(The Hill) — Former President Donald Trump is facing a serious political setback after Georgia voters delivered a resounding rejection on Tuesday of his efforts to reshape some of the state’s highest offices in his own image.
In nearly every statewide GOP primary, Trump’s endorsed candidates fell to incumbents whom he vowed to seek revenge upon.
Despite the former president’s aggressive intervention in the state, three top Republican officials who rebuffed the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election – Gov. Brian Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Attorney General Chris Carr – coasted to victory over their Trump-backed rivals.
The string of losses for Trump’s preferred candidates in Georgia underscores the limits of the former president’s efforts to exact vengeance against his perceived Republican critics. But they also offer some of the clearest evidence to date that Trump’s grip on the GOP may be weakening as he looks to keep the focus on his 2020 electoral loss and false claims of voter fraud.
“I don’t want to say this is the beginning of the end for Trump. But I do think there’s been a move toward the idea that most Americans don’t want to look back,” said Chuck Clay, a former state senator and Georgia GOP chair.
“You may have some people who aren’t comfortable with the last election, but they’re not out there saying it was outright stolen,” he added. “They’re not out there waving false flags.”
For more than a year, Trump tried relentlessly to oust Kemp, Raffensperger and Carr, endorsing primary rivals who echoed his baseless allegations that widespread voter fraud and malfeasance by election officials robbed him of a second term in the White House.
But each of those rivals suffered embarrassing — and emphatic — losses on Tuesday. Former Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), whom Trump endorsed to take on Kemp, finished more than 50 percentage points behind Kemp, while Carr dispatched with his Trump-backed challenger John Gordon by a more than 47-point margin.
Even Raffensperger, who finished with the smallest margin of victory, won his primary by a nearly 20-point margin, beating out Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) for the GOP’s nomination for Georgia secretary of state despite Trump’s intervention in the race.
Trump’s record was already blemished before Tuesday’s primaries. His endorsed gubernatorial candidates in Idaho and Nebraska also lost their primaries, as did Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), one of Trump’s most loyal allies in Congress.
But the Georgia primaries carry particular weight for the former president, who became the first Republican contender for the White House to lose the state in nearly three decades.
“I think the president put a lot on Georgia and the primaries there. It was kind of supposed to be redemption for him,” said one former Trump campaign aide. “With what happened last night, it’s kind of hard to make the argument now that people are still with him.”
Of course, Trump’s endorsement wasn’t the only factor that helped determine the outcome of Tuesday’s primaries. Jay Williams, an Atlanta-based Republican strategist, said that GOP voters were reluctant to get rid of Kemp because his record in the governor’s mansion has largely been viewed as a success for conservatives.
“Republicans need a good reason to fire their incumbents and it’s just really hard to beat them when they’re powerful and they’ve done a good job,” Williams said.
Perdue, meanwhile, had little to run on besides Trump’s endorsement, Williams said. The former senator suffered a bruising defeat by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) in a runoff election last year and struggled throughout his campaign for governor to market himself to voters as more than a megaphone for Trump’s political grievances.
“There’s only really so much he can really do to help prop up David Perdue,” Williams said. “He’s not a good candidate. He wasn’t a good candidate in 2020 and he didn’t have a lot going for him outside of Trump’s endorsement.”
Trump’s failures in Georgia — and in the gubernatorial primary, in particular — were also a major victory for the Republican establishment that the former president has railed against.
The Republican Governors Association dropped some $5 million to boost Kemp ahead of the primary. And in the final days of the race, a handful of GOP luminaries including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Vice President Mike Pence swooped into Georgia to campaign for him
Nevertheless, the losses by Trump’s endorsed candidates are likely to draw speculation about the former president’s political weaknesses as he weighs a potential comeback bid for the White House in 2024.
Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist, said that while there have always been limitations when it comes to national political figures’ abilities to influence state elections, Trump remained an exception for years because of his vise-like grip over the GOP and its conservative voter base.
But since leaving the White House last year, Naughton said, the political movement that Trump spearheaded has begun to form an identity separate from the former president. Consequently, he said, voters are proving less likely to take cues from Trump.
“These endorsements from people out of state have never been waning in influence for a long time. People make up their own minds,” Naughton said. “Trump was different because he was so powerful in the Republican Party. He reorientated it toward a new set of issues, but now people are running on those issues on their own.”
“You’re asking people in Georgia to take the advice of some guy who lives in a mansion down in Florida.”
In the short term, Trump’s willingness to wade into the Georgia primaries on the behalf of losing candidates carry other repercussions for his party. He spent months brutally attacking Kemp, who is now set to face a rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams in November. Naughton said that if Kemp loses that race, it’ll be on Trump’s shoulders.
“He doesn’t think more than a day ahead of time,” Naughton said. “Georgia is all on him.”