Georgia Today: 2020, Trump Continue To Define Georgia GOP Ahead Of 2022
Former President Donald Trump continues to overshadow the Georgia GOP. But not every Republican in the state is on the same page. Will the GOP unify in time for the next elections? Georgia Today explores that question and more with guest Maya Prabhu, a political reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Steve Fennessy: The political fallout continues days after state Republican leaders met on Jekyll Island for the party's annual convention. A record number of delegates showed up ahead of what's seen as a highly competitive year for statewide races up and down the ballot in 2022. But many in the party came to debate the last election. Heckling from some in the crowd drowned out Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's speech calling for unity.
Brian Kemp: (Crowd boos) Delegates, alternates, guests, elected officials, my fellow Republicans.
Steve Fennessy Loyalists to former President Donald Trump continue to blame Kemp for not overturning the 2020 election results, even though he couldn't have done it even if he'd wanted to. Kemp is running for reelection next year. Among the primary challengers is former State Rep. Vernon Jones. Jones has been a vocal supporter of Trump. After big losses to the Democrats last year, it's clear Georgia Republicans remain divided. Joining me to discuss what's at stake ahead of the 2022 elections is reporter Maya Prabhu, who covered the convention for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So let's just recap a bit, because this is the first state GOP convention since the 2020 election where the Democratic candidate for president, Joe Biden, took the state — the first time a Democrat has done that in 28 years. And Republicans lost not just one, but two U.S. Senate seats. So, I mean, in the wake of such losses, a reasonable person might conclude it's time for the party that took such a beating to step back and ask, “Where did we go wrong?” So, Maya, is this the kind of self-examination that was occurring on Jekyll Island last weekend?
Maya Prabhu: I think it's safe to say no, that — that was not the case. It was definitely a lot of looking back at 2020. Many of the attendees strongly believe the election was stolen and Donald Trump should be president right now and Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue should be in the Senate. Almost every speaker spoke about how the election was stolen or if they didn't flat-out say stolen, they said Donald Trump should be president right now. And so there was not a lot of discussion about if or where they went wrong in messaging or campaigning or fundraising, it was very much just, there were election irregularities and we need to get those questions answered as to why Donald Trump didn't win Georgia.
Steve Fennessy: Most of us are familiar with the national nominating conventions every four years for president. But when it comes to these state political conventions, give us an idea, a little bit of how the convention unfolds. Like I'm imagining smoke-filled rooms, but that probably isn't it. What happens there?
Maya Prabhu: The main business is to elect party leadership. They elect chairman, vice chairman and so on. And they also vote on different resolutions that set the tone for, or are supposed to set the tone for how they're going to go into the next two years of campaigning and folks running for office. It's also an opportunity for candidates and incumbents to make their cases to the base of the Republican Party. There were probably about 2,000 delegates and I would guess another thousand or so guests and alternates in the crowd. And the folks who travel to Jekyll Island from wherever they live in the state for something like this are typically the ones who are the most engaged, most likely to vote on Election Day, most likely to talk to their friends and neighbors about issues and candidates. And so it's an opportunity for them to make their case and get folks on their side heading into next year's primaries.
Steve Fennessy: And what was the mood of it when you were there? When you were just walking around talking to folks? How did it strike you?
Maya Prabhu: People are fired up. You know, there was a lot of different campaign paraphernalia. They had vendors and so you could buy buttons and shirts and things like that. And people were excited about heading into the next election while also complaining about the results of the last election. But it seems as though they're energized. It's just a question of what they're going to do with that energy.
Steve Fennessy: Well right, being energized is one thing and channeling that into a political platform and strategy that's — that's effective come Election Day is another thing. I'm curious, kind of, as we talk about how there's this continued fascination with the 2020 election, how sort of relitigating that, even internally, serves their purposes in terms of looking ahead at the 2022 election. What's the point?
