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Georgia's primary is expected to be a litmus test for the Republican Party

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today's Republican primary in Georgia is shaping up to be a big test. How firm is former President Donald Trump's grip on the Republican Party, and how many voters will embrace the big lie about his defeat in 2020? Georgia was one of the states Trump tried to overturn after he lost it, and the leading Republican candidates for governor have taken opposite views on this, one in favor of facts, the other against them. Politics reporter Sam Gringlas of WABE in Atlanta is covering the primary. Sam, good morning.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve. Good morning.

INSKEEP: How did the race between Governor Brian Kemp and his primary challenger, David Perdue, take on larger significance?

GRINGLAS: Well, I think the most important thing you need to know is that Perdue is running with Trump's support, and it was actually Trump who urged Perdue to take on Kemp in the first place. It wasn't always this way. Trump actually endorsed Kemp in 2018, but then the 2020 election happened, and Trump says Kemp just didn't do enough to help him overturn the election result in Georgia. And so Trump has spent the last year or so just bashing Kemp at every turn. And following Trump's lead, Perdue has premised his entire campaign on this false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. I mean, you just have to literally listen to his first words at a debate last month, and that tells you what you need to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID PERDUE: First off, folks, let me be very clear tonight. The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen.

GRINGLAS: And Trump has endorsed primary candidates up and down the ballot who are spreading these same false claims.

INSKEEP: And their support is certainly not zero. We interviewed Georgia voters on this program a few days ago and found a number who were ready to vote for Trump again if they could do it. So how large is his influence in this primary?

GRINGLAS: You know, I have met some of those same kind of voters as well. But if we take a few hints from what we're seeing in this governor's race, Kemp has been leading Perdue in the polls. Perdue's fundraising and spending have dried up somewhat. And the reality is that Kemp is an incumbent governor who is popular with conservatives. You know, he signed legislation like cutting taxes, restricting abortion, expanding access to guns. And now Kemp is kind of looking beyond Perdue and beyond 2020 to a rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams this fall. There's this line that Kemp uses at a lot of campaign events where he talks about the race against Abrams as being a battle for the soul of Georgia. And he repeated it again at a rally last night with former Vice President Mike Pence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN KEMP: This family has been getting up every single day to make sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be our governor or the next president.

(APPLAUSE)

GRINGLAS: And you know, that's been convincing for a lot of voters. I met Linda Dickerson when Kemp was campaigning at an apple orchard.

LINDA DICKERSON: I like President Trump, but he can say some pretty mean things, and I don't always agree with what he says.

GRINGLAS: Dickerson told me she has been impressed with how Kemp has handled the economy, and Trump saying otherwise just is not going to be enough to change her vote.

INSKEEP: You know, we also heard voters in recent days from both parties when we were going around saying they respect Kemp because he acknowledged reality. I even heard of Democrats who were thinking of crossing over in the primary to vote for him, as they could do in Georgia. What are you hearing?

GRINGLAS: Well, so far from early vote data, we're seeing that somewhere around 40,000 people who voted in the Democratic primary back in 2020 pulled a GOP ballot in this primary. So it's not necessarily that they are going to vote for Kemp in November, but maybe they feel really strongly about Perdue not being the nominee who has, you know, made these false claims. But, you know, Linda Dickerson, that voter from the apple orchard - she told me she does believe there was widespread election fraud in 2020. She just does not blame Kemp for it. Then there's also voters like Robert Duffy. He told me he went with Trump in 2016 and in 2020 but would not vote for him again. He says he's just tired of relitigating the last election.

ROBERT DUFFY: It's a bit of a turnoff at this point. Why are we looking back at this point? I think it's deterring our efforts in the Republican Party to move forward.

GRINGLAS: But I think this primary is not only a test of whether Trump is still the most important player in GOP politics. It's also about whether Trump's false claims about election fraud will outlast him.

INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned Mike Pence showing up for Kemp yesterday. He's a possible presidential contender himself, drawing a contrast with Trump. What makes Georgia a good place for Pence to do that?

GRINGLAS: You know, this primary in Georgia has turned into somewhat of a proxy battle over the future of the Republican Party. Pence was here last night, kind of stepping out from the shadow of his former boss. But at the same time, Georgia is on the cusp of political change - voted for Biden in 2020, and there is a Senate seat on the line too.

INSKEEP: WABE's Sam Gringlas, thanks for your insights.

GRINGLAS: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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.