March 25 (Reuters) - In a test of his enduring influence over the Republican Party, former President Donald Trump returned to Georgia on Saturday to stump for allies who support his ongoing false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him - starting with Georgia.
At a rally in Commerce, a small city northeast of Atlanta, Trump spent the first 20 minutes of his speech repeating falsehoods about the outcome, calling Governor Brian Kemp, a fellow Republican, a "turncoat" and "coward" for failing to reverse the results.
Trump has invested significant political capital in the state, endorsing a slate of statewide candidates in an effort to oust Kemp and his allies. The May 24 primary election will provide perhaps the clearest assessment yet of Trump's ability to play kingmaker in the 2022 elections.
It will also offer an early measure of how Republican candidates attempt to strike a balance between Trump's obsession with the 2020 election and national Republican leaders' preference to focus on President Joe Biden's record in office.
"This is a really hard test for him – and a crucial one," said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "Trump is still well liked by Republican voters, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to base their choice in a primary on his endorsement."
Polls have shown Kemp holding a comfortable lead over Trump's preferred candidate, former U.S. Senator David Perdue, despite Trump's frequent criticisms of the incumbent governor.
In addition to Perdue, Trump has endorsed U.S. Representative Jody Hice, who is challenging Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Raffensperger rejected Trump's demand that he alter the outcome and declared the 2020 election fair and accurate after a series of audits and reviews.
Trump also endorsed down-ballot challengers for attorney general, lieutenant governor and even insurance commissioner, in each case siding with candidates taking on officials he blames for not fighting harder to substantiate his fraud claims.
Biden won Georgia by less than a quarter of a percentage point, becoming the first Democrat to win the state in nearly 30 years.
"What we're starting to see is that his endorsement does not appear so far to be giving the type of automatic bump to candidates that we've seen in the past," said Amy Steigerwalt, a political science professor at Georgia State University.
A spokesperson for Perdue said his support would only grow as more voters become aware of Trump's endorsement. A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.
TRUMP STILL PUSHING ELECTION FALSEHOODS
Republicans worry that a split in the ranks could open the door for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist who narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018, to win November's rematch.
Some Republicans already believe Trump's rhetoric following the November 2020 election helped cost the party twin Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January 2021, handing Democrats control of the chamber.
A spokesperson for Kemp's campaign, Tate Mitchell, said, "Governor Kemp is focused on winning the endorsement of Georgia Republicans on May 24th and making sure Stacey Abrams is never our governor."
Trump remains the party's leading figure, and Republican candidates from across the country continue to seek his support. But he has made clear he expects his allies to commit to his false assertion that Biden's victory in 2020 was illegitimate, a claim that has been repeatedly debunked by courts, vote audits and election officials.
Earlier this week, Trump rescinded his endorsement of U.S. Representative Mo Brooks for a Senate race in Alabama after Brooks told voters it was time to move on from the 2020 election. read more
Perdue, who lost his Senate seat in 2020, echoed Trump's claims during remarks at Saturday's rally, telling the crowd that both their elections were "stolen" and vowing that those responsible would "go to jail."
Some Republicans, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, have urged the party to put 2020 behind it and focus on Biden's performance. Historically, the party that occupies the White House has lost seats in Congress during a president's first midterm election.
Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, a Republican who is not running for reelection, founded a group, GOP 2.0, aimed at moving the party beyond Trump.
The organization released an advertisement this week attacking Trump and Perdue for preferring to talk about "conspiracy theories and past losses" rather than offering a vision for the future.
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