Trump Fails to Turn Evangelicals Against Governor He Scorns

Trump Fails to Turn Evangelicals Against GOP Governor He Scorns

Georgia evangelical Christian voters who turned out heavily for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 aren’t necessarily supporting his effort to oust Republican Governor Brian Kemp.

Evangelicals still back the former president. And they like former U.S. Senator David Perdue, whom Trump endorsed for governor in the May 24 Republican primary. 

But they like Kemp where he is.

The division among evangelical voters -- who make up nearly a third of Georgia’s Republican electorate and half of its primary voters -- highlights a key problem facing Trump nationwide as he backs candidates loyal to him and targets incumbents he says failed to endorse his unfounded claims of voter fraud in his loss to President Joe Biden. For many voters, there are more issues in the 2022 campaign than who won in 2020.

Trump Fails to Turn Evangelicals Against Governor He Scorns

In Georgia, evangelicals say they like Kemp’s successful championing of a bill banning abortion once a fetal heartbeat is present, his refusal to close churches during the pandemic and even his stance against statewide mask mandates. 

“Most evangelicals do feel strongly that Brian Kemp has delivered very well,” said Tim Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a conservative Christian group. 

At a candidate forum for the coalition several weeks after Perdue announced his campaign, the audience applauded politely when he stood to talk. They gave Kemp two standing ovations.

“I think there is very, very strong support for Brian Kemp in his current capacity,” Head said. “In the primary and in the general election I would say they’ll be Kemp voters in 2022 and Trump voters in 2024.”

Closely Watched

Georgia’s primary has become one of the most-watched in the nation, seen as a test of Trump’s continued sway over the Republican voters. In Georgia, the former president is backing challengers to three of the top four Republican statewide officeholders because of their failure to overturn Biden’s 2020 Georgia win.

Trump Fails to Turn Evangelicals Against Governor He Scorns

Kemp, 58, is Trump’s top target. Endorsed by Trump in 2018, Kemp’s sin in the former president’s eyes was refusing to call a special legislative session to challenge the 2020 results. 

In December, Trump recruited and endorsed Perdue, who has campaigned heavily on his support of Trump’s claims of a stolen election. At a rally meant to highlight Trump’s endorsement in March, Trump called Kemp a “turncoat, a coward and a complete disaster” who would lose to Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.

The rally has yet to deliver a bump for Perdue, 72, who has lagged behind in polling. An April 6 poll from Emerson College Polling and The Hill showed Kemp leading 43% to 32%, with the rest undecided.

In 2020, about 85% of evangelicals supported Trump in Georgia, according to exit polls collected by New Jersey-based Edison Research. That number represents a slip from the 92% who backed Trump in 2016, said Michael Wear, head of religious outreach for former President Barack Obama.

“I actually think his cachet is not transferable, not even to himself,” Wear said.

Historical Support

Evangelicals have historically supported both Kemp and Perdue, although not against each other. Faith and Freedom, which was founded by conservative Christian political organizer Ralph Reed, deployed more than 1,200 canvassers to help in Perdue’s failed U.S. Senate runoff bid in 2020, for instance. Two-thirds of those describing themselves as born-again Christians voted for Perdue, according to the Harvard Cooperative Election Study. Perdue lost to Jon Ossoff as part of a Democratic sweep of Georgia’s two Senate seats.

Kemp’s standing with evangelicals did take on water after the 2020 election, said Ryan Burge, a professor at Eastern Illinois University who studies religion and politics. A survey by Harvard University’s Cooperative Election Study found Kemp’s evangelical support at 64% in November 2021, down from 79.7% the previous November, in a group “that is kind of your base for Republican politics,” he said.

The slip likely stemmed from 2020 election concerns and happened before Perdue joined the race, Burge said.

Asked about evangelical support, Kemp campaign spokesman Tate Mitchell mentioned the governor’s heartbeat abortion bill and order keeping churches open: “Governor Kemp is proud to have led the fight on these issues and more,” he said in an email.

Abortion Key

Tim Echols, a state utility regulator known for turning the Christian home-schooling community into a Republican get-out-the-vote army, said the abortion bill alone is enough for many evangelicals.

“From the home schoolers and pro-life people that I have talked to, I think they are going to stick with Governor Kemp in the primary,” Echols said. “That pro-life legislation is very fresh in the minds of evangelicals. They want to show how much they appreciate him for doing that and doing it so quickly.”

Asked for its take on the direction of evangelical voters, Perdue’s campaign provided names of two leaders close to the evangelical community. Both dispute Kemp’s edge.

Bruce LeVell, who headed Trump’s diversity outreach in Georgia, said evangelical leaders remain angry with Kemp: “The salt in the wound that still manifests is his unwillingness to call the special session. Right and wrong play a tremendous role in the faith-based community.”

Dean Nelson, a pastor who works with the  Family Research Council and the Frederick Douglass Foundation, said the calculus for evangelicals is more strategic.

“I was there at the signing of the heartbeat law, which I would certainly applaud and affirm Governor Kemp for,” Nelson said. “But his problems are not about this social conservative bona fides. His problem fundamentally is whether he can beat Stacey Abrams.”

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