Former Vice President Mike Pence headlines a Get Out the Vote Rally with Governor Brian Kemp, on the eve of Georgia's primary at the Cobb County International Airport on Monday, May 23, 2022, in Kennesaw, Ga. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

There was an obvious winner in Georgia’s Republican primary, Governor Brian Kemp, who whomped former Senator David Perdue for the gubernatorial nomination. 

There’s another: Mike Pence. Remember him? In the Kemp-Perdue proxy contest with his former boss, Donald Trump, the Hoosier beat the Hood. 

I know, I know. Pence is starting a movement to de-Trump the GOP. Who would have thought? It still feels implausible. The pious politician with the grim smile seems too Trumpy for a party that might be done with the orange one and too rebellious for the MAGA loyalists. When Donald Trump vowed to exact revenge against the “coward” and “turncoat” Kemp, who, like Pence, refused to commit treason, the New Yorker recruited Perdue for a kamikaze mission. Trump even transferred $2.6 million from his coffers into Perdue’s effort—an uncharacteristic signal of seriousness by a chiseler who can never find his wallet when the check comes. Fresh off his loss to Senator Jon Ossoff, Perdue ran a campaign that could never get to the right of Kemp and only offered kvetching about the 2020 electoral count. No wonder he got trounced.

The January 6 attack gave Pence a chance to help reclaim his party from a monster and rehabilitate himself. The onetime Roman Catholic Democrat turned evangelical Republican was chosen in 2016 to balance the Lothario’s ticket with his one wife, knowledge of 2 Corinthians, and the shock of white hair God gave him. Then he was supposed to disappear. In office, Pence went beyond standard vice presidential loyalty, turning into a groveling lapdog, nodding in agreement with whatever crazy thing Trump said, to keep the Milk Bones coming. His praise for Trump’s “broad shoulders” set a new standard for brownnosing. While Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy crumpled when they saw that Trump’s MAGA base was sticking with him, despite watching his troops destroy the Capitol, Pence’s resolve hardened. Chants of a mob looking to hang you can have that effect.

Of course, it could be that he saw an opening for a presidential run that would be a twist on the usual embrace of your boss’s four years with a tweak here and there to show you are your own man. To Pence’s credit, he might have had a human, American revulsion at seeing democracy endangered and was willing to risk political suicide, if not the literal gallows, to do something about it. 

Pence’s ambitions, whatever they are, don’t matter. It’s the example he sets for Republicans who were worried that they couldn’t win without Trump and now fear they can’t win a general election with him taking up oxygen with his posse of sexual predators, lunatic lawyers, and Dr. Evil lookalike Stephen Miller hanging on.

Is a suburban Atlanta mom going to vote for a proto-insurrectionist? Who’s better to take on Stacey Abrams: Perdue, whose platform consisted of repeating Trump’s rants about being robbed, or Kemp, who is already doing the job? Trump propped up Perdue and barked at Kemp and his wingman, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who heroically rejected Trump’s plea to find 11,780 votes to flip the state. Democrats should pray for Trump’s return to Twitter so they can run against his all-cap 280-character tweets.

It’s where Trump wins that’s trouble. The former NFL running back carpetbagger, wife abuser, sketchy businessman, and Trump favorite Herschel Walker won the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. Walker blames his admitted domestic violence on mental problems he has since overcome and shrugs off uncomfortable questions with his smile, faith, and a Heisman. While he won the Republican primary this week, his chaotic life contrasts with Warnock, the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. A conventional Republican in a good GOP year could probably fell Warnock, but Walker’s flavor of Trump crazy gives the cleric a pretty good shot. 

