday, Paxton easily defeated Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the son of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and nephew of former President George W. Bush, in a GOP primary runoff.

The lopsided win signaled the triumph of Trumpism over the Bush dynasty. It was particularly notable considering that Paxton, who addressed the pro-Trump crowd in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, is under indictment for alleged securities fraud.

In Alabama, a candidate with Trump’s support before he rescinded it advanced in a Republican runoff to replace retiring Sen. Richard Shelby. Trump supported Rep. Mo Brooks, a staunch conservative congressman, but rescinded his support after Brooks suggested Republicans should look forward to 2022 and 2024 rather than focusing on Trump’s continued 2020 complaints that the election was stolen. Other prominent Republicans, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, have continued to back him.

Alabama Business Council chief executive Katie Britt led the pack of GOP candidates but didn’t secure enough votes to avoid a runoff with Brooks. Alabama is such a deep-red state that the winner of the June 21 runoff is a shoo-in to win in November.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent. This piece originally ran at RealClearPolitics.

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