WATKINSVILLE, Ga. (AP) — Two Republican frontrunners are hoping to clinch primary majorities as candidates make their final pitches to Georgia voters on Saturday ahead of Tuesday's election.
Gov. Brian Kemp and former football star Herschel Walker hope to win GOP majorities and clinch nominations for governor and U.S. senator on Tuesday without runoffs, with polls showing both men backed by more than 50% of voters. Kemp met voters at a rally in Watkinsville, near his home in Athens, with Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts showing up to support him.
Walker spoke to Republicans in Columbus, having moved into a more public campaign phase in recent days despite continued questions about his past.
Walker has been accused of threatening his ex-wife’s life, exaggerating his business record and lying about graduating from the University of Georgia. An Associated Press story Saturday found that Walker was actually a paid spokesman for a for-profit veterans program that Walker has described as a way he helps veterans.
Walker's speech focused on his life story and general attacks on Democratic policies.
“It is time that we get back to where we started,” Walker said, arguing that Democrats have strayed from American values. “And we have a long ways to go. When we go together, we go as one, we’re going as one and the way it starts is May 24. Go on to the poll. Vote.”
Other candidates are making final pitches as well. Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, Kemp's top rival for the Republican nomination, met with Republicans in Union County, in far north Georgia. Walker's rivals, including state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Navy veteran and former banker Latham Saddler, were meeting with supporters in suburban Atlanta.
Black, who has attacked Walker most sharply, argues that Walker isn't qualified and that his personal history makes him unelectable.
“Herschel Walker hides out from tough questions, refuses to debate, and has built his campaign on an inflated resume,” Black said this week.
Many Democrats are attending a party function Saturday night in Gwinnett County, where Democratic congressional incumbents Lucy McBath and Carolyn Bourdeaux are squaring off in Tuesday's primary.
For Kemp, an outright win would be vindication after months of attacks from former President Donald Trump. Perdue was personally courted by Trump to enter the race as retribution for Kemp not going along with Trump’s effort to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election. Perdue embraced Trump’s election lies, opening two debates between the candidates with the claim that the 2020 balloting was “rigged and stolen.”
Ricketts appeared after Jim Pillen, whom Ricketts endorsed to succeed him as governor of Nebraska, beat the Trump-endorsed Charles Herbster in a Republican primary in Nebraska on May 10.
Ricketts said after his speech that he thought both those races prove that “candidates matter, that people in the state will pick the best candidate.”
Ricketts is the 2022 co-chair of the Republican Governors Association, which has spent millions to support Kemp against Perdue. Other RGA figures who have been at odds with Trump have also come to Georgia to campaign for Kemp in recent days, including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. Former Trump Vice President Mike Pence will help Kemp close his campaign in a Monday rally in suburban Atlanta.
Despite the rift, Ricketts downplayed the differences with Trump, saying party splits are “not unusual” in contested primaries.
“I support many of President Trump’s policies, and I know Brian Kemp does,” Ricketts said. “And in this case, we just happen to be on opposite sides of who we’re picking in these races.”
Neither Kemp nor Ricketts mentioned Perdue in their speeches Saturday. Kemp's stump speech, as it has been in recent days, was focused on the threat of Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is unopposed in her party's primary on Tuesday. The state Democratic Party on Friday released an ad criticizing Kemp for his early decision to lift many COVID-19 restrictions on businesses in Georgia, as well as his successful push for a law removing the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed handgun. “Every time Kemp gambles for votes, Georgians lose,” the Democratic ad claimed.
Kemp on Saturday portrayed those actions as 2018 campaign promises he has kept as he rallied his supporters just outside his hometown of Athens. The crowd was sprinkled with longtime Kemp supporters and Republican officials.
“There may be people out there and even people here that don’t agree with all of that,” Kemp said of his actions. “But you can’t say I didn’t do what I said I was going to do.”
If Kemp wins, he faces the task of bringing together the party, knowing that every vote may be needed to defeat a well-financed Abrams and energized Democrats in the fall. Some Trump-backing Republicans continue to say they won't vote for Kemp, but the incumbent expresses confidence that the specter of Abrams will motivate them.
“I think Stacey Abrams is a great unifier,” Kemp told reporters. “People have differences of opinion on who they want their nominee to be. But I can guarantee you, Republicans in Georgia know I’ll be a lot better governor than Stacey Abrams.”
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Jeff Amy, The Associated Press