ATLANTA — Former Democrat Vernon Jones crowd-surfed across adoring Trump supporters in October after speaking at one of the former president's campaign rallies. Now the scandal-plagued politician hopes to surf their discontent to a Republican primary victory over Gov. Brian Kemp.
Jones announced Friday that he would challenge the incumbent governor, a frequent Trump target, in 2022.
“You’ve seen me stand right beside Donald Trump, just like you. I have done more as a conservative fighting side by side for you and for our elections, and for America first, then the governor and all those RINOs combined," Jones said.
The former legislator faces plenty of obstacles to mounting a campaign capable of toppling a sitting governor. But his bid ensures, at the least, that Kemp will continue facing questions about his refusal to help Trump overturn President Joe Biden's narrow election victory in Georgia.
Jones was a state representative on the outs with his party when he shot to prominence in Republican circles as an African American Democrat who endorsed Trump's reelection campaign. He's doubled down since then in support of Trump's false claims of election fraud.
Jones said Friday that Kemp cost Republicans the White House and two Georgia Senate seats that put Democrats in control. Kemp said he was legally required to certify Biden's slate of presidential electors once a final tally was certified.
Jones, 60, 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 as his last term expired. “I have left the plantation,” he declared when he switched parties.
Last week, he tweeted that Kemp “still hasn’t discontinued the use of Dominion voting machines in the state of Georgia. I’ll do it on Day One,” alluding to false claims that the machines flipped Trump votes to Biden.
Jones said his platform includes school choice, support for police, low taxes, less regulation and environmental conservation. And because he's Black, like Stacey Abrams, he said he can do better against the potential 2022 Democratic nominee if she challenges Kemp again.
“We are fed a false narrative based on race-baiting, identity politics and propaganda fed to the masses,” Jones said.
Jones has posted video and pictures of himself interacting with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. But it’s unclear whether Trump will support him.
As DeKalb executive, Jones faced investigations of an expensive security detail, and a woman accused Jones of raping her in late 2004. She dropped the charges, but never recanted. Jones said they had a consensual sexual encounter.
Jones oversaw hundreds of millions in capital projects as CEO, but a special grand jury later alleged he was part of an endemic culture of “incompetence, patronage, fraud and cronyism.”
He later lost races for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and county sheriff.
“Vernon Jones has historically been a very effective campaigner, so you can't underestimate him,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Democrat from Decatur who has long tangled with Jones. “However the likelihood of him running an honest and well-respected administration with competent staffers is remote.”
Those close to Kemp acknowledge the anger among some conservatives, but they see Jones as an ideal primary challenger — able to generate an attention-getting primary campaign, but lacking the established high profile of, say, former U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who has topped the wish list of Trump supporters.
Kemp's strategy will be "to remind grassroots activists that he’s been a champion for life, for economic growth and opportunity, expanding access to health and now leading the fight against cancel culture,” said Ryan Mahoney, his top campaign consultant.
Fending off Jones could help Kemp raise more money and shore up his standing among Republicans ahead of a rematch against Abrams, who can raise money nationwide and won't likely face significant opposition from Democrats.
Kemp's first test has begun, with county Republican parties holding annual conventions. Trump allies want to censure the governor and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for certifying Biden's win. Murray and Whitfield counties adopted censures last week. Dozens of other local GOP committees consider similar measures on Saturday.
Jeff Amy And Bill Barrow, The Associated Press