gov. Brian Kemp at podium
Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at the 8th District GOP Fish Fry in Perry Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. (Stephen Fowler/ GPB News)

In the world of political sports metaphors, primary elections are like scrimmages, where teammates face off to decide who gets to suit up and make the starting lineup. But especially after Republicans lost the White House and both U.S. Senate seats, former Gov. Sonny Perdue said it’s important to remember they all play for the same team.

“That’s what primaries are all about,” he said Saturday. “We have intra-squad scrimmage use to see who can stand and be our flag bearer for the general election. Folks, I want you to be as passionate as you can about your candidate, but don’t get mad. We are still on the same team, the best team in America: the Republican Party and the Georgia Republican Party.”

The latest showcase for the Republican team was at the 8th District GOP Fish Fry in Perry, one of the largest events on the state’s political calendar and a prime opportunity for candidates up and down the ballot to reach hundreds of attendees who will decide next spring what direction the party will take.

In the nearly 20 years since Perdue took office and kicked off a seismic shift toward Republican dominance in state government, there have been other internecine clashes in primaries, but this one comes as a demographically shifting state is on the cusp of flipping back into Democrats’ favor after President Joe Biden won the state’s electoral votes and Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock won crucial runoffs in January.

So between speeches that touted the merits of conservative, small-government policies, economic growth and attacks on Democrats in Washington, the message of unity around eventual nominees permeated the cavernous Georgia Grown building at the Georgia National Fairgrounds.

“If you believe they’re the best candidate for the job, you do everything you can to elect them,” Perdue said. “Be passionate but don’t get mad, because we’ve got to come back together.”

Gov. Brian Kemp hit back against the “disastrous agenda” Democrats are proposing in Washington and defended against criticism of the state’s coronavirus response. He also applauded lawmakers for passing the massive election overhaul currently facing eight federal lawsuits and noted historic lows in unemployment rates before closing with a message asking for unity in the party.

“At the end of the day, we do have to unite,” Kemp said. “We have got to work like we’ve never worked before to hold the line in Georgia and to show the rest of the country the playbook for 2024, and I believe we can do that.”

The governor faces at least two primary challengers and the ire of former President Donald Trump, who has been obsessed with defeating him after Kemp did not overturn the 2020 election results.

One of them, Democrat-turned-Trump supporter Vernon Jones, held a rally with pardoned former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn near the fish fry before greeting supporters during the governor’s speech. Jones’ campaign has ridden a wave of anti-Kemp grassroots sentiment throughout the primary so far. 

At a small, anti-vaccine protest in Macon, fringe gubernatorial candidate Kandiss Taylor falsely claimed that Georgia’s votes were manipulated and that the battleground state was “75 to 80% conservative.” Taylor also compared wearing masks and getting the coronavirus vaccine to Nazis loading Jewish prisoners into trains to concentration camps. 

The Republican primary battle for lieutenant governor is also shaping up after incumbent Geoff Duncan announced he would not seek a second term. Pro-Trump Sen. Burt Jones launched his campaign this week with a crowded event near his hometown of Jackson.

“I’m the only consistent conservative in this race,” Jones said Thursday. “The only problem with that is sometimes I’ve got to stand alone.”

Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller (R-Gainesville) is also in the race, and raised more than $2 million in the opening weeks of his campaign. Both promise to improve communication between the office, which leads the state Senate, and the lawmakers in the chamber.

Typically a lower-profile race, Georgia’s Secretary of State primary is a crowded affair, with numerous candidates challenging Brad Raffensperger after the 2020 election cycle that many Republicans believe was poorly run, despite thrice-counted results and smooth Election Day operations.

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Greensboro) has Trump’s endorsement for the race, and the congressman has made numerous false or misleading claims about how Georgia’s elections are conducted. Former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle has released two music videos skewering Raffensperger as a pawn for former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and taken aim at Hice for expressing support for Raffensperger before switching to attack him. And T.J. Hudson, former Treutlen County probate judge, is campaigning as the only candidate with experience running elections.

Raffensperger did not have a campaign presence at the event.

Another campaign missing from the fish fry was that of Herschel Walker, the former UGA football star who made an entrance into the U.S. Senate primary this week at the encouragement of Trump with a launch video heavy on biography and light on policy platforms. Despite the star power, and because of concerns about how the untested Walker would fare in the general election against Sen. Warnock, the other candidates remain undeterred.

Military veteran and banking executive Latham Saddler has received positive reception from recent campaign swings across parts of the state. Kelvin King, a Black construction company owner, completed a 30-day road trip across all 159 counties at the Perry fairgrounds, showcasing his credentials as a candidate who listens to concerns of Georgians no matter where they live.

gloved fingers holding watermelon
Agriculture Commissioner and U.S. Senate candidate Gary Black holds up a piece of watermelon cut into the shape of Georgia. (Stephen Fowler/GPB News)

Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, the top vote-getter in every election he has ever been in, is banking on his strong network of support in rural Georgia to spread across the state in ways that Walker or other Senate candidates cannot.

“See, these folks have cousins that live in Atlanta, these folks have daughters who live in Augusta,” he said, in between cutting watermelons for passersby. “One of the strengths that we’re going to have is that this helps us build those teams up further, because it’s relational. We’ve got to get back to relational politics.”

The Republican Party in Georgia is at a crossroads, with some campaigns focused more on harnessing outrage and misinformation about the 2020 election as a way to mobilize the base, while others in the more establishment wing are trying to nudge the conversation into the present and focus more on conservative policies that contrast with Democrats in Washington. And, of course, there is Trump, who can potentially change the direction of any race with a well-placed rally or emailed statement.

By this time next year, the field will be set as Republicans gear up for a showdown against Democrats, including a likely rematch between Kemp and Abrams for the governor’s race. But until next May’s primary, GOP candidates seeking a leg up in the primary have bigger fish to fry.

This story comes to Fresh Take Georgia through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

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