Republican governors facing 2022 primary challenges from the right

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Vernon Jones had Republican Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia in his sights.

“I’m sick of these Republican RINOs who want to talk like Ron DeSantis but they want to walk like Mitt Romney,” Jones, who earlier this year launched a 2022 primary challenge from the right against Georgia’s first-term governor, said Sunday as he referred to the governor while addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas.

A day earlier at CPAC, one of the three conservative primary challenges running against Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas took aim at the two-term Republican governor.

“We don’t have a Donald Trump as governor, we don’t have a Ron DeSantis as governor,” former one-term conservative state Sen. Don Huffines charged. “Unfortunately we’ve got a career politician that’s a political windsock, a RINO.”

Huffines and Jones are among a handful of conservatives and strong supporters of former President Trump who have launched primary challenges against sitting Republican governors running for reelection next year.

Former Georgia state lawmaker Vernon Jones, who’s primary challenging GOP Gov. Brian Kemp in 2022, speaks at CPAC Dallas on July 11, 2021 in Dallas, Texas. (Fox News)

Among those also on the list is former Rep. Jim Renacci, who’s hoping to take out Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, a former two-term senator. In declaring his candidacy last month, Renacci claimed that DeWine was “more interested in being the Andrew Cuomo of Ohio rather than actually helping everyday Ohioans” and characterized the governor as “a career politician.”

Trump, nearly six months removed from the White House, remains extremely popular and influential with Republican base voters as he plays a kingmaker’s role in the 2022 GOP primaries while repeatedly flirting with a 2024 presidential run.

Former Massachusetts state Rep. Geoff Diehl is also a supporter of the former president, serving as Trump’s co-chair in the state during the 2016 White House race. 

Diehl last week became the first Republican to launch a campaign in the Bay State’s 2022 gubernatorial election. Popular two-term GOP Gov. Charlie Baker, who’s no fan of the former president, has yet to announce whether he’ll seek reelection next year.

“The fact that politicos that support President Trump have decided to run in primaries against sitting governors should not surprise anyone. Donald Trump is riding a high of popularity within the Republican primary base,” veteran Republican strategist Mike Biundo told Fox News.

“These candidates feel that they can harvest that energy and ride it to victory,” said Biundo, a veteran of numerous statewide and presidential campaigns, including Trump’s 2016 campaign. “It’s not a bad bet on their part.” 

With the then-president’s backing, Kemp narrowly defeated Democratic voting rights champion and former state legislative leader Stacey Abrams to win the governorship in 2018. While she hasn’t announced her intentions, it’s very likely Abrams will run again for governor next year. 

But as he runs for reelection, Kemp faces Trump’s wrath.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia formally launches his 2022 reelection campaign at a kick off event in Perry, Ga., on July 10, 2021. (Courtesy of Brian Kemp campaign)

Trump has vowed to return to Georgia to campaign against Kemp to punish his onetime ally for refusing to help the then-president’s efforts last year to overturn the election results in Georgia. 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.

Trump refused to concede to Joe Biden and claimed for two months there was massive voter fraud in Georgia and five other states where Biden narrowly won. Dozens of legal challenges by Trump and his allies were shot down, and then-Attorney General William Barr said his Justice Department had not seen fraud on the kind of scale that could flip the election. Trump repeatedly attacked Kemp for refusing to aid his attempts to reverse Biden’s victory.

At a rally in Georgia on the eve of the state’s twin Jan. 5 Senate runoff elections, Trump pledged, “I’ll be here in about a year and a half campaigning against your governor.”

While Trump is blamed by some Republicans for the Democrats’ sweep of the Georgia Senate runoffs – giving the Democrats the majority in the chamber – some conservatives blame Kemp for agreeing to relax some voting access rules amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Jones, at CPAC, claimed, “Gov. Kemp cost us two United States Senate seats…because he was a afraid of Stacey Abrams.”

Huffines, at his speech a day earlier, asked, “Where is Greg Abbott? Why isn’t he here?”

Answering his own question, he charged that the governor’s “not here because he doesn’t want to face you.”

The CPAC Dallas booth for Texas GOP gubernatorial candidate and former state Sen. Dan Huffines, in Dallas, Texas on July 9, 2021. (Fox News)

Abbott, who was invited to speak at the Dallas event, stayed in the state capital city of Austin overseeing a special session of the Texas legislature that he requested to complete unfinished business left over from the regular session, including a renewed push to pass an election measure tightening voting access rules. And on Saturday the governor briefed state lawmakers and sheriffs from counties along the southern border with Texas about the state’s ongoing efforts to deal with the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Earlier this year Huffines declared, “I am the clear Trump candidate in the governor’s race.”

But unlike Kemp or DeWine, Abbott’s reelection bid has been endorsed by Trump. And the governor – who amid the surge this year in migrants crossing the southern border pledged to finish construction of the border wall begun under during Trump’s White House tenure – two weeks ago grabbed national headlines as he joined Trump for an event at a unfinished portion of the border wall in Texas. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, listens to Former President Trump, left, during a visit to an unfinished section of border wall, in Pharr, Texas, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Abbott is also facing primary challenges from the right from former Texas GOP chair Allen West and political commentator Chad Prather. West, who served a politically charged single term in Congress representing a Florida district, didn’t mention the governor as he addressed the crowd of conservative activists and leaders at CPAC on Sunday morning. But as state GOP chair the past year, he made the extremely unusual move of vocally criticizing Abbott’s efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic, and even took part in an anti-Abbott protest outside the governor’s mansion. 

While facing political threats from the right, Abbott and Kemp have hauled in large amounts of campaign cash in recent months, and DeWine’s also built up a substantial war chest, giving the incumbents large fundraising advantages over their challengers.

And a veteran Republican operative pointed to another political bonus – the GOP incumbents’ track record this year of pushing back against President Biden’s administration.

“These Republican governors have been able to burnish their credentials with base voters through different feuds with the Biden administration or the woke left,” the operative, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “Being governor is a results-driven business and voters are going gamble on unproven commodities seeking relevance.”

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