Battleground: Ballot Box | Georgia Republicans face an identity crisis at a bad time
On this week's episode, we look at the fault lines within the Republican Party in Georgia over how much of a role former President Donald Trump should play in the GOP's direction.
For the past two decades, Republicans have dominated statewide politics in Georgia, but that could soon change.
Democrats flipped the state’s Electoral College votes in 2020 for the first time since the early '90s. In a stunning dual runoff, Georgia elected two Democratic U.S. senators in January 2021, gaining control of the chamber and cementing the party’s narrow mandate in Washington.
Many Republicans did not take it well.
For more than a year after the election, there have been continuous, concerted efforts to: overturn the election results, attack voting systems (put in place by Republicans, by the way) and endorse candidates who embrace extreme rhetoric.
It’s a rightward shift toward Trumpism that has foreshadowed a new Southern Strategy that could alter the country’s political landscape for years to come. But not everyone in the party of Lincoln and Reagan feels this way. There are some who have rebuked former President Donald Trump’s divisiveness and pleaded for more focus on conservative policies — though, for now, those pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
It's likely the 2022 election will solidify who is in the party’s driver’s seat.
So how did we get from Trump wholeheartedly endorsing Gov. Brian Kemp to the former president throwing him so far under the bus he said a Democrat would be better off in charge of the state in a span of just a few short years?
This week, we look at the fight for the future of the Georgia GOP.
It didn’t take long after Joe Biden was projected to win both Georgia and the presidency for things to go off the rails.
It was less than a week after Election Day. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler -— headed to January runoffs that would decide control of the U.S. Senate — sent a strongly worded letter to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demanding he step down because he "failed to deliver honest and transparent elections," with no evidence to support the claims.
Raffensperger fought back, resoundingly rejecting that request and suggested that the lawmakers focus more on winning their elections.
Around the same time, at one of numerous press conferences debunking conspiracy theories, Gabriel Sterling with the secretary of state’s office explained how the election system worked as intended. He defended the state’s results from fellow Republicans — and anyone else who questioned them.
"Our job is to get it right for the voters and the people of Georgia and for the people of the United States to make sure the outcome of these elections are correct and trustworthy," he said. "At the end of the day, no matter which side of the aisle you're on, no matter which candidate you supported, you can have trust and believe the outcome of these things."
If only it were that simple.
The direction of the Republican Party has been a closely watched development since Trump took office in 2016. And the 2018 election in Georgia seemed to cement Trump’s role atop the party here.
Then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp was seen as an underdog in a crowded GOP primary for governor, and received a key endorsement in the summer at a time when Trump’s word could move people to the polls. Trump’s support helped Kemp win the nomination, and Kemp’s platforms and policy proposals helped him become the first lifelong Republican governor since Reconstruction in Georgia.
But after the 2020 election, Kemp bucked Trump and other Republicans’ conspiracies about Georgia’s election and certified the results — even as the Georgia GOP met and selected a so-called alternate slate of electors for the Electoral College.
That put a target on his back.
We’ll get back to the governor’s fortunes in a bit, but it’s important to note another major development — that the 2020 election results kicked off a frenzy among the conservative grassroots that came into politics because of Trump’s populist message, brash style and America-first policies.
In the days and weeks following Trump’s defeats, previously faceless lawmakers became fringe media darlings for pushing false claims about the election and holding kangaroo court hearings to find ways to toss out votes.
Countless sitting lawmakers joined a long-shot suit filed in the U.S. Supreme Court that Georgia’s GOP Attorney General called “constitutionally, legally and factually wrong.”
And the base wanted more.
Typical party conventions are a mix of rallying around the party and really boring Robert’s Rules of Order parliamentary stuff. But this year, Republicans saw record participation at every level, from the precinct to the packed statewide convention on Jekyll Island.
In isolated pockets across the states, conservatives voted to censure sitting GOP officials like Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and, in some cases, Brian Kemp, because of their failure to overturn the election results.
