Georgia Today: Will Georgia's GOP Succeed In 2022 With Trump Still Head Of The Party?
Republican Party leaders remain solidly behind former President Donald Trump and his unsubstantiated claims of election fraud. But as the GOP looks toward the 2022 election, the party is not as unified as it would like, and is at a crossroads moment. On Georgia Today, we look at how the state's GOP sees a pathway to winning in 2022 and 2024 with GPB News political reporter Stephen Fowler.
Virginia Prescott: It's Georgia Today, I'm Virginia Prescott, Wyoming. Representative Liz Cheney remains defiant after being ousted from her leadership role in the House Republican Party. Party leaders remain solidly behind former President Donald Trump and his unsubstantiated claims of election fraud. Cheney repudiates that narrative and holds Trump responsible for the January six attacks on the Capitol, a deadly riot that Georgia Rep. Andrew Clyde made light of in a congressional hearing last week.
[TAPE] Andrew Clyde: You know, if you didn't know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.
Virginia Prescott: Cheney countered with fighting words.
[TAPE] Liz Cheney ABC News: You know, the notion that this was somehow a tourist event is disgraceful and despicable. And, you know, I won't be part of of whitewashing what happened on January six. Nobody should be part of it. And people ought to be held accountable.
Virginia Prescott: Some high-profile Republicans are threatening to defect in what's being described as a civil war brewing within the party. But unity was the guiding theme of Georgia GOP district meetings held over the weekend, projected here by Barry Loudermilk, Republican representative from Kaysville.
[TAPE] Barry Loudermilk: We're not divided. We're correcting ourselves going forward a little bit, But I never seen us so united as we ever have been before.
Virginia Prescott: Today, GPB politics reporter Stephen Fowler on the road ahead for the Georgia GOP. Stephen, thanks for being with us.
Stephen Fowler: Always a pleasure.
Virginia Prescott: So what happens at these annual district meetings normally? What are they for?
Stephen Fowler: Well, they're part of the convention process that starts even down at the precinct level, where Republicans meet to elect officers and vote on resolutions and generally just decide the shape of the party for the next year or a couple of years. And so this district convention weekend was people meeting with their congressional districts and deciding, you know, the final steps before the statewide convention, which will be in June.
Virginia Prescott: So you attended a meeting in Cartersville. How was the turnout?
Stephen Fowler: Well, there were a lot of people there and there were a lot of people there, Virginia, that never showed up to these party meetings before. We saw it happen in 2016 after President Trump was on the ballot. We've seen it other times where a new crop of people that don't normally get involved in party politics are showing up. And that was true in Cartersville. And more than half of the delegates there, as well as many other places across the state, from Cordele to Cartersville to Milledgeville to Dillard, there were tons of new people engaging and involved with the Georgia GOP. And you know, Virginia? They are energized and ready to go.
Virginia Prescott: So why do you think so many showed up after so many sat out the Senate runoff election in January? So what's the poll now?
Stephen Fowler: Well, the Republican Party in Georgia is at a crossroads. You know, for decades, they have been the dominant party holding the governor's mansion, every statewide seat, you know, until recently, both U.S. Senate seats and a majority of the House seats. And so the GOP has been the party in power. But over the last decade, Georgia has changed demographically and politically. And that culminated in a loss for Republicans in the November presidential race, both in Georgia and nationwide, and the two U.S. Senate seats where we saw flipped to Democratic control. So there are a lot of people that — “angry” might not be the right word for it, but are energized and want to make sure that their voices are heard. And honestly, Virginia, the galvanizing factor here is a false belief that the election was stolen from Donald Trump and Republicans like them.
Virginia Prescott: So that's the unifying principle. And all of the attendees got copies of an after-action report. This was produced by the state Republican Party. So a kind of election postmortem. How did party leaders summarize what had happened?