Maya Prabhu: I think it's just — they're not going to say a turnout was down, but in essence, they're saying the numbers show that more Democrats showed up to the polls. And so we need to be energized and excited and show up to vote on Election Day and not just at political campaign events.
Steve Fennessy: Did you get an impression when you were there of how divided the state GOP may be in terms of, you know, continually looking back at the election versus trying to move on and look ahead to the next one?
Maya Prabhu: I think deep down, they know at some point, if they're going to win in a general election, they have to unify. So I heard a lot of people saying “We still have 18 months, it's 18 months until the general election. There's plenty of time for us to get on the same page.” I definitely know that any party, especially the incumbent party, would prefer to be unified behind one candidate headed into a primary versus having fractures. There are some who say, you know, “We don't have any room for error in this. We need to unify behind candidates and head into next year,” because you know that Stacey Abrams can energize people and get them to show up to the polls.
[News Tape FOX5]: The governor says he is ready.
Brian Kemp: Oh, I'm looking forward to running, whoever gets in the race. I mean, it's not going to be about them as much as it is me reminding people that I delivered on the promises I told them I would do. My mission when I got in the governor's office was to do exactly what I told people I was going to do. And that's what I've been doing. And that's what I'm going to run on regardless of who the opponent is.
Steve Fennessy: What were the Warrior Awards? I read something about these things being handed out. What were they?
Maya Prabhu: There were several awards that Chairman Shafer gave to different people who are active in the party. And he gave these three what he called Warrior Awards to a trio of state senators: Burt Jones, Brandon Beach and William Ligon, who did not run for reelection. And these three were probably, among state elected officials, the most vocal in writing letters, signing on to amicus briefs, and Sen. Ligon held a hearing where Rudy Giuliani, who was Donald Trump's attorney in the aftermath of the election, kind of gave Giuliani and others space to try and lay out their what they called evidence as to why the election results in Georgia weren't accurate.
Steve Fennessy: And as you're walking around the state GOP convention, obviously there are people who honestly, fervently, in their heart of hearts, believe that the election was stolen, that Donald Trump actually won the state of Georgia. And then there, of course, there are others who don't believe it, who believe Joe Biden did win, regrettably for the Republicans, but did win and that we need to move on. To what degree is "The Big Lie," as it's called, still sort of pervasive within state GOP circles?
Maya Prabhu: It's something that's there. And the people who are more upset about the results of the election are louder. But there are a good number of people who they would have preferred that Donald Trump win in Georgia. But the numbers are what they are. However, you know, Donald Trump still has a hold on the Republican Party in Georgia and nationally. And so folks — especially folks who are running for office — who don't believe that Trump won the election in Georgia, they don't want to be necessarily vocal because that could cause them backlash.
[News Tape CBS] Greg Bluestein: The former president has vowed to campaign against Brian Kemp. He has vowed to oppose his reelection efforts, but at the same time, he has yet to endorse any of the two primary challengers to Brian Kemp.
Steve Fennessy: Up next on Georgia Today, we look at how the 2020 election continues to overshadow the future of the Republican Party. Stay with us.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm joined by Maya Prabhu, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who covered last weekend's state Republican convention on Jekyll Island. Maya says the reaction from the delegates at the event stood out for its division. Not so much over policy issues, but over state officials’ handling of the 2020 presidential election amid baseless conspiracies alleging fraud. But many in the GOP leadership are banking that the state's new election restrictions will reassure Trump supporters to turn out for Republican candidates next year.
[News Tape FOX5]: Georgia's governor has consistently backed the new voting laws, saying it makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat. Despite the backlash, he hopes to secure support for his reelection.
Steve Fennessy: Republicans still control statewide office in Georgia: the governor's office, the lieutenant governor's office, the attorney general's office, the secretary of state — and all four of those Republicans who are the incumbents now to some degree are on the defensive, it feels like, because of what occurred last fall. And in fact, Geoff Duncan, the lieutenant governor, has already announced he's not running for reelection. Was Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger there?
