Like neighbors who’ve had a falling out, Kemp and Perdue chew over old grievances
By Tom Baxter
Never has a politician made the next election so much about the last election.
Straight off the bat in the first of three debates with Gov. Brian Kemp Sunday night, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue declared that the 2020 election was “rigged and stolen” and that all the nation’s current woes, from inflation to illegal immigration to the threat of being drawn into the war in Ukraine, “all the madness” of the Biden administration, can be traced back to Kemp’s decision to cave in to the “radical Democrats” who stole the election in Georgia.
Politicians in past Georgia races have engaged in a lot of hyperbole describing the failings of their opponents, but I don’t know of a “root of all evil” statement quite as sweeping as Perdue’s in the WSB-TV debate, which will be followed by a debate on WTOC in Savannah Thursday and the Atlanta Press Club debate, aired by Georgia Public Broadcasting, on May 1.
The Republican primary opponents went on about 2020 for nearly half their debate, during which time not a word was spoken about the challenges facing the next governor or the state’s greatest needs. But did anybody expect that? This has been, from the beginning, a race earmarked as a forum for former President Donald Trump to air his grievances with Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
Kemp had some difficult maneuvering to do Sunday night because while he rejects Perdue’s rationale for his loss in the last election, he has avoided declaring that the election was totally clean — “I’ve never said it was,” he said in a heated exchange with Perdue. This is the same delicate dance he performed in championing the voting bill passed by the Republican-majority legislature in response to the 2020 election.
At times, the former Republican allies sounded a little like neighbors who’ve fallen out over the location of a fence and find themselves in a cascading spiral of retribution:
Kemp: ”When we were riding on the bus and I was campaigning for you in the runoff did you ever ask me about having a special session?”
Perdue: ”Of course I did.”
Kemp: ”No, you did not.”
There was a lot of this, enough perhaps to make some viewers feel like the neighbors who have no stake in the feud, watching as an emergency vehicle with lights flashing pulls up across the street.
After their lengthy discussion of the last election, it was striking how much of the time that was left was devoted to the Buckhead Cityhood movement, which Perdue — in line with Trump — heartily endorses, while Kemp has “kept his powder dry” on the issue. Republican primary voters who live elsewhere in the state are simply bystanders in regard to this issue, after all. Whatever they think about the drive for Buckhead to break away from Atlanta, it’s only being talked about because it, too, is another Trump project.
“People are getting killed up there right now,” Perdue said with a note of alarm in his voice as he called for the citizens of Buckhead to be given the right to break away. Unfortunately, people are getting killed in a lot of places in Georgia which haven’t drawn as much of Perdue’s attention.
Kemp said more than once that he would work to make sure that Stacey Abrams is “never your governor or your next president.” This elevation of his Democratic opponent to national status is likely to become a frequently repeated line in the closing days of this primary campaign. Even if he can win the Republican primary without a runoff, which he seems capable of doing, Kemp will need something to bring his fractured party back together, such as the threat of a future President Abrams.
This was pretty much the debate we expected it to be, but you have to wonder how it came off to people who’ll be voting in their first Georgia election this year. They saw the leading contestants in the primary of a very self-absorbed party go at each other for an hour. There were some great split screens, but not much attention was paid to winning over new voters. That could come back to bite.