By Alexandra Ulmer
ATLANTA (Reuters) -Georgia Republicans on Tuesday dealt Donald Trump his biggest defeat in his bid to play kingmaker in this year’s U.S. midterm elections, choosing Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger despite Trump’s efforts to oust them.
The primary victories by Kemp and Raffensperger mark a major setback for the former president, who had waged a revenge campaign against them for refusing to overturn his 2020 election defeat, which he falsely claimed was the result of fraud.
Kemp defeated former U.S. Senator David Perdue, who was backed by Trump, by 73%-22%, according to Edison Research. Polling had predicted a Kemp win with voters supporting his conservative policy record, which included a sweeping set of voting restrictions enacted last year.
While the results are a reputational blow for Trump, they do not change the fact that Republicans are favored to win control of at least one chamber of Congress in the Nov. 8 elections, which would give them the power to bring Democratic President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda to a halt.
Raffensperger’s outright victory over the Trump-endorsed U.S. Representative Jody Hice had not been widely expected. With polling suggesting a tight race, some experts had forecast neither securing a majority, triggering a run-off. Instead, Edison Research projected that Raffensperger had won by 52% to 34%, after 96% of the expected votes were counted.
Conservative commentator Erick Erickson said the victory by Raffensperger, who had been widely seen as a “dead man walking” due to Trump’s attacks, was “the big tip-off” in Georgia that Republicans wanted to stop re-litigating 2020.
“Georgia Republicans do like Trump, but they’re tired of his bullshit and want to move on,” Erickson wrote on Twitter.
The night was not a total loss for Trump. His pick for U.S. Senate, former American football star Herschel Walker, easily won the Republican nomination. And in Texas, the Trump-backed Attorney General Ken Paxton defeated state Land Commissioner George P. Bush in a runoff after the March primary.
The political environment has grown increasingly favorable for Republicans in the run-up to November’s midterms. According to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll completed on Tuesday, President Joe Biden’s approval rating has fallen to 36%, the lowest level of his presidency, reflecting voter worries over inflation.
Kemp will face Stacey Abrams, a progressive voting-rights activist who secured the Democratic nomination on Tuesday. In a victory speech, Kemp sought to paint Adams as a far-left radical who only saw the governorship as a “stepping stone” to the White House. He vowed to defeat her, as he did narrowly in 2018.
“Our battle is far from over,” Kemp said in a speech in which he thanked Perdue for pledging his support. “Tonight, the fight for the soul of our state begins to make sure that Stacey Abrams is not going to be our governor or the next president.”
Republicans are favored to win a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in November, though analysts say Democrats have a better chance of holding on to control of the Senate.
Some Republican leaders have expressed concern that Walker’s past, including allegations of domestic violence, could hurt his chances against Democratic U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock in November.
Trump has made more than 190 endorsements since leaving office, amassing a mixed record in competitive contests. His nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, the television host Dr Mehmet Oz, is in a race still too close to call a week after voting.
Kemp was also able to maintain broad support because his policies, including a hard line on immigration and lower taxes, were popular with the Trump’s base. During a speech, Kemp touted his record of drawing investment to the state.
“Everyone always predicts Trump’s downfall but here we are today,” Marci McCarthy, chair of the DeKalb County Republican Party, said at Perdue’s election-night party. “I think President Trump’s presence through many candidates today says everything.”
Four other states – Alabama, Texas, Arkansas and Minnesota – also held primary elections on Tuesday.
In Alabama, U.S. Representative Mo Brooks, who lost Trump’s endorsement after saying it was time to move on from the 2020 election, is headed for a runoff against Katie Britt to decide who will be the Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat. Britt was the clear leader but had not reached the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff.
In Texas, U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, a moderate Democrat, declared victory in a tight runoff with progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros. Cisneros, however, said the race was too close to call. Major media outlets had yet to project the winner.
Both candidates were around 50% with 92% of the expected vote counted in the early hours on Wednesday, according to Edison Research, which put Cuellar’s lead at a razor-thin 177 votes.
Elsewhere in Georgia, Lucy McBath beat Carolyn Bourdeaux in a rare contest pitting two incumbent Democratic U.S. Representatives against one another after Republican lawmakers redrew the state’s congressional map.
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(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer, additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien, Katharine Jackson, Nathan Layne, Jason Lange and Makini Brice, writing by Joseph Ax and Nathan Layne; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)