The 11th District GOP convention in Cartersville saw U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk tamp down on talk of Republican disunity, even as delegates voted a short time later to ask Republican House Speaker David Ralston to "repent or resign," and vow to boycott top employers Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines. They also rebuked Geoff Duncan and Raffensperger for refusing to push false claims of fraud with the 2020 election.
"We're not divided; we're correcting ourselves going forward a little bit," Loudermilk said. "I've never seen us more united than we ever have been before."
On the coast, the 1st District GOP had its convention canceled after the venue cited concerns over "possible disruptions and protests," according to the Savannah Morning News — this, after Chatham County initially failed to elect officers after a group of self-identified "patriots" clashed with party leaders over the nomination process, and planned to crash the district convention.
In Alpharetta, at the 6th District meeting, party chairman David Shafer suggested without evidence that a surge in absentee ballots contributed to a fraudulent victory for President Joe Biden.
At every convention, Republicans received a glossy 16-page "After Action Report" from the GOP's losses in November and January that touted a surge in social media engagement and lawsuits filed to overturn the election, but did little to look inward at where they failed.
At the 11th District Convention, the biggest applause of the day wasn't for Rep. Loudermilk, or U.S. Senate candidate Kelvin King, or Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, but rather for Vernon Jones, a controversial, lifelong conservative Democrat-turned Trump supporter mounting a primary challenge to Gov. Brian Kemp.
Jones railed against likely Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, called the Black Lives Matter movement "bull****" and made disparaging comments about transgender individuals before launching into a series of false claims about Georgia's voting machines and elections.
Jones does a pretty good job of capturing where a large, vocal section of the pro-Trump Republican base is heading in 2022.
He clashed with fellow Democrats before switching his allegiance to be a pro-Trump Republican primary challenger, and his support for the former president paired with attacks on Brian Kemp seems to be more than enough to excite a crowd — and set up a nasty primary against Kemp, even if Trump doesn’t endorse anyone.
Over the summer, I shadowed Jones as he held a boat parade on Lake Lanier with country music star Travis Tritt.
"We're going to take this country back; we're going to send Joe Biden back to the basement," he said. "And Brian Kemp, get ready to get the hell out of town because we're going to take Georgia back."
As a speaker, Vernon Jones hits on social issues popular with base primary voters, knows how to “own the libs” and has taken a bombastic campaign approach reminiscent of the former president.
Or, in the words of former NYPD commissioner Bernie Kerik, "Vernon Jones is a Black Donald Trump. He does what he says he's going to do, and he doesn't stand for nonsense."
As a Black conservative, Jones is also trying to highlight the reality that the GOP has to adapt its message.
"We've got to grow the party" he said. "Traditionally, the Republican Party has been able to win without the minority vote. I hate to say it, but you're just fresh out of white conservatives — you don't have any more. You're fresh out like it's at the grocery store."
Jones also got a warm reception at the state convention. It was a breezy affair on Jekyll Island this summer where Brian Kemp received some kinda-boos from some but support from others.
The party gave awards to lawmakers who hyped false claims of fraud and tried to overturn the election. They passed resolutions that censured Raffensperger, called for draconian voting restrictions and demanded Georgia’s Republican-picked voting system be scrapped in favor of handmarked paper ballots — something that GOP lawmakers ridiculed Democrats for supporting just two years ago.
There was plenty of campaign swag to be had, like this slick campaign ad from secretary of state candidate David Belle Isle.
Now let’s get back to Kemp. Like we said earlier, he’s the first lifelong Republican governor since Reconstruction. He’s pushed popular conservative policies like tax cuts, teacher pay raises, keeping businesses open during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, welcomed large business developments.
“I've also held my commitment to fight for rural Georgia, to strengthen rural Georgia," he said at his campaign kickoff in Perry this summer. "We have created a promise of a rural strike team; we have been laser-focused on rural broadband.”
