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ATLANTA — Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia easily dispatched Donald Trump’s handpicked challenger on Tuesday in a Republican primary that demonstrated the limitations of the former president and his conspiracy-driven policies in a critical swing state.
Kemp faces Democrat Stacey Abrams in one of the most consequential gubernatorial races in the nation this fall.
The GOP results, combined with the loss of the Trump-backed nominee for secretary of state, served as a scathing rebuke for the former president in a state that prioritized him above almost everyone else. Angered by Kemp’s refusal to join his extraordinary effort to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results, Trump personally recruited former Senator David Perdue to challenge the incumbent governor. He also helped clear the primary field and spent more than $3 million on the failed attempt.
Kemp eventually emerged as a powerful candidate, able to rake in prolific fundraising which helped him flood Georgia with television and other ads. He used the power of his office to show voters what he could do for them, unveiling a $5.5 billion Hyundai Motor plant with 8,100 jobs near Savannah in the final days of the campaign.
“Even in the middle of a tough primary, conservatives in our state didn’t listen to the noise. They didn’t get distracted,” Kemp told cheering supporters before urging his party to rally behind his campaign.
In the defeat, Perdue struck a unifying tone that has become increasingly rare in a Republican Party dominated by Trump’s hardline tactics.
“I want you to know tonight that I fully support Brian Kemp in his attempt to beat Stacey Abrams,” Perdue said. “It’s emotional for all of us, we’re disappointed, I understand that. Let’s take a few hours, lick our wounds, and in the morning you’ll hear how I work for Brian Kemp to make sure Stacey Abrams never becomes Georgia governor.”
A total of five states voted on Tuesday, including Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Minnesota. But none had been more consumed by Trump and his lie that the 2020 election was stolen than Georgia.
Overall, Trump failed to replace all four Republican incumbents he was targeting in the state, including the governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who refused to back the former president’s direct calls to overturn the 2020 election, defeated Trump’s pick, Rep. Jody Hice.
The Georgia losses become the latest examples of a primary setback for Trump’s favored candidates, who lost the gubernatorial races in Idaho and Nebraska. A week after the election, a Pennsylvania Senate primary is too short to call.
Still, the aggregate of Tuesday’s campaign underscored the enduring power of Trumpism in Republican politics 18 months after he was voted out of office. His favorite Georgia Senate candidate, Herschel Walker, easily won the GOP nomination, despite warnings from Walker’s Republican competitors about his history of domestic violence and mental health issues. He will face incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in the fall in a race that could determine control of the chamber.
Regardless of Trump’s involvement in their races, virtually all Republican candidates — even Kemp — ran with “electoral integrity.” That phrase has emerged as code for the former president’s baseless complaints about the 2020 election, which have been roundly dismissed by courts and his own attorney general. Conservative candidates from Georgia to Arkansas to Texas also borrowed from Trump’s favored culture wars by playing up concerns about transgender athletes, “critical race theory” and illegal immigration.
However, other prominent Republicans, sensing Kemp’s strength in Georgia, were increasingly willing to oppose the former president.
Trump’s own Vice President Mike Pence gathered with Kemp in the Atlanta suburbs Monday night. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who also supported Kemp and criticized Trump, described his win as “enormous”.
“I’m so proud of and happy for my friend – and just as important to the Georgia GOP and the people of Georgia,” Christie tweeted. “They didn’t want to kick out a great governor or be a willing participant in the DJT Vendetta Tour.”
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats were navigating challenging primary elections elsewhere.
Democrats were particularly focused on a runoff in South Texas, where longtime incumbent Henry Cuellar faced a fierce challenge from progressive Jessica Cisneros in a race in which abortion was a prominent issue. Cuellar is the last anti-abortion opponent in the House of Representatives. The race was too early to call with the candidates separated by 175 votes, or 0.38 percentage points, from 45,209 ballots counted at 2 a.m. ET Wednesday.
In Alabama, conservative arsonist Rep. Mo Brooks and Katie Britt advanced to a June runoff to represent the GOP in the race to succeed retired Sen. Richard Shelby. Britt served as Shelby’s former chief of staff, while Brooks, a leading figure at the Jan. 6 “stop the steal” rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol, initially won Trump’s support. Trump withdrew his endorsement after seeing Brooks struggle in the polls.
And former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, who was the face of an administration that contributed to sharply dividing the nation, won the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Arkansas.
Back in Georgia, Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath defeated Democratic Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux in suburban Atlanta after being forced into a rare primary from incumbent to incumbent after Republicans redrawn the congressional map. McBath, whose son was murdered, has become a vocal advocate for gun control.
Not far away, in Georgia’s 14th congressional district, leading Trump-ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene won her primary, despite a first term notable for her conspiracy theories and controversy.
Tuesday was Georgia’s first election under a new election bill passed by the Republican-backed state legislature in response to Trump’s grievances. The changes complicated mail-in voting, which was popular with Democrats in 2020 amid the pandemic; introduced new voter identification requirements that critics warned could disenfranchise black voters; and expanded early voting in rural areas that typically vote Republicans.
The new law also banned the distribution of food or water within 150 feet of a polling station, a practice common in urban areas where voter lines are typically long.
Despite concerns about the impact of the law, no major or system-wide issues have been reported in Georgia. There were sporadic reports of late polling stations, minor equipment problems and some voters finding themselves in the wrong place.
In Woodstock, a suburb of Atlanta, Republican primary voter David Butler said he likes Trump but opted to back Kemp instead of the Trump-backed Perdue.
He said Trump’s endorsement had “no impact at all” on his decision.
“I like Trump a lot, but Trump is gone,” Butler said.
Folks reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jeff Martin of Woodstock, Georgia contributed to this report.