Georgia's primary will test Trump's grip on the GOP

Governor Brian Kemp campaigns in Ellijay, Georgia. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

At a lush golf course in Acworth, Allison Royston is waiting to meet David Perdue.

Royston, whose two-year-old is waddling around nearby, is still undecided in the Republican primary for governor on Tuesday.

She voted for incumbent Governor Brian Kemp in 2020, who’s now seeking a second term. But Royston says he didn’t do enough to investigate election fraud in 2020.

“I think that was a big mess up on Kemp’s part,” she says.

Ever since Joe Biden won Georgia, former President Donald Trump has spread false claims about election fraud in the state.

Many voters – and candidates – have taken his cue.

Most prominently is David Perdue, the former U.S. senator who lost his seat last year to Democrat Jon Ossoff. Trump urged Perdue to mount a primary challenge against Kemp, spurred by the belief that Georgia’s governor did not do enough to help Trump overturn his election loss.

Georgia’s GOP primary is a test of whether these claims still resonate.

Royston is pleased to hear Perdue talking about the 2020 election, though she wants to make sure that’s not his only message.

“I really want to hear some things about how he plans to beat Stacey [Abrams] because Kemp has already beaten Stacey. Perdue has lost to Ossoff.”

The organizer of this meet and greet is Cody Oakes, a construction company executive who is all in for Perdue and says he won’t support Kemp if he wins the primary.

“I wouldn’t vote for him. I wouldn’t vote for Stacey. I wouldn’t know what I would do,” he says.

Oakes also says he’s upset with Kemp’s handling of the 2020 election, though he does have some doubts. There is just so much talk about election fraud from politicians, on television and online, it’s hard to ignore it, he says.

“I’m not totally sound on it, but if this isn’t true, I feel like Brian Kemp would do everything in his power to prove that,” he says.

Former U.S. Senator David Perdue meets Allison Royston and her son at a campaign stop in Acworth. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

While Kemp has not leaned into the stolen election narrative, he has not totally rebuffed claims about problems, either.

In 2021, Kemp signed a sweeping election overhaul into law. 

At an April debate, he declined to say the 2020 election was “totally clean.”

Zipping by on his golf cart from his home on the first hole, Steve Dallanegra says it’s hard for him to believe Biden won Georgia.

“I drove all over this state and I think I saw two Biden signs and yet he won,” he says.

Multiple audits have upheld Georgia’s 2020 election results and produced no evidence of widespread election fraud.

Despite Perdue’s appeals to voters who believe the 2020 election was not conducted fairly, Dallanegra plans to sit out the primary.

“I have no problem with the job Governor Kemp did, but all my buddies tell me Mr. Perdue is the man,” he says.

Heading into election day, Perdue is trailing in the polls and his public campaign schedule has slowed.

Steve Dallanegra says he’s waiting until November to vote. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

A loud minority

Meanwhile, Kemp has shuttled around Georgia in a red and black bus, including through a stretch of rolling green mountains known as the apple capital of Georgia.

With trays of fried apple pies behind him, Kemp ticked off his record as governor during a morning stop at the BJ Reece Apple House and Orchards in Ellijay. 

“I think we need leaders who can build consensus across party lines, instead of feeding into the tribalism, and I think Kemp will be better than that than Perdue,” says Reece Sanford, whose uncle owns this apple house.

For Sanford, sticking with Kemp was a no-brainer. He says most Republicans he knows aren’t driven by talk of election fraud.

“I think to a small segment of the Republican party, it really matters, but I think that they’re ultimately a loud minority,” he says.

An April poll by the University of Georgia found that 60% of Georgia Republicans believed the upcoming November election would be fair and accurate. 

Reece Sanford’s family owns many of the apple houses in a stretch of the state known as Georgia’s “apple capital.” (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

Like Sanford, Linda Dickerson is voting for Kemp. Despite Trump’s constant bashing of him, Dickerson says she’s not deterred and the governor’s record has impressed her.

“I like President Trump, but he can say some pretty mean things and I don’t always agree with what he says,” Dickerson says.

But Trump’s election fraud claims? 

Dickerson believes they’re true. She just doesn’t blame Kemp.

Dickerson faults Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

“I didn’t like the way he handled the election fraud, so I thought I’d give somebody else a chance,” she says.

Raffensperger refused Trump’s request to “find” 11,780 votes and swing the election. Dickerson is voting for Raffensperger’s primary opponent, Jody Hice, who voted against certifying Biden’s electoral win in Congress.

Governor Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp greet Linda Dickerson at B.J. Reece Orchard and Apple House in Ellijay. (Sam Gringlas/WABE)

“Why are we looking back?”

Sixty miles south in suburban Atlanta, Robert Duffy is sipping a margarita on Alpharetta’s quaint town square as a Kemp rally wraps up nearby. 

Duffy cast his ballot early for Kemp.

He voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, but the former president’s Perdue endorsement did not sway him. Trump and Perdue have spent months spreading false claims about the 2020 election, and Duffy says it’s time to move on.

“It’s a bit of a turn-off at this point,” Duffy says. “Why are we looking back at this point? I think it’s deterring our efforts in the Republican party to move forward.”

Tuesday’s primary will be one of the biggest tests yet – not only of whether the Republican Party does move forward from Trump, but also whether the former president’s false election fraud claims outlast his political clout.