RINGGOLD, Ga. – As he met with voters recently in a part of northwest Georgia where Donald Trump is still very popular, David Perdue invoked his belief in the lie that elections in 2020 and 2021 were stolen from the former president and himself.
“First of all, it was stolen,” Perdue said. “The facts are coming out.”
When the rally was over, Perdue visited the storefront office of a group that similarly espouses election falsehoods. Perdue posted a photo on his Facebook page of himself beaming as the group's cofounder talks under a banner proclaiming “a legal vote requires the rule of law.”
The emphasis on false election claims is a reminder of how far Perdue has veered to the right ahead of next month's primary against incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. He's evolved from a business-minded conservative who won a U.S. Senate seat in 2014 by focusing on federal spending to a hard-liner who associates with conspiracy theorists.
That tracks with the broader shifts in the Republican Party under Trump. But some in the GOP warn that the fixation on past elections will do little to win a general election in Georgia, where moderate voters are crucial.
“I think David Perdue had a broad appeal in 2014,” said Eric Tanenblatt, former chief of staff to ex-Georgia Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and a former fundraiser for David Perdue who is backing Kemp in the primary. “I think he was a lot more relatable because he was talking about issues that were a lot more appealing to the broader electorate.”
Perdue, who was personally courted by Trump to enter the race as retribution for Kemp not going along with election lies, is lagging ahead of the May 24 primary. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Tuesday found Kemp leading Perdue 53% to 27% among likely voters. While that's a sizable margin, it just barely puts Kemp above the 50% threshold he would need to avoid a runoff.
Kemp is pressing his advantage, traveling Tuesday to a barbecue restaurant in Perdue's middle Georgia hometown of Bonaire to sign a state income tax cut that could eventually total $2 billion. While Perdue has pushed to gradually eliminate the state income tax entirely, Kemp boasted of a series of tax breaks, including a two-month gas tax holiday and a $1 billion-plus special income tax refund.
Speaking at the White Diamond Grill, a longtime Perdue hangout featured in a campaign commercial for Perdue’s 2014 Senate run, Kemp said he wants state government to “take in the very least amount possible needed to serve the people properly.”
Despite Perdue's change in tone since 2014, the former chief executive of Reebok and Dollar General insists he hasn't changed as he eyes the governor's mansion.
“Even in the Senate, I was an outsider,” Perdue said in Ringgold. “I was never part of the good ol' boys club up there, trust me.”
Still, Perdue's sharpest focus is on claims that Georgia’s 2020 presidential election and 2021 Senate runoffs, in which Perdue lost to Democrat Jon Ossoff, were fraudulently won by Democrats. No credible evidence has emerged to support Perdue and Trump’s claims of mass voter fraud. Federal and state election officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said the election was fair, and the former president’s allegations were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.
During the speech, he touted his lawsuit that seeks to unseal physical ballots for examination in Atlanta’s Fulton County, making allegations without evidence that poll workers took bribes and people were paid to gather and deliver ballots illegally.
“Who paid you to deliver those harvested ballots?” Perdue asked, suggesting that was a question his lawsuit would settle.
Perdue in 2014 was channeling some of the same businessman-outsider themes that Trump harnessed so powerfully two years later. But he was more subtle then, introducing himself to voters as a “different type of person” who cared most about reforming federal spending.
Perdue wasn't generally seen as the most conservative choice in 2014. After winning the primary, he defeated Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn, whom he said he still considered a friend years later, a nod to a bipartisanship out of vogue among hardcore partisans.
While Perdue was considered a strong conservative in the Senate, there were times he could reach across the aisle. He sought to curb school shootings by promoting better practices for campus safety and security. Perdue offended some conservatives by voting for $900 billion in additional COVID-19 relief in December 2020, while locked in a runoff with Ossoff.
Perdue was never afraid to play to the far right. In 2016 he asked an evangelical Christian audience to pray for President Barack Obama, citing a psalm that calls for vengeance on the enemies of God: “Let his days be few, and let another have his office." Perdue denied wishing actual harm on the president.
Today, Perdue blames inflation, high gas prices, immigration and American deaths in Afghanistan on Kemp’s failure to block Democrats from winning in Georgia. He warns only he can bring Trump voters to the ballot box to defeat Democrat Stacey Abrams. And he says that without Republican control in Georgia, a Republican will lose in 2024.
“You can’t win the presidency, a Republican can’t win, without Georgia," Perdue said. “And if Stacey Abrams wins this governor’s job, no Republican’s going to win this state for president. Just trust me.”
After Perdue finished speaking to Catoosa County Republicans, he and his wife drove the 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) to an office of VoterGA, wedged between a discount grocer and a Dollar Tree. VoterGA has been protesting Georgia's election system for years, including a failed lawsuit to toss a previous generation of electronic voting machines. VoterGA co-founder Garland Favorito has risen to prominence with Trump's relentless focus on fraud claims.
Favorito has also questioned the official version of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He's claimed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh improperly covered up the 1993 death of Vince Foster, a lawyer for then-President Bill Clinton.
Perdue's embrace of VoterGA could be trouble in a general election in closely divided Georgia, but many primary voters appreciate his stances. Bonnie Evans, a Fort Oglethorpe retiree, said he liked Perdue's promises to bolster the state police and crack down on immigrants in the country illegally.
“I'm a 100% for him,” Evans said. “I was about 80% for him coming in. I think he has common sense. He's not a career politician.”
Perdue also lines up behind other proposals that divide Republicans. Perdue and Trump want Atlanta's affluent, white-majority Buckhead neighborhood to get a vote on seceding from the Blacker, poorer remainder of Atlanta. Those who favor a divorce claim Atlanta will never be able to reduce violent crime, but got nowhere in the state legislature this year amid intractable opposition from business groups.
The candidate also amplifies opponents of a $5 billion, 7,500-job electric truck plant announced east of Atlanta by Rivian Automotive of Irvine, California. Residents knock the plant for ruining their rural quality of life and the state for not consulting them. Perdue in an ad blames “RINO Brian Kemp” for a “secret backroom deal” for a “scheme to give away hundreds of millions of tax dollars” to a company owned by “liberal billionaire George Soros.”
Those claims overstate Soros' role. He bought $2 billion worth of shares about the same time Rivian chose Georgia, but Soros owns only 2% of Rivian and there's no evidence he had any influence on the announcement. The deal is secretive, but no more secretive than other incentive deals Georgia hands out.
The Anti-Defamation League has said that misinformation about Soros is a cornerstone of antisemitic activity.
The attacks on Rivian show Perdue's alienation from some parts of the business community. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Perdue in 2020 and has endorsed Kemp this year, said in February that politicians criticizing Rivian "are counterproductive and harmful to the long-term economic prosperity for our communities.”
Despite such criticism, along with polling and fundraising troubles, Perdue still insists he can win.
“It’s right here in our hands,” Perdue told the group in Ringgold. “We have the numbers, if we all vote.”
Associated Press writer Will Weissert in Washington contributed to this report.