It’s a refrain that former Sen. David Perdue has made a centerpiece of his campaign for governor in Georgia.
“The election in 2020 was rigged and stolen,” Perdue asserted at a recent debate.
Perdue’s former Senate GOP colleagues, however, are less than impressed.
“It’s absurd,” said Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, when asked about the remarks of Perdue, his former colleague. “I think the effort to try and overturn an election when there is, at this stage, no evidence of widespread fraud is detrimental to democracy and insulting to the American public.”
“Hell yes,” one of Perdue’s closest Senate friends told CNN when asked if he was surprised by his ex-colleague’s campaign transformation.
“I don’t know whether he believes it or not. I really don’t,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican. “But I’m sure it’s a political strategy.”
Indeed, in his six years in the Senate before losing his reelection bid last year, Perdue was a mainstream Senate Republican member, a business-minded conservative who usually voted with his party.
But Perdue announced his bid in December challenging Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, blaming Kemp for his and then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s losses, which cost Republicans the Senate, by arguing that the governor did not do enough to overturn the results.
Former President Donald Trump, who has relentlessly attacked Kemp for his loss in Georgia, endorsed Perdue, falsely asserting that Kemp “allowed massive election fraud to take place.”
Many of Perdue’s colleagues believe there’s one reason why he has changed his tune.
“My assumption is that when he was persuaded to run, that was part of the conversation,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said when asked about Perdue’s claims. “But it doesn’t sound like it’s working very well – at least right now.”
Perdue’s candidacy underscores the dilemma facing Republicans as they try to position themselves for the fall elections. Many candidates like Perdue are eager for the Trump endorsement, willing to repeat his false claims about 2020 in order to get the backing of his fervent supporters. Yet others say harping on the past is a recipe to trip up their chances at a time when the political environment is rich for the GOP.
“I think it’s better to ask: ‘Do you think voters want to look to the future or look to the past?” Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, said in an interview. “And the answer to that is self-evident. They want solutions now.”
“I do know him well,” said West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito when asked about Perdue’s claims. “I obviously don’t agree with that.”
On Thursday, Loeffler was on Capitol Hill, lunching with Senate Republicans and discussing her efforts to engage voters in Georgia. Behind closed doors, Loeffler talked to senators about the Perdue and Kemp race, and told them that it appeared Kemp was on track to easily win outright and avoid a runoff, according to senators who spoke to her.
In a brief interview, Loeffler dodged a question about whether she agreed with Perdue’s political strategy calling the 2020 election “rigged and stolen,” telling CNN: “I’m totally focused on the voters. We got to make sure voters turn out the vote. So, that’s my number one priority.”
Asked for comment about the Republican senators’ mix of surprise about and criticism of their former colleague’s decision to place the 2020 election at the center of his 2022 campaign, Jenni Sweat, Perdue’s campaign spokeswoman, said, “Nothing to share at this time.”
Immediately after jumping into the race, Perdue filed a lawsuit to shine a spotlight on Trump’s false claims, even though there were three separate counts of the results in Georgia and no evidence that fraud cost Trump or Perdue their elections.
Perdue’s first and latest television ads promote the lie that the elections were stolen. Trump has held rallies for Perdue in Georgia, hosted a fundraiser for him at his Florida resort Mar-a-Lago and aired ads bashing Kemp, saying he can’t beat Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams. Trump called into a “tele-rally” with Perdue last week, as early voting began for the May 24 primary.
Kemp’s campaign has spent over $5.3 million on ads, compared to about $1.3 million for Perdue. But other Trump-aligned groups like Take Back Georgia and MAGA, Again! are trying to fill the gap.
Perdue has been hoping that Trump will help propel him to victory. But if he falls short, it would be a major blow to the former President in his campaign to boot out Republicans who don’t align themselves with his 2020 election lies — and his status as a kingmaker. After the primaries last Tuesday, Trump boasted that his candidates went 22-0. But even Trump has appeared to recognize that Perdue could threaten that streak.
“Remember, you know, my record is unblemished,” Trump said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “The real story should be on the endorsements — not the David Perdue one — and, by the way, no race is over.”
In interviews with more than a dozen Senate Republicans about the Georgia race, most said that their party needs to stop talking about 2020 if they want to win back Congress in 2022 and rack up wins at the state level as well.
“Well, I like David but you know if Kemp wins, it means that people looked at beyond 2020,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and close Trump ally. “That’s the only conclusion you can come to.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican of Iowa, called Perdue a “smart man” and said “people respect him.”
But when asked if Republicans should be talking about 2020 in this election year, Ernst pushed back, saying it “just makes us look like we’re a party that looks to the past rather than the future.”
Many of her colleagues see it the same way.
“(Perdue) and I would probably agree to disagree on that particular issue, and it’s not the first time that I’ve had to agree to disagree with my friends and colleagues,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, a South Dakota Republican. “We found no evidence that says that the election would have been overturned by what we would have found in terms of problems within the election cycle itself.”
Others made clear that Republicans should not keep harping on 2020.
“I think we have to look ahead,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican. “You know, the most important election is the next election, in my opinion. I’m only focused on November.”
“The only election I’m worried about is the 2022 election,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley when asked about Perdue’s comments. “And then I worry about the 2024 election after that, and I’m looking to the future.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who like Grassley is up for reelection in 2022, said he hasn’t “paid a lot of attention” to Georgia’s governor race, saying “we got our hands full here” in the Senate. Pressed if he would be talking about 2020 on the campaign trail, Rubio said, “I’ll be talking about the stuff I’ve worked on.”
And Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of GOP leadership, said he wasn’t going to get involved in the governor’s race when asked about Perdue’s comments.
But he added: “I will tell you, I don’t think the governor – I think Joe Biden won the electoral college and was correctly confirmed as President.”
And when asked if he’s concerned about members of his party still espousing 2020 election lies, Romney deadpanned: “I stopped being concerned about members of my party.”
The reaction by many of Perdue’s former colleagues in the Senate appears to be reflected by the Georgia Republican electorate, according to public polling, which shows Kemp with a double-digit lead over Perdue. Even some of Perdue’s former allies in Georgia have wondered why he decided to run against Kemp.
Eric Tanenblatt is supporting Kemp even though he helped raise money for Perdue’s last Senate campaign and served as chief of staff to former Georgia Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, the former senator’s cousin. He said there is a “very good likelihood” that Kemp will win the primary on May 24 with a majority of the votes, enough to avoid a runoff.
“I think the majority of Republican primary voters think we need to get beyond the 2020 election,” Tanenblatt said.
“I just remain baffled as to why David is doing this,” he added. “He was a senator with a great record, represented the state well, and unfortunately, the thing we’re going to remember about him is now not what he did in the Senate, but that he took on an incumbent Republican governor.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Morgan Rimmer and David Wright contributed to this report.