Trump isn’t sending his best to compete for retiring Senator Rob Portman’s seat in Ohio. With a late endorsement in a seven-person race, Trump dragged lagging candidate J. D. Vance across the finish line with less than a third of the vote. A lawyer by way of Yale, an author by way of the Rust Belt, and a venture capitalist venturing to Silicon Valley, Vance returned home, chucked jeans and tight T’s for working-man mufti, and recanted every insult he’d hurled at the president he didn’t vote for in 2016. State Senator Matt Dolan, who passes for a moderate for refusing to traffic in Trump’s lies and who’s a local hero for his family’s ownership of the Cleveland Guardians, née Indians, had a surge after Trump’s endorsement but not big enough to capture the nomination. Now Vance, who sold out his neighbors as hillbillies for a spot on the best-seller list, a shot at angel investing, and a Senate race, will take on Democratic Representative Tim Ryan, who is more at home on the factory floor than running with the wolves. Against Ryan, Dolan would have a better chance than Vance of winning the tire belt of Akron, the steel mills of Youngstown, and the women outside Columbus. That ship has sailed, but Vance is still favored in an Ohio that once voted to elect and reelect Bill Clinton and Barack Obama but has now turned dark blood red. 

Then there’s Dr. Mehmet Oz, who lives in New Jersey, votes in Turkey, touts nutritional supplements on cable, and is running for Senate in Pennsylvania, where he’s leading, for now, by fewer than 1,000 votes with thousands more to count against Dave McCormick, a hedge fund titan. (McCormick was a normie internationalist before bending the knee to Trump—a West Point grad, George W. Bush State Department vet, Princeton international affairs PhD.) Trump originally supported Sean Parnell until the Army vet dropped out after a judge awarded custody of his children to his wife, who testified that he’d abused them and her. Whoever wins is going to look like a China-loving globalist sending jobs hither and yon against the Democratic nominee, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the avatar of the working man in cargo shorts and a hoodie, a Bernie bro without the yelling and self-regard, who still lives in a log cabin in western Pennsylvania, where he once served as a mayor. Fetterman could dispatch Oz. But his recent stroke is a liability, and McCormick’s rich-man background may not hurt in a state that once elected John Heinz, of the ketchup and pickle fortune, to the Senate.

The party whose leadership swaps out Liz Cheney for Elise Stefanik to placate Trump is in trouble, the worst trade since Sammy Sosa went to the Cubs. Is it any wonder that more quietly than Pence, the Republican Governors Association poured about $5 million into protecting their incumbents from Trump, according to The Washington Post, succeeding in Nebraska where Trump’s pick, Charlie Herbster, accused by a GOP state senator and seven others of sexual assault, lost, as did the Sarah Palin–like lieutenant governor in Idaho hoping to unseat her boss. 

In the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, Trump is backing a candidate only he could love. Loud, extreme, pro-insurrectionist Doug Mastriano will go up against Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the sheriff famous for identifying more than 300 predator priests and getting compensation for their victims, arresting 6,500 drug dealers, and taking thousands of illegal guns out of the hands of criminals. By contrast, Mastriano aided the insurrection, marching to Washington on January 6; spread false information of fraud in mail-in ballots; and sponsored a bill that would prohibit abortion, without exceptions, after approximately six weeks. Among Pennsylvania Republicans, he had little support; it was Democrats rooting for him to win the nomination. 

Thanks to Trump, he did, and thanks to Trump, Republicans may well lose the statehouse in a swing state that in an off-year, history says, should be theirs. 

If only those potential candidates who opted to spend more time with their families rather than risk a Trump-induced primary had known they could get Pence on their side! There’s always next time. For now, they can take comfort that Perdue’s 50-point loss is too big for Trump to shrug off. It will be the only thing, other than his legal problems and Kellyanne Conway’s book, Trump thinks about in the coming weeks. That doesn’t mean he’ll have a learning moment, swallow his pride, and back Kemp against Stacey Abrams. That’s not how he rolls. He’s already threatened to withhold his support. 

Pence saw that it’s not enough to wait for Trump to self-destruct or his progeny Madison Cawthorn, Paul Gosar, and Marjorie Taylor Greene to blow up, or give up. Trump and his monsters have escaped the lab. It might just take Pence, and a village, to put them back in the bottle. 

Margaret Carlson

Follow Margaret on Twitter @carlsonmargaret. Margaret Carlson is a columnist at The Daily Beast.