Former President Trump returned to Georgia this weekend, to amplify his attacks on the key battleground state’s top elected Republican leaders and to showcase a trio of candidates loyal to the former president.
For Trump, the trip to Georgia was personal – it came as he’s still trying to overturn his razor thin defeat to now-President Biden in Georgia, more than 10 months after losing the White House in the 2020 election. And Trump used his rally at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry, in the central part of the state, to target conservative Gov. Brian Kemp, Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, and GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for refusing the then-president’s calls to overturn the election results in Georgia.
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Trump charged in comments to the large crowd that last year’s contest was “the most corrupt election in the history of the country,” as he once again repeated his unfounded claims that presidential election was “rigged” and “stolen” from him.
And the former president urged his supporters to oust Kemp and Raffensperger in next year’s elections, saying “the people of Georgia must replace the RINOs and weak Republicans who made it all possible.” “RINO” stands for Republican in name only.
Former President Donald Trump greets supporters during his Save America rally in Perry, Ga., on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)
Kemp, who along with Raffensperger is running for reelection next year, narrowly defeated Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams in 2018. But Trump said that he would have rather seen Abrams win. “Stacey, would you like to take his place?” the former president stated. “It’s OK with me.”
While he’s yet to back a candidate to challenge Kemp in the 2022 Republican primary, Trump once again appeared to try and recruit former Sen. David Perdue to take on the governor.
“Are you running for governor, David Perdue? Did I hear you’re running for governor?” the former president said.
Trump’s endorsed Rep. Jody Hice in his primary challenge against Raffensperger. Hice scored a big hit with the crowd when he vowed to “get rid of Brad Raffensperger.”
Another candidate the former president’s backed who spoke at the rally was state Sen. Burt Jones, a Trump loyalist who’s bidding for lieutenant governor to succeed Duncan, who decided against running for reelection.
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Georgia is one of handful of states where Biden narrowly edged Trump to win the White House. The ballots in Georgia were counted three times – the original Election Day count, a mandatory hand recount and a recount requested by the president’s campaign. Dozens of legal challenges by Trump and his allies were shot down in Georgia and the other close states, and then-Attorney General William Barr said his Justice Department had not seen fraud on the kind of scale that could flip the election.
The former president’s continuing his efforts to overturn the Georgia results. A week ago Trump sent a letter to Raffensperger, asking him to consider “decertifying” the election results due to alleged irregularities.
Two months after Biden became the first Democrat to carry Georgia in a presidential contest in a quarter century, the Republicans lost their Senate majority after the Democrats swept – by razor thin margins – Georgia’s twin Jan. 6 Senate runoff elections. Republicans view Sen. Raphael Warnock, who was elected in the runoffs, as one of the most vulnerable Democrats running for reelection next year.
Former President Donald Trump listens as Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker speaks during his Save America rally in Perry, Ga., on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Ben Gray)
Earlier this month Trump endorsed Herschel Walker, his longtime friend and former professional and college football star, who after the repeated urgings of the former president, launched a Senate campaign late last month. Walker, who gave his first campaign speech at Saturday evening’s rally, was feted with thunderous applause from crowd, many of whom were sporting “Run Herschel Run” stickers.
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Trump remains very popular with the Republican base and retains tremendous sway over GOP politicians. And Saturday’s rally was more evidence the former president remains committed to playing a kingmaker’s role in party politics, as he heavily weighs in on the 2022 GOP primaries.
Trump’s 2024 caveat
While Trump’s Georgia rally was all about re-litigating his 2020 election loss and putting his imprint on the 2022 midterms, he once again flirted with a potential 2024 run to try and return to the White House
The former president teased a “glorious victory in November of 2024. We’re going to have a big, big, beautiful victory.”
But in an interview with David Brody of the Real America’s Voice network on the eve of the Georgia rally, the 75-year old Trump said that only “a bad call from a doctor” could prevent him from running again.
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“I will say, that happens with people,” Trump noted, before adding that “you know, I feel so good.”
Cruz, Noem, speak at influential Republican confab
An appearance this weekend by Sen. Ted Cruz in Michigan at the biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference sparked more speculation that the runner up to Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential nomination race is ramping up for another White House run in 2024.
The senator from Texas repeatedly targeted President Biden over the rocky U.S. withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan, as well as the immigration crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border. And he looked optimistically ahead to the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential election.
“Politics has always had a pendulum aspect to it,” the conservative firebrand told the crowd at the storied GOP confab. “Throughout American history, when one party gets in power, they go too far in one direction and the American people have a great tendency to say, ‘Hold on.'”
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Another Republican leader with potential national ambitions – South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem – also spoke at the conference.
Who’s number two – Pence or DeSantis?
Trump remains the overwhelming front runner in all of the extremely early polls in the 2024 Republican presidential nomination race.
But two surveys released this past week had very different takes on who’s a distant second, and who’s the leader of the pack without the former president on the ballot.
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Former Vice President Mike Pence was runner up to Trump in a Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University/Harris Poll conducted Sept. 15-16. And Pence topped Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for front runner status without Trump in the field.
But the Florida governor topped the former vice president in a national survey of Republicans by the GOP polling firm Echelon Insights that was conducted Sept. 17-23.
DeSantis, who faces a potentially challenging reelection next year, continues to spark more 2024 speculation with his political trips outside of the Sunshine State.
The Buffalo News this past week broke the story that DeSantis will team up with top New York State Republican officials on Tuesday at Sinatra’s Restaurant in Buffalo.
The Florida governor has been aggressive in courting donors across the country this year as he’s hauled in eyepopping figures for his 2022 reelection.
Fox News’ Robert Sherman contributed to this report
Paul Steinhauser is a politics reporter based in New Hampshire.