Maya Prabhu: He did not attend. If you ask his office, he says that he was not invited to speak. And Geoff Duncan said the same thing. And so they opted not to attend. He had a number of staffers there, but he did not attend or address the crowd. But his name was invoked many, many times and drew boos every time.
[News Tape CBS46]: Breaking news out of Glynn County: CBS46’s Jasmina Alston joins me now live. Jasmina, state Republicans passed a resolution concerning Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, right?
[News Tape CBS46]: Yeah, Trason, that's right. Delegates censured Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for his part in administering the 2020 elections. Raffensperger, he is a Republican who is seeking reelection, but he wasn't at the party's convention today.
Steve Fennessy: Brian Kemp, of all of the incumbent Republicans, faces probably the most tricky of balancing acts because he is the incumbent. He likely will face off next year against Stacey Abrams. But of course, Donald Trump, when he was in office and after the election, was very much disavowing the governor. And so this put the governor in a very precarious place. How did he kind of go into this convention trying to navigate that?
Maya Prabhu: He showed up early before he was scheduled to speak. He could be seen in the hallways taking pictures and answering questions from constituents. And, you know, he did have to walk this tightrope, you know, never saying the election was stolen, but also touting the elections law that passed this year that overhauled the way elections are run in Georgia.
[News Tape CNN]: Unlike some fellow GOP officials who have publicly denounced the former president, Kemp narrowly managed to avoid a party censure.
Maya Prabhu: You know, he was booed immediately as he came out. Once they settled, if he said anything that caused his supporters to applaud, people would try to boo to drown them out. And if he said anything that elicited boos, his supporters would try to applaud, to drown them out. So I feel like that's a — that's a good way to kind of describe where the party is right now.
Steve Fennessy: What was the presence of Donald Trump there? I know he wasn't there in person, but to what degree was he kind of like an elephant in the room?
Maya Prabhu: Republicans very much invoke his name and tout their support for the former president, and many try to align themselves as closely as closely with him as they can. There are some who are being billed as the more moderate Republicans here and nationwide who are like, look, you know, “The election happened. I wanted Trump to win. He didn't. But we have to figure out how to move forward,” because having two Democratic U.S. senators and an endorsement of the Democratic presidential nominee, for a lot of folks, is unheard of to them, right? So they're like, “We need to — we need to focus on that and try and — and get these voters back” or get more voters who chose to stay home to come out next year. But then there's this other faction who, you know, they've been enamored by former President Trump since 2015 and they're just not letting that go. His presence was definitely felt. And then he also addressed the crowd with a recorded video.
[News Tape 11Alive]: A video message from former President Donald Trump was also played at the convention, where he continued to sow doubt about the 2020 presidential election results and thanked his supporters. Mr. Trump was in North Carolina on Saturday speaking at the state's GOP convention.
Maya Prabhu: And I think going into the convention, some wondered if he would use that as an opportunity to again slam the governor. He didn't. He didn't mention the governor's name, but he did share his support for the current, and then reelected, chairman David Shaffer, who was, you know, one of the leading voices in Georgia trying to get the election overturned in Trump's favor.
Donald Trump: And I want to also thank David Shafer. He's been a tremendous chairman. He's worked so hard. And he still is. There's a lot of things happening. He's working very, very diligently. He loves Georgia and he loves the people of Georgia. And so do I. I look forward to being with you. We're going to do a rally there in the very near future.
Steve Fennessy: So David Shafer, the state GOP chair, was basically reelected for another term in that position?
Maya Prabhu: Yeah, so later in the day on Saturday they held those elections.
Steve Fennessy: You know, we're looking at the next 12, 14 months or more of as we gear up towards the fall elections in 2022, when the governor is up for reelection, as well as the attorney general, the secretary of state, lieutenant governor, everything, all the state House seats, as well as one United States Senate seat. So there's a lot that's going to be happening. Coming out of the convention, where do you see the state GOP heading in terms of, I guess, adopting or proclaiming some sort of platform?
