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As the 2022 campaign kicks off in Georgia, 2020 casts a long shadow

Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, at the time a candidate for governor, walks with then-President Trump as Trump arrives for a rally in Macon, Ga. on Nov. 4, 2018, just days before the election. Sour on Kemp, Trump is now backing former U.S. Senator David Perdue for the 2022 GOP primary for governor.
John Bazemore
Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, at the time a candidate for governor, walks with then-President Trump as Trump arrives for a rally in Macon, Ga. on Nov. 4, 2018, just days before the election. Sour on Kemp, Trump is now backing former U.S. Senator David Perdue for the 2022 GOP primary for governor.

When Brian Kemp first ran for governor of Georgia in 2018, there was little doubt about his conservative credentials.

He even ran a campaign ad called, "So Conservative," which showed him ripping up regulations with a chainsaw. And, somewhat famously, in the cab of his pickup truck, he promised to "round up criminal illegals and take 'em home myself."

Kemp also ran with the unbridled support of then-President Trump.

Four years later, Kemp is the incumbent, up for reelection. But now, Trump has not only soured on the governor, he prodded Republican David Perdue, a former U.S. senator who lost his seat in January, to run against him in the GOP primary. Perdue announced his candidacy this week.

At a Georgia rally in September, Trump called Kemp "a complete and total disaster" and said Democrat Stacey Abrams, who has also announced her candidacy for 2022, might make a better governor than Kemp.

So how did an incumbent, conservative Trump ally end up fending off a challenge from within his own party?

The answer might say a lot about what's to come during the 2022 midterms.

"This is the dividing line"

Listen to Trump's rally speech in Perry, Georgia this fall, and there's one complaint the former president makes over and over again about Kemp.

"He's been a complete and total disaster on election integrity," Trump said.

Trump's relationship with Kemp had already started to fray in 2020, says Brian Robinson, a GOP strategist in Georgia.

But the governor's big break with Trump came in the weeks after the November election, as Trump pressured public officials in states where vote tallies were tight to overturn the results, citing bogus claims about widespread election fraud.

While Kemp didn't debunk those claims entirely, that November, he ultimately refused to do what the president wanted.

"It will be the biggest issue in the primary," Robinson says. "This is the dividing line."

Perdue, however, has gone all-in on Trump's claims about election integrity in 2020.

This week, he said he would not have certified Georgia's election results had he been governor last year. And on Friday, he joined a lawsuit challenging the results of the 2020 election in Georgia citing debunked claims of voter fraud.

"David Perdue told us that this is what this is about," Robinson says. "That is, the nexus around which this campaign revolves."

A primary campaign for 2022, spurred by competing narratives about 2020.

"This is certainly an issue that goes far beyond Georgia. It's something we're going to see around the country," Robinson says.

Trust in elections

"It becomes not about whether they're conservative, because they are conservative Republicans, it becomes whether or not you are 'with the former president,' " says Tammy Greer, a professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University.

She says while a divisive Republican primary helps Democrats, the intense focus on 2020 could muddy the waters for voters come November. If Kemp makes it to the general election, she wonders if some voters might see him simply as the guy who upheld the election results, rather than someone who's pushed through a very conservative legislative agenda.

"The current governor following the law could be viewed as a moderate, sensible Republican because of this one issue, rather than the totality of what's happened while he's in office," she says.

One thing's clear, though. False claims about election integrity aren't just lingering. They are driving debates over the Republican party's identity and animating the 2022 midterms.

"As someone who has been a Republican all of his life, if this election in 2022 becomes a referendum or a re-litigation of 2020, the Republican Party in Georgia is going to suffer a bloodbath. And you can put that down," Georgia House Speaker David Ralston told WABE's Rahul Bali on Friday.

Robinson, the GOP strategist, says he thinks most people have already made up their minds about Trump's election fraud claims and candidates like Perdue are capitalizing on what voters already believe.

That worries disinformation experts like Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center and author of How to Lose the Information War. She says political candidates stitching falsehoods about election fraud into their campaigns will likely become a mainstay in American politics – and the effects of that could be long-lasting.

"This is about the long-term health of our democratic system, and I worry that in 2070, we're still going to be thinking about 2020 and people are going to be wondering if the people counting their ballots can be trusted," Jankowicz says.

Copyright 2021 90.1 WABE

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.

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