When Brian Kemp’s top donors huddled with the Georgia governor and his lieutenants at Atlanta’s Capital City Club earlier this year, they had reason to worry that his political career was about to come to an end.
Former President Donald Trump had spent the previous year savaging the Republican governor for refusing to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results, and he was bent on ousting the governor from office, recruiting and endorsing Kemp’s primary opponent. Few Republicans in recent years had survived Trump’s wrath. But the Kemp team reassured the nearly 200 well-heeled contributors in attendance they had a plan.
“We’re going to go fucking scorched-earth,” Kemp adviser Jay Walker told the group, according to a person with direct knowledge of the remarks. Walker projected confidence: “When you got your foot on someone’s neck, you don’t take it off until the race is over, or they’ve run out of oxygen.”
Kemp’s don’t-give-an-inch strategy paid off Tuesday with a lopsided win over former Republican Sen. David Perdue, for whom Trump campaigned, appeared in TV ads and spent millions of his carefully guarded PAC dollars. The loss underscored the political limits of the former president’s relentless grievance campaign over 2020 — and the power governors have at their disposal to resist Trump’s meddling.
It’s the third time in three weeks Trump has endorsed the losing candidate in a primary for governor. And while Trump and Perdue bet that Kemp’s refusal to intervene in the 2020 vote count would sink him with Republican voters still angry about Trump’s election loss, the governor outmaneuvered them by suffocating Perdue’s campaign before it could get any traction, according to more than a dozen interviews with strategists, donors and party officials involved in the campaign.
By the time Perdue launched his campaign in December, he found that Kemp had used the levers of his office to rally the support of state power players and pass legislation that assuaged pro-Trump voters. Kemp had won the backing of many of Perdue’s former longtime advisers, making it difficult for Perdue to build a political operation. And the governor had spent months aggressively courting the former senator’s biggest donors, leaving Perdue financially devastated and demolishing his plans to establish a big-spending super PAC.
Even Trump found himself struggling to make inroads in Georgia: He tried to persuade former football star Herschel Walker, who he is supporting in the Senate race, to come out in support of Perdue — to no avail.
“Outside of Trump’s endorsement, it was a one-sided fight,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Trump pollster who also worked for Perdue. “All Kemp.”
Taking the pieces off the chessboard
Perdue’s political network began to fracture nine months before he even got into the race.
That’s when reports emerged that Kemp was considering tapping the former senator’s cousin and the Perdue family patriarch, former Georgia governor and Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, to become chancellor of the Georgia state university system. The appointment was formalized this March.
But Sonny Perdue was only one of several top David Perdue allies whom Kemp put in positions of power, effectively breaking down the former senator’s political infrastructure. Shortly after the 2020 election, Kemp appointed Alec Poitevint, a longtime Perdue friend and former campaign chair, to the Georgia Ports Authority. (Poitevint would end up backing Kemp’s reelection effort.) That spring, Derrick Dickey, Perdue’s former chief of staff, was tapped to oversee a pro-Kemp outside group.
By spring of last year, it appeared Perdue was ready to take himself out of contention. In late April, Kemp chief of staff Trey Kilpatrick ran into the former senator at the Frederica Golf Club on wealthy St. Simons Island, where Perdue has a home. The two spoke for 15 minutes, and Perdue told Kilpatrick he would back Kemp for reelection and not run against him.
Kilpatrick set up a meeting between Kemp and Perdue and their spouses to take place the following evening, where the former senator conveyed the same message, according to a person with direct knowledge of the talks.
But Perdue’s plans soon became less clear. Kilpatrick tried to arrange for Perdue to introduce and endorse Kemp at the state GOP convention in June — but in the end, while Perdue introduced the governor at the event, he didn’t make an explicit statement of support. The chief of staff nailed down plans for Perdue to make an appearance at a high-dollar fundraiser for Kemp in September, but Perdue canceled just hours before the event was to take place.
Behind the scenes, Perdue was sounding out friends about a potential run — and getting grave warnings that it wouldn’t be easy.
Perdue told one friend that he had reviewed favorable private polling and that he believed Trump’s support would propel him to victory. But the person warned Perdue that taking on an incumbent governor would be hard, and that it wouldn’t be enough to center his campaign around Trump and the 2020 vote count.
“I personally have not talked to anybody in this state who encouraged him to [run]. Everybody I know tried to stop him when the rumors started circulating. I do not think anybody thought it was a good idea for him to run against the governor,” said Savannah-based GOP donor Kevin “Catfish” Jackson, a past Perdue Senate campaign donor who backed Kemp.
But Perdue plowed ahead. During a meeting with several of his former political lieutenants last fall, Perdue remarked that Trump had been courting him aggressively to run and hinted that he was about to take the plunge, according to one attendee.
On Dec. 6, Perdue launched his campaign.
Cutting off the cash
Last June, Kemp phoned Steve Hufstetler, a Georgia real estate developer and major GOP contributor, and asked if the two could meet at Hufstetler’s office.
At first glance, Hufstetler was the type of donor who could conceivably fund a Perdue primary effort: He had given six figures to Trump’s reelection effort, had served on Perdue’s Senate campaign finance committee and had been concerned about Kemp’s handling of the 2020 election. After the election, he had conducted an informal survey of the Kemp supporters he knew and found they no longer backed the governor.
But Kemp worked to sway Hufstetler during the 90-minute meeting, delivering what the developer later recounted to POLITICO as a “lengthy and data-driven explanation” about why he did not intervene in the vote count. Hufstetler walked away convinced — and eventually donated more than $100,000 to back the governor.
