ATLANTA — One of the Republican challengers to incumbent Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp dropped out of the race Monday, a move that could help clear the way for Donald Trump-backed challenger David Perdue in Georgia’s GOP primary.
Vernon Jones, a Democrat who switched parties as part of full-throated backing of the former president, said Monday that he will run for Congress instead. However, Jones did not immediately say which of Georgia’s 14 congressional seats he will seek.
“I believe that strong conservative voices need to be heard as we lead America into the future,” Jones said. “Because of this decision I am officially withdrawing my candidacy for governor effective today and will be supporting David Perdue for governor. He is a good man who loves our state and loves our country.”
Jones’ announcement came days after a late January meeting in which Trump pledged to endorse Jones in a congressional race if he stepped down to clear the field for Perdue, according to a person who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
The switch helps Trump defeat Kemp, who has drawn Trump’s scorn for not backing his plan to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia. Trump spent months imploring Perdue to run after Trump vowed to deny Kemp a second term, and Perdue is currently airing a television ad in which Trump endorses him for the camera.
Speculation has focused on Jones running for the U.S. House in the 6th Congressional District in the northern Atlanta suburbs or the 10th Congressional District, which stretches east from the outskirts of Atlanta.
Debbie Dooley, a Republican activist and top supporter of Jones, said she expects him to run in the 10th District, where a crowded Republican field is seeking to replace incumbent U.S. Rep Jody Hice. Part of a slate of Trump-endorsed candidates in the state, Hice is running to become Georgia’s secretary of state with Trump’s backing.
Polls had shown Jones drawing a small but significant fraction of support in the May 25 primary. His withdrawal could allow Perdue to consolidate anti-Kemp Republicans and makes it more likely that the GOP nomination will be decided without a runoff.
“Vernon Jones is a conservative patriot who cares deeply about Georgia,” Perdue wrote in a tweet. “We need his voice and we need him in the fight. I’m proud to have his support.”
Cody Hall, a spokesperson for Kemp, attacked Jones’ endorsement as worthless, citing allegations that Jones had raped a woman in 2004, which Jones hotly denied, with charges later being dropped. Hall also attacked Jones on other grounds, including voting against a bill restricting abortion.
“Vernon’s support for Perdue makes sense — both have a history of paying lip service to the America First movement and putting their own egos and wallets ahead of what’s best for the people of Georgia,” Hall said.
Dooley predicted Trump would endorse Jones for Congress.
“I look for an endorsement, and I think Vernon will make a great congressman,” Dooley said. “Trump takes care of those who are loyal to him.”
Jones was a Democratic state representative on the outs with his party when he shot to prominence in Republican circles as an African American who endorsed Trump’s reelection campaign.
Jones, 61, served multiple terms in the Georgia House, sandwiching a troubled turn in charge of Atlanta’s suburban DeKalb County, before proclaiming himself a Republican in January 2021 as his last term in the state House expired.
He built his campaign for governor around Trump’s election integrity concerns, with Jones promising an audit of the 2020 presidential election and to replace Georgia’s electronic voting system, often calling the election the “dead cat on the end of the line.”
Dooley said Perdue’s more aggressive attacks on the election results, including filing a lawsuit claiming fraudulent ballots were counted in Fulton County, will bring Jones’ supporters into line behind Perdue.
“I think they’re seeing a fighter,” Dooley said.
Three other Republicans besides Kemp and Perdue remain in the race, including Kandiss Taylor. Democrats, though, declared Monday that the GOP race is now a “slugfest” between Kemp and Perdue, one that they hope ultimately benefits Stacey Abrams, the only Democrat in the race.
Abrams campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo said Kemp and Perdue’s “nasty fight will do nothing to help our state. As Kemp and Perdue fight each other, Stacey Abrams will is fighting for Georgia.”