Stephen Fowler: Well, Virginia, you could be forgiven after reading that report if you were convinced that Republicans didn't actually lose. Nowhere in this glossy, 16-page report is there any sort of culpability about the fact that they lost the presidential race and both Senate races. Nowhere is there any mention of needing to increase turnout or do other things to bring people back into the fold or expand their coalition. Really, it is a 16-page ad for Chairman David Schaffer, who is running for reelection, and he's running with President Trump's endorsement. In fact, alongside that report, Virginia, you also got a photocopy of Trump's endorsement of David Schafer and it brags about the record number of fundraising dollars and the record numbers of doors knocked and the record numbers of people engaged in election protection programs. But nowhere in there does it mention that they lost. And in the section that talks about lawsuits that were challenging the election, nowhere is it mentioned that all of those lawsuits failed.
Virginia Prescott: OK, so sounds like they're projecting a very different image of what happened in 2020 than what actually happened.
Stephen Fowler: Absolutely. You know, there were plenty of Republicans that I talked to, both the new-to-the-fold kind of hard-core grassroots pro-Trump Republicans, as well as long established party leaders that believed that the 2020 election was stolen to the same degree that water is wet and the sky is blue. And so that is kind of the core ethos of the Georgia Republican Party for at least the next couple of years heading into this 2022 election. And not everyone is on board with that, though, Virginia. You know, that was one of the main kind of sources of controversy and sort of friction, even as Republican leaders like Barry Loudermilk talked about unity.
Virginia Prescott: OK, so the disunity, the GOP has singled out some statewide officials for their contempt. Gov. Brian Kemp certainly came under fire after not adequately attacking the election results that President Trump claimed were false.
[TAPE] Brian Kemp: Earlier today, Secretary Raffensperger presented — presented the certified results of the 2020 general election to my office following Judge Grimsburg's ruling yesterday. State law now requires the governor's office to formalize the certification.
Virginia Prescott: He was censured by Republicans on the county level. How did he do at these district meetings?
Stephen Fowler: Well, at the 7th Congressional District, which is Gwinnett and Forsyth County, which is one of the few House districts that flipped to Democrats, some grassroots activists there actually successfully pushed a resolution that censures Brian Kemp and censures Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. At the convention that I was, that there were resolutions, you know, attacking really the backbone of Republicanism in Georgia. There was one that called on Republican House Speaker David Ralston to either, quote, “repent or resign.” There was one censuring Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. There was one saying, you know, we feel that Republicans should no longer drink Coca-Cola or fly Delta because they caved to the left on election lies about Georgia's 98-page voting law.
[TAPE] Rand Paul FOX: If Coca-Cola wants to only operate in Democrat states and wants only Democrats to drink Coca-Cola, God love them. We'll see how well they do when half of the country quits drinking Coca-Cola, when half the country quits using Delta.
Stephen Fowler: For all the talk of unity, you know, unity is in the eye of the beholder, especially if you're not exactly aligned with a view of what Trump says the party should be.
Virginia Prescott: So going all in on this big lie that Donald Trump did not lose the election despite any credible evidence to the contrary. Was there any discussion of policy or ideas or concepts? Are we looking at just personality at this point?
Stephen Fowler: It's hard to say. There are some policies. You know, some resolutions took up kind of culture war mantles about things like critical race theory or, you know, the belief of vaccine passports and other kind of hot cultural conservative topics. But, you know, there are people that are running next year, like Gov. Brian Kemp, for example, that would probably like to talk more about the policies that he's done for the state and that he would continue to do if elected governor. But at the same time, you know, policies don't necessarily get the base out to the polls in the same way as this personality as we've seen with the 2016 election and the 2020 election.
Virginia Prescott: Let's look at the national picture here. U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy last week suggested that the party is moving on from questioning Biden's win.
[TAPE] Kevin McCarthy MSNBC: But I don't think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with. We're sitting here with the president today.
Virginia Prescott: You have a national Republican leader saying the big lie is over. But Georgia Republicans sounds like doubling down as an organizing principle. Is — is this the kind of party division that all the politicos have been predicting?
