Trump Endorsement in Georgia Race Surprised, and Frustrated, Some Republicans

President Trump’s unexpected endorsement of Brian Kemp, the Georgia secretary of state who is running for governor, was only the latest example of him intervening in races with no warning to the party infrastructure.

SANTA FE, N.M. — President Trump’s unexpected endorsement of Brian Kemp this week in the Georgia governor’s race blindsided and alarmed Republican governors, who fear that Mr. Trump’s penchant for capriciously intervening in party primaries is imperiling their prospects in a series of statehouse races.

Mr. Trump’s personal unpopularity with the general electorate has already created a difficult political environment for Republicans running for governor in many states. But with a handful of hotly contested primaries in the coming weeks, governors and their aides are scrambling to dissuade the president from taking more active steps to insert himself into the midterm campaign, lobbying the White House to stay out of Republican races in Kansas and Tennessee.

Mr. Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, is facing off against Casey Cagle, its lieutenant governor, in a Republican primary runoff on Tuesday after neither was able to secure the party’s nomination for governor in May.

Mr. Trump’s abrupt decision to get behind Mr. Kemp — announced via tweet on Wednesday — caught G.O.P. officials from Washington to Atlanta off guard, including the leaders of the Republican Governors Association.

“The president obviously has very strong feelings about his form of politics,” said Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, who is the group’s chairman, acknowledging he had not known Mr. Trump planned to back Mr. Kemp. “You’ve seen them engage in primaries where traditionally the White House has not engaged. Our focus at the R.G.A. has always been on making certain we can win the general election.”

Privately, the governors and their allies, some of whom are gathered here in the New Mexico capital for the annual summer meeting of the National Governors Association, expressed even more irritation about the president’s endorsement in Georgia.

They are frustrated on several fronts: because Mr. Trump’s out-of-the-blue tweet in support of Mr. Kemp was only the latest example of him intervening in races with no warning to the party infrastructure; because he continues to side with candidates they fear could prove weaker in the general election; and because Mr. Trump had assured Republican governors in private this year, at the last meeting of the National Governors Association, that he would refrain from involving himself in contested primaries, according to an official present for the conversation.

Mr. Trump’s role in the Georgia race marks the second time in two months where he has offered a full-throated endorsement of a candidate who may complicate his party’s chances to hold onto a governorship in November. The winner of Tuesday’s runoff will face Stacey Abrams, who is vying to become the first black woman to serve as governor. Private polling conducted for both parties has found Ms. Abrams, the Democratic nominee, in a position to win the general election, and strategists on both sides of the race see Mr. Kemp as a riskier choice for Republicans.

Last month, Mr. Trump fully embraced Representative Ron DeSantis, a vocal supporter and Fox News fixture, in the race for governor of Florida, despite strenuous appeals from state Republicans to stay out of the race. Republican leaders there have largely been supporting Adam Putnam, the state agriculture commissioner, in the August primary, and they see Mr. DeSantis as vulnerable in the general election.

[Here’s what’s coming up next on the primary calendar.]

Now, some Republican governors are worried the president will next endorse Kansas’ secretary of state, Kris Kobach, a hard-line conservative who enjoys the support of Donald Trump Jr., over Gov. Jeff Colyer in next month’s primary there. R.G.A. officials are lobbying the White House to keep Mr. Trump out of that race, where they are backing Mr. Colyer. They would also prefer he remain on the sidelines in Tennessee, where Representative Diane Black has been hoping to win Mr. Trump’s backing in the crowded August primary to succeed Mr. Haslam, who is term-limited.

Many Republicans believe Mr. Kobach and Ms. Black as nominees in Kansas and Tennessee would bolster the Democrats’ chances to win, or at the very least make the R.G.A. spend more money to hold the governorships in both states.

While Republican primary voters may thrill to those contenders offering the most Trumpian message, party officials believe that nominating such candidates would let Democrats position themselves as the moderate alternatives for the suburban voters likely to decide the elections in November.

Some White House aides would also prefer that Mr. Trump not back Mr. Kobach, given the secretary’s firebrand style. But, nodding at the president’s unpredictable nature, they have offered no guarantees to the R.G.A. officials that he will stay neutral.

In Tennessee, there is a similar hope among some West Wing officials that the president will not put his capital on the line for Ms. Black. But she has been an ally of the administration, so there have been discussions about having Vice President Mike Pence offer some positive comments about her without fully blessing her candidacy, according to senior White House officials.

Some in the White House, however, are divided over Mr. Trump’s 11th-hour intercession in Georgia — and the president’s endorsement has only exacerbated mistrust between factions in the administration.

Mr. Kemp and Mr. Cagle have been locked in a close and intensely personal race, with the campaign hinging in part on questions of loyalty to the president. Both Republicans aligned themselves in television ads with Mr. Trump, and Mr. Cagle has been running commercials boasting of his support from Republicans who helped lead Mr. Trump’s campaign in Georgia.

But Mr. Cagle’s campaign had no warning about Mr. Trump’s tweet and spent the days after the endorsement seeking an explanation from Republicans in Washington. Few, however, fully understood the thinking behind Mr. Trump’s decision, and some in the party have fumed about the possible impact on the general election.

In the Cagle camp, suspicion has fixed intently on Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor who is now serving in Mr. Trump’s cabinet, and Mr. Perdue’s former aide, Nick Ayers, who is now the chief of staff to Mr. Pence.

Mr. Ayers has denied in multiple private conversations that he helped steer the president toward Mr. Kemp and did so again in a brief interview Friday. He has told associates he believes Mr. Trump grew fond of Mr. Kemp after the president saw some of Mr. Kemp’s provocative ads about immigrants replayed on Fox News.

But Mr. Ayers’s assurances have done little to allay speculation about his role.

One administration official said Mr. Perdue prompted Mr. Trump’s endorsement for Mr. Kemp in an Oval Office conversation following a meeting of the cabinet on Wednesday.

Asked why Mr. Perdue would want the president to take sides in a primary, a spokesman for Mr. Perdue, Tim Murtaugh, only said, “We can’t comment on anything political.”

Raising suspicions about the role of Mr. Perdue and Mr. Ayers was the urgency Mr. Perdue showed in wanting to secure Mr. Trump’s endorsement well before the weekend. Other White House aides were puzzled about the haste, but grew wise when Mr. Pence quickly added a Saturday rally with Mr. Kemp in Macon, Ga., to his schedule.

What further convinced White House officials that Mr. Trump was buffaloed into the endorsement was when a Georgia Republican operative and protégé of Mr. Ayers, Austin Chambers, suddenly was revealed to be backing Mr. Kemp. In an email on Thursday, Mr. Chambers denied that he was advising Mr. Kemp. But on the same day, he was helping to coordinate the Macon event with Trump aides, according to Republican officials.

Lynn Westmoreland, a former member of Congress from Georgia who is supportive of Mr. Cagle, said Mr. Trump’s endorsement appeared to him to have been engineered by a network of personal relationships that linked Mr. Kemp, however loosely, to the White House. Naming Mr. Perdue and Mr. Ayers specifically, Mr. Westmoreland said he doubted Mr. Trump or Mr. Pence had any direct familiarity with the candidate they are now seeking to propel into the general election.

“This is all about who you know and what kind of connections you have,” Mr. Westmoreland said, joking of Mr. Kemp: “Donald Trump couldn’t pick him out of a two-person photo line. If he got in a cab with him, he wouldn’t know him.”

Mr. Westmoreland allowed that the endorsement was something of a political coup for Mr. Kemp and his allies, but insisted, “It smells funny.”

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