Premium

Is Brian Kemp going to defeat Trump's primary challenge -- without a runoff?

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The very minor MAGA backlash to Trump’s endorsement of Dr. Oz has revived a popular modern Republican tradition, namely, pundits pointing to some Trump stumble as evidence that he’s losing his grip on the party only to find in short order that he isn’t. It’s been going on sporadically since 2015, from the moment Trump goofed on John McCain’s POW ordeal in Vietnam by saying that he preferred soldiers who don’t get captured. Surely that would be the end of Trumpmania on the right!

Seven years later, we’re still waiting. But hope springs eternal. Chris Christie’s take this weekend was emblematic:

The recurring speculation that Trump’s political star is dimming reminds me of the recurring speculation from COVIDiots since the first days of the pandemic that herd immunity was right around the corner. Eventually both positions will be proved correct, but adherents of each will have many embarrassing misses under their belts by the time they can claim vindication.

In fairness to Christie, if his prediction bears out and Trump’s candidates end up losing four major gubernatorial primaries, that’ll be … interesting. It won’t mean that Trump’s not still the heavy favorite to be nominated again in 2024 but it may mean that there’s a meaningful market for an alternative. In particular, if Brian Kemp were to overcome a year-plus of Trump demagoguery over the 2020 election and defeat Trump proxy David Perdue in the first round of Georgia’s primary, without needing a runoff, that would be a solid sign that the Trump cult has mellowed into something more like a Trump fan club. They may still idolize him, they may prefer him in 2024, but they’re not going to stage an electoral Jonestown on his orders.

A new poll from a pro-Kemp firm finds that Kemp does in fact have a shot to top 50 percent against Perdue in the first round.

First, the top lines: Kemp leads Perdue 49-33, with another 5% backing Kandiss Taylor and roughly 12% undecided. Among “high-propensity” GOP voters, Kemp has already cleared the majority-vote threshold needed to avoid a June showdown, notching 51%.

And in a hypothetical head-to-head, Kemp leads Perdue 52-37 with 11% undecided. About 39% of GOP voters say they are “definitely” voting for Kemp, compared with 25% who say the same about Perdue.

Another significant data point in the poll: Roughly 87% of GOP voters are aware of Donald Trump’s endorsement. A Cygnal polling memo says that if Kemp gets enough “air support in the final six weeks of the primary, he will win without a runoff” and allow the GOP to pivot to defeating Stacey Abrams.

Kemp at 49 percent with 12 percent undecided is doom for Perdue if it’s anywhere close to accurate. Kemp also sharply outperforms Perdue head-to-head against Stacey Abrams in the fall, winning 50/44 while Perdue trails 48/47. I wouldn’t have guessed that Kemp’s voters would be less likely to show up for Perdue than vice versa, since Perdue’s MAGA base considers Kemp a traitor and a crook for not “stopping the steal” whereas Kemp’s base has no similar grudge against Perdue. But maybe I’ve misjudged. Maybe Kemp fans are pissed off at Perdue for turning on Kemp simply because Trump needed a puppet in Georgia to carry out his vendetta. Or maybe they think Kemp’s been a good governor and see no reason to replace him as nominee, Trump’s obsessive personal grievances notwithstanding.

Either way, if I were Perdue I’d be nervous that Trump’s going to get spooked by the polls and decide to back away from his candidacy at the last moment, not wanting to go down with the ship. He un-endorsed Mo Brooks because Brooks looks like a loser in Alabama and he’s basically un-endorsed his own social media platform because it’s not getting traction with users. It’d be perfectly in character for him to fabricate some reason that Perdue has betrayed him or disappointed him or whatever in order to pull his support at the last second. Then, when Perdue loses the primary, Trump can say, “He would have won if I’d stuck with him.”

A few people might even believe him. A very few.

He seems to be preparing the ground for a Perdue defeat. Last week he was asked about the polls showing his guy behind and tried to lower expectations, allowing that Kemp has been “very hard to beat” and calling it “a shame.” Quote: “We will see what happens. But it’s a shame. It’s a shame. Not easy to beat a sitting governor. Just remember that.”

That’s true, it’s not easy to beat a sitting governor. But it should be reasonably easy for a former president who supposedly owns the party. Does Trump not own the party anymore?

Yuval Levin doesn’t think so. What used to be a Trump party is becoming a Trump faction within the GOP, he speculates:

Trump’s endorsements will tend to create more Republicans who aren’t anti-Trump and yet don’t feel like they are in his camp. And that includes not only voters and party officials but also politicians who will feel they don’t owe him anything. As a practical matter, there should already be many such politicians, since many Republican members of Congress ran ahead of Trump in their own states and districts. But a lot of them still feel like they have been working in his party over these past six years, and can’t afford to really get crosswise with him. Yet if Trump gets crosswise with them and they still win, they would feel much less compelled to keep chasing him…

[T]he working assumption in Republican politics is that the GOP primary electorate demands absolute, groveling fidelity to the guy who lost the party the last election. But what if it turns out that this is no more true than the last supposedly binding orthodoxy?

You would think that Donald Trump would want to avoid asking that question, and testing the strength of his hold on the party. Yet it is Trump who has launched this test, pursuing a strategy likely to weaken his position and standing in the GOP, almost regardless of how the primaries turn out.

A second Kemp term in Georgia makes a DeSantis 2024 candidacy more likely. High stakes for Trump and Perdue.