Stephen Fowler: Well, you know, it's a little hypocritical to say that the party is moving on, considering the party made the decision to remove Liz Cheney from her role as the number three House Republican because she refused to acknowledge kind of this stuck-in-the-past moment. And really, Virginia, the future for the Republican Party seems like it's stuck in the past. I mean, you have these resolutions condemning Georgia Republicans for how they handled in the 2020 election. You have this base that is energized based on belief about the 2020 election. And what you're seeing, on the national level and the local level, is there are a handful of Republicans that are trying to think about the long-term future of the party and not what's right in front of them. And I talked to a party official, somebody who was at this 11th District convention, and they said that really what they see now is Democrats are really good at having this bigger-tent coalition, of bringing together these different factions that have different strong beliefs about things that kind of conflict and bringing them all together around one candidate like Joe Biden, for example. And Republicans are really just kind of sloughing off anyone that isn't exactly like Trump and isn't acting like Trump and talking like Trump and supporting Trump. And, you know, when it comes down to it, in a state like Georgia, it's going to be very, very difficult statewide for these Republican candidates to get enough people to get across the finish line.
Virginia Prescott: Well, what are they facing? If so many Republicans stayed home from the runoff elections, didn't vote — and that is what some are pointing to, the key to the wins by Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who are now in the Senate — what does it mean if Republican voters are all energized, all feeling this party unity and turn out? Would they be able to take those seats back?
Stephen Fowler: Well, you know, that is the type of energy that really Republicans have made this sort of Faustian bargain that the only way they're going to even be competitive statewide is if they, you know, fire up the base, if they give the base what they want, which in this case is revisionist history about the 2020 election. But, you know, they run the risk of going too far, all in on this kind of false claim, energizing the base, but then turning off the same people that voted for maybe Republicans down ballot, but Joe Biden for president. And so Georgia is on the precipice of political change for the next decade. And how Republicans handle this, both locally and nationally, are going to really decide at least the next decade-plus for Georgia politics.
Virginia Prescott: So Georgia Republicans are clear on their pro-Trump identity. How about their strategy for winning in 2022? Stay with us for more Georgia Today. I'm Virginia Prescott.
Virginia Prescott: It's Georgia Today; I'm Virginia Prescott. During a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing last week, Rep. Andrew Clide from Georgia's 9th District downplayed the January six attacks on the Capitol.
[TAPE] Andrew Clyde: There was no insurrection. And to call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a bold-faced lie. Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion stand between the stanchions and ropes, taking videos and pictures.
Virginia Prescott: His comments got a lot of play.
[TAPE] Nancy Pelosi CSPAN: Well, I don't know on a normal day around here when people are threatening to hang the vice president of the United States or shoot the speaker in the forehead or disrupt and injure so many police officers, I don't consider that normal. Multiple people were killed. Over 140 police officers issued, a gallows was put out, then the attackers chanted, “Hang the vice president.” Normal?
Virginia Prescott: Georgia Rep. Jody Hice also made claims that the insurrection was overblown. Steven, this is already being tagged as the new big lie. Is it the new party line?
Stephen Fowler: Well, you know, I think it's certainly part of it. A certain part of this discussion of the future is the past. I mean, you know, you could stick your head in the sand and say that there were some very nice people and they were just tourists and they were, you know, just wanting to be there and march and protest. But you can't do that while ignoring that five people died, including one woman from Georgia. You know, you've had sort of devastating impacts on security around the Capitol and of the police officers that protect the Capitol like these congressmen. And, you know, Congressman Clyde was, you know, roundly denounced by a lot of people. And the kind of the cherry on top or the icing on the cake is somebody found a photo of him barricading the House chambers on Jan. 6th to make sure that nobody could get in there. And that sort of image of him barricading the chambers for people that he said are no different than tourists just means somebody is not being honest with themselves or they're not being honest to their supporters. And it goes back to what we discussed earlier, Virginia, about if you don't fall into line and if your Venn diagram is not a complete circle with yourself and with President Trump and his supporters, then there's not really a place for you in the party.
Virginia Prescott: Well, there are some in the party who are supporting Liz Cheney after her ouster, rebelling against the “party of Trump,” quote unquote, on the national level. 100-odd Republicans released a letter warning that they would defect. Any local anti-Trump holdouts among Georgia Republicans?
