In a test of his enduring influence over the Republican Party, former US president Donald Trump has returned to Georgia to stump for allies who support his ongoing claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
At a rally on Saturday in Commerce, a small city northeast of Atlanta, Trump spent the first 20 minutes of his speech repeating disproven claims about the outcome, calling Governor Brian Kemp – a fellow Republican – a “turncoat” and “coward” for failing to reverse the results.
Trump has invested significant political capital in the state, endorsing a slate of statewide candidates in an effort to oust Kemp and his allies. The May 24 primary election will provide perhaps the clearest assessment yet of Trump’s ability to play kingmaker in the 2022 elections.
It will also offer an early measure of how Republican candidates attempt to strike a balance between Trump’s obsessive grievances about his 2020 election and national Republican leaders’ preference to focus on President Joe Biden’s record in office.
Polls have shown Kemp holding a comfortable lead over Trump’s preferred candidate, former US Senator David Perdue, despite Trump’s frequent criticisms of the incumbent governor.
In addition to Perdue, Trump has endorsed US Representative Jody Hice, who is challenging Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a public figure who has been the frequent target of Trump’s tirades.
Raffensperger, refused to be cowed and declared the state’s 2020 election result fair and accurate after a series of audits and reviews.
Split in GOP ranks?
Trump also endorsed down-ballot challengers for attorney-general, lieutenant-governor and even insurance commissioner, in each case siding with candidates taking on officials he blames for doing nothing to substantiate his fraud claims.
Biden won Georgia by less than a quarter of a percentage point, becoming the first Democrat to claim the state in nearly 30 years.
Republicans worry that a split in the ranks could open the door for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist who narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018, to win November’s rematch.
Some Republicans already believe Trump’s rhetoric following the November 2020 election helped cost the party twin Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January 2021, handing Democrats control of the chamber.
Trump remains the party’s leading figure, and Republican candidates from across the country continue to seek his support.
But he has made clear he expects his allies to commit to his assertion that Biden’s victory in 2020 was illegitimate, a claim that has been repeatedly rejected by courts and refuted by vote audits and election officials.
Some Republicans, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, have urged the party to put 2020 behind it and focus on Biden’s performance.
Historically, the party that occupies the White House has lost seats in Congress during a president’s first midterm election.