The courtship illustrates how aggressively Kemp moved to deprive Perdue of money, effectively shutting down his fundraising reservoir. The results were devastating for the former senator, who was outraised more than 6 to 1. Perdue, who had raised more than $99 million for his nationally watched Senate campaign in 2019 and 2020, disclosed raising just $3.5 million for the governor’s race.
While Kemp’s campaign spent more than $1 million on TV advertising during the final week of the primary, according to AdImpact, Perdue’s spent nothing.
The Perdue campaign found fundraising to be nearly impossible, with many of the former senator’s past donors already committed to Kemp or unwilling to be seen as crossing the sitting governor. Several of Perdue’s past finance chairs had jumped to the Kemp team.
The Perdue campaign had also hoped to hire the Lukens Company, a fundraising firm, to help with outreach, but the outfit declined because it didn’t want to go against Kemp, according to a person with direct knowledge of the talks. (The firm “has a policy of not working on primary campaigns against sitting Republican incumbents,” said Seth Colton, the Lukens Company’s president and managing partner.)
Perdue, meanwhile, was growing increasingly frustrated, telling aides he was convinced that Kemp was pressuring donors not to support him. Kemp aides, however, insist they never used heavy-handed tactics, instead attributing the governor’s fundraising success to the close relationships he’s built with contributors.
By the end of the year, some of Perdue’s former donors had turned against him completely. Jackson, who ended up giving $60,000 to back Kemp, recalled a conversation in which he told Perdue he was backing the governor and encouraged the former senator to drop out of the race.
“He clearly did not like to hear that I was not supporting him,” Jackson said.
From its offices a few blocks away from the White House, the political operation for Republican governors was making clear it had no tolerance for anyone working for a candidate challenging an incumbent.
Shortly after Perdue launched his campaign, the Republican Governors Association sent termination letters to two prominent Republican consulting firms — Targeted Victory and Something Else Strategies — that had signed on with Perdue, informing them they would be losing their contracts with the organization, according to two people familiar with the move. McKenzie Vaughn, Perdue’s finance director, also lost her work with the RGA.
Republican officials described the posture as standard, given that the organization’s policy is to bolster incumbents. Perdue would end up relying on several prominent national GOP strategists, including Austin Chambers. (Kemp allies were rankled by Chambers’ role in the campaign because the governor had successfully lobbied for the strategist to become executive director of the GOP’s state legislative campaign committee during the 2020 election.)
By this spring, it was becoming apparent that Perdue had failed to put together the robust political apparatus required to oust an incumbent. When they mapped out his campaign, aides to the former senator concluded they would need a well-funded super PAC and hoped that a pro-Perdue outside group, Georgia Action Fund, would raise between $8 million and $10 million, according to a person familiar with the discussions. But through May 10, the organization had only raised $2 million.
The super PAC’s campaign finance reports hinted at a big reason why: No individual person was willing to cross Kemp by putting their name on a donation. All the money the super PAC disclosed raising this year first passed through “dark money” nonprofits like the American Exceptionalism Institute and American Principles Project, obscuring the original source of the cash.
It was becoming a pattern. When Perdue aides sent out fundraising invitations, they often had to write, “Address provided upon RSVP” — because hosts didn’t want their names publicly listed.
As winter turned to spring, it was clear Perdue simply couldn’t match the bombardment he was facing from Kemp and the RGA on the TV airwaves. Perdue advisers began to wonder why they weren’t getting more backup from allied super PACs, and by March, his team began privately expressing doubts it was possible to win because of the lack of resources.
Through last week, Kemp and his allied groups spent more than $12 million over the course of this year, nearly twice as much as the Perdue side.
Frustration in Trumpworld
Despite Perdue’s struggles, Trump remained invested in the race.
The former president would end up directing more than $3 million to pro-Perdue groups through Save America, his cash-flush PAC — the most he’s spent so far to help a candidate. The principal pro-Trump super PAC, for which Trump raises money, spent nearly $500,000 on TV ads.
Trump appeared in TV ads for Perdue, held a fundraiser at his Mar-a-Lago estate, recorded robocalls, traveled to Georgia for a rally, sent out appeals to small-dollar donors and hosted tele-rallies. He helped to clear the primary field for Perdue, nudging out another MAGA-aligned Republican candidate who was taking on Kemp.
And behind the scenes, Trump remained in regular contact with Perdue, sometimes speaking with him several times a week about the race. During one recent conversation, the two spoke about early vote totals, and the former president was often encouraging.
But Trump, like Perdue, faced resistance. The former president and Perdue agreed that getting an endorsement from Walker, the former University of Georgia football great running for Senate, would be a boon. But Walker declined to get involved as he navigated his own primary, according to a person familiar with the talks. (A Walker spokesperson declined to comment.)
Perdue’s strategists recognized they would need to align the campaign closely to Trump’s all-encompassing focus on the 2020 election to keep him engaged. But it wasn’t without risk: Top Georgia Republicans had warned Perdue that he would need to articulate a broader argument for why Kemp should be replaced.
Frustrations within Trump’s orbit were growing. Some wondered why Perdue, a multimillionaire former Dollar General and Reebok executive, had put just $500,000 of his own money into the campaign. But Perdue had long been reluctant to pour his personal money into his political campaigns: Former aides recall his reluctance to provide funding for his 2014 Senate bid.
As the race wore on, Perdue conveyed to Trump that taking down a sitting governor was hard, and that his financial network had been shut down. The former president internalized that message, remarking this spring that “it’s always hard to beat a sitting governor” and that “they have a lot of money behind them.”
While some Trump advisers privately conceded by April the race was lost, Trump remained upbeat in his conversations with Perdue.
“We can beat this son of a bitch,” Trump told the former senator at one point, according to a person briefed on the talks.
But on Tuesday night, it was Kemp who was celebrating.