Earlier this week, Donald Trump unleashed a civil war within the Republican Party in Georgia.
The war was a long time coming. Last year, Trump tried to pressure officials to change Georgia’s presidential election result. Remember the infamous call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which the cornered and defeated Trump urged his interlocutor to “find” just enough votes to allow him to claim victory?
Raffensperger, a Republican, not only refused to find the necessary number of votes, but he also recorded the conversation and let the world’s media know about it. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp — whose campaign against Stacey Abrams two years earlier was about as Trumpian as one could get — also refused Trump’s appeals not to sign off on the Georgia results. There were, apparently, anti-democratic lines that, in 2020, even a deeply opportunistic and hyper-conservative politician such as Kemp couldn’t cross.
Now Trump is attempting to orchestrate revenge from Mar-a-Lago. Partly, he seems to be doing so as a matter of strategy, to attempt to gain control over all levels of the GOP in as many states as possible heading into the 2024 presidential election cycle. That effort to take over the entire machinery of a political party and bend it to the will of a single individual is straight out of the authoritarian playbook. Partly, however, this seems to be Trump’s unrestrained schoolyard bully persona lashing out at — and seeking ways to humiliate — anyone who stands in his way or refuses to fully, unquestioningly, embrace his conspiratorial understanding of the world.
In March, he endorsed a “Stop-the-Steal”-believing primary challenger to Raffensperger. It was, pure and simple, payback for Raffensperger showing some integrity and spine last autumn and winter by not throwing his weight behind Trump’s vacuous claims of election fraud.
Soon afterwards, as part of a nationwide effort to buck nonpartisan or bipartisan control over the elections process, GOP legislators in Georgia, moving in lockstep with the ex-president, voted to make it easier to take down local elections officials whose work they dislike. In practice, what that means is that, in the future, were a GOP candidate — for instance, one Donald J. Trump — to refuse to accept an election loss, the candidate would have a strong chance of bringing legislators along for the ride who would be willing and now able to subvert election monitoring systems for their candidate’s own partisan advantage.
Now, as the midterm elections near, Trump, the puppeteer, has begun pulling even more strings, making his minions dance and jerk at his every command. Seeking to destroy Kemp’s governorship, former Sen. David Purdue has jumped into the ring as a primary challenger to the governor. Remember, Purdue was part of that sorry duo of defeated senators whose unwavering and fanatical fealty to Trump cost the GOP both Georgia Senate seats, and, thus, control of the U.S. Senate. Immediately after Purdue’s announcement, Trump endorsed him, calling him a “conservative fighter.”
Purdue may indeed be conservative — certainly he is reactionary — but let’s be clear: That’s not why Trump is supporting him. This isn’t about ideology, it’s about Trump’s vision of “loyalty.” The ex-president, wounded to the quick by what he saw as Kemp’s personal betrayal in late 2020, is seeking vengeance, and he doesn’t care who he takes down in this quest to ensure that, politically speaking, the governor is soon sleeping with the fishes.
Now, personally, I don’t have a dog in the Kemp-Purdue fight. They are, to my mind, each as unpleasant as the other. In 2018, Kemp ran a nasty, ugly campaign, filled with racist messaging, against Abrams; aired a bizarre pro-gun ad in which he was seen practically fondling a semiautomatic rifle; and used and abused his position as secretary of state to back massive purges of the voter rolls. In one particularly extraordinary purge alone, roughly half a million people had their names removed from the voter rolls. If Purdue — who consistently had one of the most right-wing voting records in the Senate, and who ran campaign ads that falsely claimed Democratic rival Jon Ossoff had been endorsed by the American Communist Party — wants to get down and dirty against Kemp, that’s fine with me.
What makes it all a hell of a lot more interesting, however, is that Abrams has also announced she is running, once more, to be governor. Abrams lost to Kemp in 2018 by 1.4 percent, a result impacted at least in part by the scale of voter disenfranchisement that Georgia had unleashed in the run-up to that election. Since then, Abrams has created two organizations to encourage voter participation, including, most recently Fair Fight Action. The result has been a huge upsurge in voter participation, not only in presidential votes, but in down-ballot elections as well. Roughly 1 million more Georgians voted in the 2020 presidential elections than was the case four years earlier. And even in the 2020 Senate runoff elections, 260,000 more Georgians cast votes than voted in the 2016 presidential election.
Despite Georgia’s accelerated efforts to suppress the vote, Abrams’s group will, at the very least, act as a counterweight to this in the next election cycle. In fact, there’s no red state in the country where progressives are better positioned to defeat efforts to ensure continued conservative dominance achieved via voter suppression. And there’s arguably no progressive candidate in a key swing state more able to ride this wave of newfound voter engagement than is Abrams.
The Purdue-Kemp fissure, and Trump’s stirring of the GOP rage-pot, could end up boosting Abrams, even if the Democratic Party nationally takes a beating. After all, if Kemp and Purdue spend the next six months sparring against each other in a war of attrition, as seems likely, Abrams could end up the last candidate still in the ring.
An Abrams victory would be huge nationally, making it that much harder for a Trumpified GOP to overturn election results in 2024. It would be a sweet irony indeed if the twice-impeached ex-president’s sparking of a GOP civil war in Georgia cost the party a key governorship, and if Raffensberger — who, regardless of whether he is successfully primaried, will still be secretary of state in November 2022 — is, to the horror of Donald Trump, once more tasked with the job of certifying a Democratic win.