ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp won the state's Republican primary for governor on Tuesday, beating back former President Donald Trump's hand-picked challenger in a contest that demonstrated the limits of the former president and his conspiracy-fueled politics in a key swing state.
Kemp will face Democrat Stacey Abrams this fall in what will be one of the nation's most closely watched governor's races.
Despite the stinging setback in the night's top contest, Trump's preferred Senate candidate, former NFL star Herschel Walker, easily prevailed in his primary, while a Trump-backed candidate to serve as Georgia's chief election officer was still in the running. And in Republican primaries in Alabama and Arkansas, dozens of conservatives were likely to win their primaries after embracing Trump's lies about his 2020 election loss.
But Trump's chief focus this primary season was the race for Georgia governor.
The former president personally recruited former Sen. David Perdue to challenge Kemp, whose only sin was to reject the former president's baseless claims of widespread voter fraud. Kemp emerged as a powerful fundraiser with a list of conservative accomplishments to blunt Trump's opposition. In the final days of the campaign, he unveiled plans for a $5.5 billion, 8,100-job Hyundai Motor plant near Savannah.
Perdue's allies braced for a lopsided defeat, the only question being whether Kemp would win the 50% majority he needed to avoid a runoff election next month.
"We're not going to have a runoff," said Matha Zoller, a longtime Republican activist and northeast Georgia talk show host with ties to both Trump and Perdue. "It's going to be embarrassing."
The results could raise questions about where power resides within the GOP. While Trump remains deeply popular among the party's most loyal voters, the opening stage of the midterm primary season has shown they don't always side with his picks. Other prominent Republicans, meanwhile, are growing increasingly assertive.
Trump's own vice president, Mike Pence, rallied with Kemp in the Atlanta suburbs on Monday evening.
"Elections are about the future," he told the crowd, adding that "when you vote for Brian Kemp tomorrow, you will say yes to a future of freedom here in Georgia. You will say yes to our most cherished values at the heart of everything we hold dear."
Trump, meanwhile, held a telephone rally for Perdue, describing him as "100% MAGA."
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats elsewhere were grappling with ideological and strategic divisions that will determine what kind of candidates to nominate and which issues to prioritize for the November general election.
Democrats were especially focused on a runoff election in south Texas, where longtime incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar was facing a fierce challenge from progressive Jessica Cisneros in a race where abortion was a prominent issue. Cuellar is the last anti-abortion Democrat serving in the House.
Republicans were deciding a series of lower-profile primaries.
In Arkansas, former Trump aide Sarah Huckabee Sanders was expected to claim the Republican governor's nomination. And in Alabama, conservative firebrand Rep. Mo Brooks was running to represent the GOP in the race to replace retiring Sen. Richard Shelby. Brooks, a leading figure at the Jan. 6 "Stop the Steal" rally that preceded the Capitol attack, initially won Trump's endorsement, although Trump rescinded it after watching Brooks struggle in the polls.
No state had more consequential elections this week than Georgia, a longtime Republican stronghold that has shifted Democratic in recent elections. Biden defeated Trump in Georgia by less than 12,000 votes in 2020, and Democrats narrowly won both Senate seats two months later.
This year, Trump's obsession with his 2020 loss has loomed over Republican primary elections for governor, Senate and secretary of state.
Trump had backed Walker in the crowded GOP Senate primary to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock this fall, dismissing warnings from Walker's Republican competitors about his history of domestic violence and mental health struggles.
Leading Trump ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was also expected to win her primary election in the state's 14th congressional district, despite a first term notable for her conspiracy theories and controversy.
On the Democratic side in Georgia, two congressional incumbents, Reps. Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux, were running against each other in suburban Atlanta, forced into a rare incumbent-on-incumbent primary after Republicans re-drew the congressional map.
Meanwhile, the Georgia Republican primary for governor — and the GOP's secretary of state contest — will have a direct impact on Georgia's election system for the 2024 presidential contest.
In the GOP primary for secretary of state, Trump has railed against GOP incumbent Brad Raffensperger, who refused to support the former president's direct calls to overturn the 2020 election. Raffensperger faces three primary challengers, including Trump-backed Rep. Jody Hice. The winner will serve as Georgia's chief election officer in the 2024 presidential election.
Tuesday marked the first Georgia election under a new voting law adopted by the Republican-backed state legislature in response to Trump's grievances. The changes made it harder to vote by mail, which was popular among Democrats in 2020 amid the pandemic; introduced new voter identification requirements that critics warned might disenfranchise Black voters; and expanded early voting in rural areas that typically vote Republican.
The new law also bans handing out food or water within 150 feet of a polling place, a practice common in urban areas where there are typically long voter lines.
By afternoon, no major or systemwide issue had been reported in Georgia. There were sporadic reports of polling locations opening late, minor equipment troubles and some voters finding themselves at the wrong location.
Early voting totals in Georgia suggested enormous voter interest — especially on the Republican side.
Through last Friday, 857,401 voters had cast early ballots, including 795,567 who voted early in-person, according to the secretary of state. That included 483,149 votes cast by Republicans and 368,949 by Democrats.
Those figures shattered early voting turnout in the 2020 presidential election, when a total of 254,883 Georgians voted early.
Democrats downplayed the voting disparity, noting that the state's highest-profile contests were playing out on the Republican side.
"While Democrats are uniting behind our candidates, Republicans are in chaos as they run on an extreme agenda and try to outdo each other as the most MAGA candidate," said Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison.
Meanwhile, in the Atlanta suburb of Woodstock, 19-year-old Brody Nelson said Trump's influence in the governor's race was a "big deal" in his decision to back Perdue.
"When Trump was in office, he did a lot for this country, and he did a great deal to help small businesses and the people who were struggling in the world compared to the rich and the powerful," he said.
But Nathan Johnston, a 42-year-old land surveyor, said he was voting for Kemp because of his leadership during "a tough four years."
"We didn't stay shut down any longer than we had to and worked our way through the pandemic, and the economy is doing pretty good, so I think that reflects well on him," he said.
Peoples reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Jeff Martin in Woodstock, Georgia, contributed to this report.