In September 2021, former Senator David Perdue was reluctant to run for governor of Georgia. Over dinner with an old friend at Sea Island, he pulled out his iPhone and showed the list of calls he had received from Donald J. Trump, urging him to take the plunge.
“He said Trump calls him all the time,” said Martha Zoller, a former aide to Mr. Perdue who now hosts a radio show in Gainesville, Georgia. “He showed me on his phone these multiple recent calls and said they were from The President.”
Ms. Zoller and a legion of other former Perdue aides and advisers told the former senator that running was a bad idea. Instead, he listened to Mr. Trump.
Now Mr. Perdue is watching an epic defeat at the hands of Governor Brian Kemp, the Republican whom Mr. Trump has blamed for his 2020 loss more than anyone else. The Perdue campaign ends the race with little money, no television advertising, and a candidate even described by his supporters as dull and distracted.
“Perdue thought Trump was a magic wand,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and a Trump ally who was among Mr. Perdue’s most prominent Georgian supporters. “In retrospect, it’s hard to understand David’s campaign, and it’s certainly not the campaign those of us who were for him were expecting.”
Mr. Perdue’s impending downfall in Tuesday’s primary for governor is shaping up to be Mr. Trump’s biggest electoral setback since his own loss in the 2020 election. There may be no contest in which the ex-president did more to try to influence the outcome. Mr. Trump recruited, promoted and cleared the ground for his ally, while attacking Mr. Kemp, taping TV ads and donating $2.64 million to groups helping Mr. Perdue – by far the most he has ever invested in another politician.
Still, the race exposed the limits of Mr. Trump’s grip, particularly against entrenched Republican incumbents.
Mr. Perdue’s failures are not solely his fault. He was outflanked by a savvy Mr. Kemp incumbent who exploited the powers of his office to cut off Mr. Perdue from his allies – including Mr. Perdue’s own cousin, Sonny, a former governor and agriculture secretary of Trump whom Mr. Kemp’s allies have appointed as chancellor of Georgia’s university system.
Mr. Kemp also appeared to punish those who crossed paths with him: A congressional seat was drawn to exclude the home of a candidate whose father, a Perdue supporter, had publicly criticized the governor.
And he handed out freebies to voters, including a gas tax holiday that conveniently runs through the end of May, right after the primary.
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As Mr. Perdue campaigned outside the Semper Fi Bar and Grille in Woodstock, Georgia on Thursday, he was not talking about a path to victory, but haggling over the scale of his widely expected defeat, after an inquest Fox News showed it 32 percentage points.
“Hell no, I’m not down 30 points,” insisted Mr. Perdue, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article. “We may not win on Tuesday,” he added, “but I guarantee you we won’t drop 30 points.”
The key threshold on Tuesday is 50%: Mr Kemp must win an outright majority in the five-candidate field to avoid a head-to-head in June.
The story of Mr. Perdue’s effort is less one of political collapse and more of launch failure. From the time he announced his candidacy in December, Mr. Perdue has never demonstrated the same commitment to winning that he displayed in his first Senate race in 2014.
His case for ousting Mr Kemp has always been largely based on backing the former president. Mr. Perdue argued during his introduction to the campaign that the governor had so alienated Trump party loyalists that they would not rally around Mr. Kemp against Stacey Abrams, the presumptive Democratic nominee and one of the main bad guys from the Republicans.
But Mr. Perdue, 72, a wealthy former chief executive of Dollar General, has never come close to matching the $3.8 million of his own money he invested in his 2014 Senate race. He only invested $500,000 in his bid for governor.
That’s less than he and his wife spent last year on waterfront land on a secluded peninsula on the picturesque Île de Saint-Simons, a purchase made shortly after his defeat at the hands of of a 33-year-old Democrat who handed over Senate control to Democrats. A permit to build a nearly 12,000-square-foot mansion worth an estimated $5 million — on land with “more than 625 feet of lake frontage,” according to the listing — was granted two weeks after having declared his candidacy, according to the records.
Mr. Trump simultaneously invested heavily in Mr. Perdue, with his $2.64 million, and sought to avoid blame as the candidate faltered, telling the New York Times in April that the media focus “should be on endorsements – not on the David Perdue one” to measure his influence.
Mr. Trump’s last rally in Georgia was in late March. He did not return, as Perdue’s allies had hoped, instead holding a conference call for supporters in early May.
“I’m with David all the way because Brian Kemp was the worst governor in the country for election integrity!” Mr. Trump insisted on his Truth Social messaging platform on Friday.
Mr. Perdue, like the gubernatorial candidates of Idaho and Nebraska this month, has learned that a Trump endorsement alone does not guarantee support from Trump voters or Trump donors.