Stephen Fowler: You have to look no further than Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan. He is, you know, the number two Republican in Georgia. He presides over the Georgia Senate. And he caught a lot of flak from Republicans for not giving in to these false claims about the election, for being actually really forceful, pushing back against them. He walked out on a debate on a voting bill that, you know, was controversial and had a lot of things in it that just were based on this lie about the election. And it was difficult for it to get passed. But it did get passed. You know, he's gone on CNN and other places a lot talking about the need for the party to move on and move past it. And just this week, he made the announcement that we all saw coming that he is not seeking reelection as lieutenant governor and instead focusing on building GOP 2.0 …
[TAPE] Kevin McCarthy MSNBC: …GOP 2.0, which isn't a new party, just a better pathway forward and hopefully going to be a safe place for conservative Republicans to call home. And, you know, look, Republicans all over the country should be outraged that the news cycle about Republican efforts have been around removing Liz Cheney, who's one of the most conservative members of the U.S. House, and Andrew Clyde, making outrageous comments on — on — in his role in the House instead of talking about increasing interest rates or inflation rates and global conflicts and cyberattacks on pipelines. These are real issues.
Stephen Fowler: He hopes that his view will be kind of the dominant point in Republican politics moving forward after the 2022 election cycle. But that's what you're seeing here, is maybe not as many people that are vocally anti-Trump, but look to the Georgia Senate race and see that there aren't that many challengers that have emerged to challenge Sen. Raphael Warnock, in part because they're holding the field for a Texas-based, former UGA football player who would have Trump's wholehearted endorsement, were he to get into the race.
[TAPE] Herschel Walker FOX: I believe in God. I believe in this country. I believe in the people, and I'm going to fight for the people of Georgia if I run. So you just stay tuned and I'll tell you what; it is going to be exciting.
Virginia Prescott: Well, 2022 is either just around the corner or an eternity in politics.
Stephen Fowler: Yeah, a year and-a-half from now. There's a lot of things that can happen. I mean, one of the biggest applause lines that I saw at the district convention I was at, but also others, was from Vernon Jones, a lifelong conservative Democrat turned Trump supporter who showed up and he is challenging Gov. Brian Kemp, who is a very conservative governor, and he got the most enthusiasm from these attendees and talking about how, you know, Gov. Brian Kemp doesn't support Donald Trump, which is not true.
[TAPE] Vernon Jones Bloomberg Quicktake: The governor's office has failed to fight for you and for me. He failed those of us who hold dear our freedoms, our Constitution and the right to a free, fair and transparent election.
Stephen Fowler: And Gov. Brian Kemp doesn't do conservative policies, which is not true. But, you know, it's a flash in the pan moment. I don't think Brian Kemp is going to lose the GOP nomination for governor. But if 25% of Republican primary voters vote for Vernon Jones over Brian Kemp, how many of that 25% show up and vote for Brian Kemp in November? And that's a question that's keeping a lot of people up at night.
Virginia Prescott: Well, there's one place, one district where the party was not looking so cohesive, and that's in Jesup. What happened there?
Stephen Fowler: Jesup was where the 1st Congressional District, a GOP convention meeting, was supposed to happen. And to understand what happened there, you have to go back to the county level. You know, Chatham County, which is where Savannah is, held their county convention meeting and a kind of pro-Trump — they call themselves the Chatham Patriots — group showed up and they wanted to try to nominate their own slate of officers from the floor. And that wasn't quite in line with how the Robert's rules of orders for these conventions goes. And ultimately, they ended up ending their county convention without actually electing any officers. The state party got involved. They determined that the more establishment candidates did have seven of the eight seats and they recognized it and moved forward. But this Chatham County Patriot Group was not done. At the 1st Convention District, they were going to show up and protest and, you know, wanted to nominate their own people to be part of the leadership from the district level. And basically the venue there in Jesup canceled because they heard there was going to be threats of protest and disruption. So that convention never happened. But if you look on Facebook, one of the Facebook pages that are affiliated with these Patriots, they had a couple of people show up. They said they met in the parking lot and they voted to put the convention into recess and have it in a couple of weeks somewhere in Brunswick. And that's not how that works. And so, you know, you always have growing pains when you bring new people into the fold. But, you know, for all of this talk about unity, there are a lot of pro-Trump people that aren't as well-heeled in Robert's Rules of Order or really the party infrastructure. And there's some friction and growing pains that are happened that will probably come to a head at the state convention on Jekyll Island in a couple of weeks.
