ATLANTA – During his two Senate campaigns, Republican David Perdue had little trouble raking in millions in campaign cash. But as he tries to unseat Georgia's incumbent governor, fellow Republican Brian Kemp, Perdue is struggling to attract donors.
Perdue's top 30 individual contributors pumped in nearly $450,000 to his Senate campaigns in 2014 and 2020, according to campaign finance disclosures. But that same group and their immediate family members have steered just $26,200 to his current run for governor. Kemp, meanwhile, has raised $81,450 from these previous Perdue backers.
Perdue's difficulty winning back previous donors suggests a broader challenge for him ahead of Georgia's May 24 primary, which is being closely watched for signals about the direction of the national Republican Party. Despite the backing of former President Donald Trump, Perdue is well behind Kemp in what is certain to be an expensive race, an Associated Press review of federal and state campaign finance records shows.
Perdue raised just $1.1 million from the launch of his campaign in December through the end of January, an opening stretch when candidates typically try to post their most impressive numbers, and he had less than $1 million in cash on hand.
Kemp took in $7.4 million by January 31 and had $12.7 million on hand. The governor, defending himself against fierce criticism from Trump for being disloyal about the former president's false claims of election fraud in Georgia, has pledged to unleash that cash advantage, spending $4.2 million on television ads alone.
“The kind thing to say is maybe the fundraising has not been where he expected,” said Alec Poitevint, a former chairman of the Georgia Republican Party who is supporting Kemp.
Perdue is turning to Trump for help, scheduling a Wednesday appearance with the former president at his Mar-a-Lago resort, where contributors will have to give $3,000 to attend. A picture with Trump means spending $24,200.
That's ahead of a campaign-style Trump rally in northeast Georgia this month that will feature Perdue and former football player Herschel Walker, the lead Republican vying for one of the state's U.S. Senate seats.
Perdue's campaign acknowledges it is behind in the money race and is relying instead on energy from the GOP's most loyal voters.
“We’ll be outraised and outspent, but we won’t be outworked," said Perdue spokesperson Jenni Sweat. “This is a people versus politicians race, and the silent majority is rising up to reject failed career politicians like Brian Kemp. David Perdue is proud to be supported by a strong network of grassroots conservatives who will propel him to victory in May and November.”
For now, Perdue is particularly reliant on one family. Chip Howalt, his wife Cynthia, and their three Dalton-based companies including Textile Rubber & Chemical Co., have given Perdue $121,000, more than 10% of Perdue's fundraising total. Textile Rubber & Chemical Co. also gave $250,000 in January to the Georgia Values Fund, an independent committee supporting Perdue.
That’s the only contribution the fund reported through March 1.
Howalt didn’t respond to messages seeking comment. But in January, he emailed the Georgia Recorder regarding his donations to contentious northwest Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene that he was motivated to support candidates, like Perdue, who back Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
“The only financial support our Family will pull will be from ANY RINO’s (Republicans in name only) complicit in blocking investigations into Voter Fraud and Irregularities (GA had many) and not Objecting to confirm the Biden Electors where practical and advisable to do so,” Howalt wrote to the nonprofit news outlet.
Federal and state election officials and Trump's own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president's allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.
One option for Perdue, a former CEO of Reebok and Dollar General, would be to infuse the campaign with his own money. He had assets worth between nearly $15.2 million and $42.5 million in 2018, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending. Perdue also loaned or gave his campaign more than $5 million during his 2014 Senate run. As of Jan. 31, he hadn't offered the same support for the governor's campaign, but has suggested he might.
“We’re going to make sure this thing is well funded,” Perdue told reporters last week. “We’re going to get our message out.”
Georgia was for many years a Republican stronghold, but its statewide races have become more competitive. In 2020, Joe Biden was the first Democratic presidential contender to carry the state since 1992, a victory that left the GOP reeling.
After campaigning for Kemp in the 2018 governor's race, Trump turned against him when the governor refused to overturn Biden's win — something Kemp had no power to do. As revenge, Trump recruited Perdue to challenge Kemp in a primary, a move that some in the party worry will leave the eventual nominee weakened heading into a general election race against Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Amid the bitterness, some donors say they will simply wait for the primary to play out without taking a side. Among those is Sunny Park, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based General Building Maintenance, which has thousands of office cleaning employees throughout the U.S. A prolific donor to Georgia Republican causes, Park has previously backed both Kemp and Perdue, and gave Kemp $3,750 toward his reelection bid before Perdue jumped in.
“Until the primary is over, I’m going to remain neutral,” Park said. “I told both, ‘You go ahead and win and then I’ll be right back with you.’”
Some past Perdue contributors, especially those that gave toward the eye-watering $100 million Perdue raised in 2020, are oriented toward congressional giving, and may not care who becomes governor of Georgia. But some big contributors who aren’t donating, such as Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus or Atlanta's Delta Air Lines, are Georgia-based and have a stake in the GOP primary results.
And for them, they may just prefer Kemp. Take for example, Vince Kolber who previously donated more than $10,000 to Perdue and said he’d met and admired him, but nonetheless plans to stay out of the primary.
Kolber, founder and chairman of Residco, a Chicago aviation and rail transportation logistics firm and a former two-time Republican House candidate in Illinois, said his sense was that many Republicans nationally “were just mad as hell" that Trump’s lies about the 2020 election played a role in depressing Republican turnout and costing the party both Perdue's Senate seat and a second Georgia Senate seat in January 2021.
“I sense that’s softening now,” Kolber added, but perhaps not fast enough to buoy Perdue, especially given that Kemp has been a solid governor.
“I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘That guy was just out to lunch’ or crazy or anything like that,” Kolber said of Kemp. “I think that he’s been well-received for what he tried to do. Trump’s consternation to what happened not withstanding.”
Former Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who also lost her reelection bid in 2021, downplayed tensions within the GOP.
“The left loves to focus on divisions on our side,” said Loeffler, who now runs Greater Georgia, a nonprofit designed to boost conservative outreach and voter registration efforts. “What voters are focused on is the harsh realities of the liberal politics that are playing out in their lives every day.” ___
Weissert reported from Washington.