Maya Prabhu: You know, honestly, that's a good question, because that is typically the kind of information that we would be able to glean from a state convention. We kind of see what their priorities are going to be heading into campaign season. You know, there are — there are a few issues that they've been able to rally around: anything concerning critical race theory being taught in schools, always abortion, gun rights — you know, all of the typical talking points that conservative lawmakers run on as a platform. I think we're also going to see, you know, this continued relitigation of what happened in 2020 and how they feel as though Donald Trump should have won. And a continued making Stacey Abrams — who we think will be running, you know, she still hasn't announced. But Stacey Abrams as the Democrat, continuing to make her this boogeyman, because I feel like just as much as Stacey Abrams motivates and excites Democrats, I feel like it's the equal response in the negative for Republicans, not only in Georgia but across the country. So it'll be continued attacks on her from all sides, as well as this idea that if the election were really fair, Donald Trump would be president right now.
Steve Fennessy: Vernon Jones is at least one person so far who has announced he wants to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp in the Republican primary. To what degree, if you could take out your crystal ball, are you imagining kind of a bruising campaign for the governor just to secure the nomination?
Maya Prabhu: You know, Vernon Jones is a really interesting politician. He's been in politics for decades. He has always been a Democrat. He was elevated last year for being a, quote, Democrat who supported Trump. And it wasn't until January of this year that he announced that he would be changing parties, obviously with a — with a plan that he intended to — to challenge Gov. Kemp in the primary. People who like him, really like him and are really excited by him.
[News Tape CBS] Greg Bluestein: Vernon Jones is trying to reinvent himself as a far right conservative. And in doing so, he's pulling Brian Kemp and the rest of the field further to the right of the party. And so you've now seen, Gov. Kemp take a series of steps to try to placate, to curry favor with the Republican base that is at best a little bit skeptical of him right now.
Maya Prabhu: You know, he says things that could be viewed as controversial, that get folks fired up and excited. It kind of appeals to people in a similar way that Donald Trump initially appealed to people in 2015 and 2016. So it's really a question of how far that support can spread and if that turns into donations, right? For fundraising, turns into votes. And he's also, I think, angling for an endorsement from Donald Trump. And if you remember three years ago, a lot of people credit that endorsement from Donald Trump of Brian Kemp with winning the runoff election against then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. So it'll be interesting to see if Vernon Jones gets the endorsement and if that turns into more votes on primary election day.
Steve Fennessy: Yeah, it very much feels like Georgia, to some degree, is a microcosm of the future of the Republican Party because the future is very much up in the air in terms of what direction it appears to be going in. What are things we should be looking for that's going to help us understand better the direction the party, the Republican Party, may be going in?
Maya Prabhu: I think it's definitely going to be watching to see who all else announces for these different offices, right? It's possible that some candidate that we haven't thought of could announce to want to primary Gov. Kemp. We're expecting more announcements for the lieutenant governor's race. I think that's going to be the next thing to see who announces and then what — what the reaction is from folks in the Republican Party to the people who announce that they're planning to run for these — especially these statewide offices. There have been all these rumors around Herschel Walker and whether or not he's going to get in for U.S. Senate. I was told he was definitely going to announce during the convention. Obviously, he didn't even show up. So there are all these questions and rumors swirling around out there. So I think the next few months give an opportunity to settle, because if you're going to be a serious candidate next year, you’ve got to announce, I would say, by the end of summer because you gotta start raising money. And I think that's the biggest thing to look out for in the next few months just to see if people actually make these decisions to get into the office or if they put the rumors to bed.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Maya Prabhu, who covers politics for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Also at the convention last weekend, the Georgia Republican Party passed a resolution censuring Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The censure accuses the Republican of, quote, dereliction of his constitutional duty, unquote, for not bowing to former President Trump's pressure to overturn the election results. For more, Georgia Today, go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Don't forget to leave us a review on Apple. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.