Virginia Prescott: Part of the goal here, that following President Trump, who is a recognized disruptor, that basically groups like the Chatham Patriots don't have to follow the rules.
Stephen Fowler: Well, yes and no. I mean, one of the reasons that Republicans were so successful over the past couple of decades and one of the reasons that Democrats have become so successful is that level of order and is that level of organization and cohesiveness of door-knocking operations and candidate messaging and other things like that. And you know, what happened in Jesup isn't an example of that. There's also another instance in Fulton County of a dispute over who's the Fulton County GOP chair. And it's the types of things that, you know, you look to the glossy after-action report that Republicans had and they bragged about all the door-knocking and all the fundraisings and all the voter calls and things that they did. Those are the types of things that party apparatuses are good for. And that, you know, the Trump campaign did to a certain extent, but obviously it did not work out as well for them. And so the party, moving forward, is going to need to harness that energy and harness those people that are excited about being involved in party politics and put it through this sort of — I don't want to say corporatist view of things, but there's got to have a little bit more organization involved if they want to translate that energy into hopefully winning next year.
Virginia Prescott: I was struck, Stephen, by the thought of these postmortems after elections. Famously, the 2012 election postmortem by the Republican Party said they have to embrace more minorities. They have to grow with the times and the changing demographics of America. A lot of soul-searching going on there. Where is the soul-searching coming from in the party in Georgia now?
Stephen Fowler: Well, I don't think you're going to see very much soul-searching coming from the party. You know, the Republican base has made it clear that they are a pro-Trump base. There was some polling that came out that suggests that maybe Vernon Jones and Brian Kemp were tied — which, necessarily, you want to take that with bunches of grains of salt — but the interesting through lines were there was that most Republicans in Georgia identify as pro-Trump Republicans and not evangelical Republicans or conservative Republicans. And so, you know, there isn't going to be very much soul-searching happening, I think, until closer to the election or depending on how the election results go. And here's an example, Virginia, of how soul-searching can work and can lead to action: After the 2018 election, when Stacey Abrams lost by about 55,000 votes for the governor's race, she put together a playbook. And it was a postmortem of what they did in the campaign, how they came close and what they were going to do to fix it.
[TAPE] Stacey Abrams: What we've seen over the last decade has been a steady change in demography. But we know that electoral politics always lag behind demographic change. And what we've been able to do in the state is really acknowledge, harness and now invest in that demographic change. And the reality is that trend is not going to reverse itself.
Stephen Fowler: And she published it. She made it public. She said this is our pathway moving forward. And if you look at how the 2020 election went and why Joe Biden won Georgia and why Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are our two U.S. senators, you see the thumbprints of that playbook of doing more engagement in southwest Georgia, doing more campaigning and messaging, putting more people in places to eat up the margins in traditionally Republican areas, not necessarily to flip rural Georgia, but to boost and juice their turnout there. And so the Democrats have a pretty good example of postmortems turning into action, turning into election-shifting results. But that's not there with the Republican Party right now. And, you know, it's probably going to take losses statewide in the 2022 election to light a fire under the party and have them reimagine and reexamine how they did things and to get a little bit back on track.
Virginia Prescott: My thanks to GPB politics reporter Stephen Fowler. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get your podcasts. And please leave us a rating or review on Apple, which will help other people find us. Jess Mador and Jahi Whitehead are our producers. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Steve Fennessy will be here with a new episode on Friday. I’m Virginia Prescott; thanks for listening.