“Trump’s endorsement is very important, but it’s just an endorsement,” said former Rep. Jack Kingston, who lost the 2014 Senate primary to Mr. Perdue and is a former adviser. of Trump. “It’s not an army of infrastructure and knockers like it would be if you had the Sierra Club or the NRA or the AFL-CIO”
The juxtaposition between the Kemp and Perdue camps was particularly stark on Friday.
Mr. Kemp was outside Savannah, announcing that Hyundai was investing $5.5 billion in a battery and electric vehicle manufacturing plant, one of the largest economic development projects in Georgia’s history . There was a champagne toast.
Mr. Perdue was hosting an endorsement event nearby with Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, who is making her own comeback bid in a home run in Alaska.
“I’d rather be on the stage advertising 7,500 jobs than be next to Sarah Palin,” said Mr Kemp’s Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, a fierce Trump critic who chose not to stand. represent this year.
Randy Evans, a Perdue supporter who served as ambassador to Luxembourg in the Trump administration, said Operation Kemp was ruthless using what he called the governorship’s “intimidating” powers.
Mr. Evans’ son, Jake, is a candidate for Congress in suburban Atlanta. When Kemp-aligned Republican lawmakers drew new redistricting lines, young Mr. Evans was suddenly removed from the district in which he had planned to run.
“They cut off a piece the size of your little finger,” said the eldest, Mr Evans. “Jake had to move, buy a new house.”
Mr Kemp, 58, has leveraged the incumbent’s powers in other crucial ways. He signed a measure providing tax refunds of up to $500 for married couples, then announced on May 11, after early voting began, that those checks were in the mail. He appealed to rural Georgians by raising teachers’ salaries and delighted conservatives by signing sweeping legislation to restrict voting, expand gun rights and ban school mask mandates.
Mr. Perdue’s efforts might seem small in comparison. In March, he attacked Mr Kemp for recruiting an electric truck maker to open a factory in rural Georgia – creating thousands of jobs – because George Soros, the prominent Democratic donor, had recently invested in the business.
The Kemp-Perdue contest was steeped in the drama of personal betrayal.
Mr. Kemp had spent weeks campaigning with Mr. Perdue before the senator’s defeat in the January 2021 Senate election runoff. At that time, Mr. Kemp infuriated Mr. Trump by defending the legitimacy of the results Presidential of Georgia.
Last spring, Mr. Kemp’s aides said, Mr. Perdue assured Mr. Kemp that he had no intention of running for governor. In June, Mr. Perdue introduced the governor at the Georgia Republican Party’s annual convention.
But Mr. Kemp, shrewdly, had already begun the process of installing Sonny Perdue, a popular former governor, to lead Georgia State Universities – an appointment that effectively sidelined him. (Sonny Perdue, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.)
Mr. Kemp also preemptively secured the loyalty and fundraising ability of Alec Poitevint, a South Georgia businessman who had served as campaign chairman for David Perdue’s Senate campaigns and Sonny’s campaigns. Lost for the governorship – one of the many ways the Kemp operation was canned. Mr. Lost financially.
Mr Poitevint said he was among a host of longtime David Perdue supporters who had urged him not to run.
“I didn’t think it was serious,” Mr Poitevint said. “I expressed the fact that I disagreed with that, that I thought the governor had done a great job and deserved to be re-elected.”
Shunned by the state’s political establishment, Mr Perdue has tried to portray himself as a political outsider – “I’ve been an outsider since I entered politics,” he said on Thursday – but that’s a tough case to make for a former senator bragging about his support of a former president.
Even Mr. Trump’s $2.64 million infusion was overwhelmed by the $5.2 million in television ads paid by the Republican Governors Association to help Mr. Kemp.
Despite all of Mr. Trump’s attacks on Mr. Kemp, the governor has never fought back. Mr. Kemp’s advisers believe discipline has allowed even the most dedicated Trump supporters to stay with the governor.
Mr. Perdue’s campaign, meanwhile, centered on lies about 2020 – repeating Mr. Trump’s lie and blaming Mr. Kemp for President Biden’s election.
Mr Evans, the former ambassador who in early 2021 tried to broker a peace deal between Mr Trump and Mr Kemp, campaigned for Mr Perdue but said he saw little effort to define a separate platform.
“As far as having an independent existence from Trump, I really haven’t seen that come to fruition,” Evans said.
Mr. Kemp’s Lieutenant Governor, Mr. Duncan, summed up the arc of Perdue’s candidacy.
“David Perdue made a bad bet six months ago when he jumped into the race and thought, ‘Because Donald Trump likes me, I’m going to win,'” Mr Duncan said. “He bet wrong.”
mayan king contributed report. Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.