And yet, he’s faced attacks from both the left and the right.
At his kickoff, Kemp and his allies took on a more aggressive tone to remind Republicans that he is, in fact, one of their own. Leading up to the event, he waded into the fray over so-called “Critical Race Theory.” He banned vaccine passports and took a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border while attacking the “woke mob” and “cancel culture” after multiple groups sued over Georgia’s sweeping new voting law that he signed in the spring.
“I will make this commitment to you: I will not waver in that fight," he said to cheers. "I don't care if it's the Justice Department, Major League Baseball or anyone else. Every single Republican voted for that bill. And we're going to continue to defend it, because the truth is on our side.”
But the truth is, policies may not be enough to convince some Republican voters to support him in November’s general when he more than likely wins the nomination next spring. And with Trump obsessed with Georgia and dethroning so-called Republicans who defied him, that level of dropoff could contribute to Democrats winning statewide again.
Further complicating things is the race to run against Raphael Warnock for U.S. Senate.
In a different time, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black would be a comfortable frontrunner, touting endorsements from nearly half the state’s sheriffs, dozens of state lawmakers and boasting of a bipartisan background working with and against the federal government.
But Trump and his handpicked candidate, Herschel Walker, have other plans. The former Heisman winner and University of Georgia football star, longtime Texas resident and political novice has shaken up the race that could once again decide control of the U.S. Senate.
Walker has a rocky past with mental health struggles, accusations of violence and questionable business dealings, making him a risky candidate.
What’s also made it better — or harder — is that Walker’s largely avoided meaningful campaign interactions — mostly doing interviews on Fox News or pre-arranged local TV stops and avoiding most questions about substantive policies.
Early fundraising numbers — along with Trump’s backing — suggest Herschel could be cruising to a primary victory.
Then there’s candidates like Mike Collins. Son of a former congressman, the Butts County Republican launched his campaign for the 10th Congressional District earlier this fall and could represent a sort of happy medium for Republicans who want to court Trump but not go off the deep end.
Collins channels the brash style of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Trump, but has actual plans for governing that make him a bit more palatable. The trucking executive is running full speed ahead in a lane that combines conservative policies wrapped in unabashed pro-Trump energy.
His campaign kickoff in Jackson featured a monologue on lowering the cost of health care, establishing term limits for lawmakers and reworking immigration. But his ads feature guns, explosions and confrontational language.
"The time for civility, the time for compromise, that’s over with," he said. "The time for bipartisanship is done. There is no compromising."
It’s a crowded field in a district that we don’t know the new boundaries of because of redistricting, but Collins is the fundraising leader and he said the party has two paths it can choose moving forward.
"We can take the path of Mitt Romney, Liz Cheney and "Crying" Adam Kinzinger, or we could take the path of the Jim Jordans, Matt Gaetzes, the Marjorie Taylor Greenes and the Donald Trumps: true conservative fighters," he said. "That’s the party I want to be a part of.”
So where does the GOP go from here?
Is there enough leeway to pivot back to a small-government issues-oriented party that helped Georgia become the No. 1 state to do business, or is Trump’s singular obsession with his defeat going to accelerate the party’s fall from power and further fan the partisan flames?
Does a national environment that’s looking difficult for Democrats provide cover for Georgia Republicans’ dysfunction, or will the party have to go back to the drawing board to find a new winning coalition?
Just this week, Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and suburban Republican, wrote an online post saying former Sen. David Perdue would be a “unifier” for the party — never mind the fact that primarying Kemp could lead to a scorched-earth battle that could practically be considered an in-kind donation to Democrats.
Still, 2022 should have more answers.
Next week, the podcast is off for the Thanksgiving holiday. When we come back, we’ll take a look at some people and places that are shaping Georgia’s future.
Battleground: Ballot Box is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer is Jess Mador. Our editor is Wayne Drash. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger, who also wrote our theme music. You can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening.