On a brisk Saturday morning in mid-April, grassroots Republicans gathered in county conventions across Georgia to begin deciding their party’s future.
The day ended with Donald Trump firmly in control of the state Republican Party, in a microcosm of the national struggle for the GOP’s soul following the November election and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
In the state’s biggest Republican strongholds, conventions that were supposed to last a few hours dragged into the evening as insurgent delegates—many of whom had never participated in party politics before—booted longtime leaders in favor of Trump-embracing newcomers. They attacked the party’s top officeholders, passing resolutions condemning them for not supporting Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. They dissed former GOP officeholders, too, flouting a tradition of giving them votes at a coming state convention. They denounced the state’s voting machines and buzzed with debunked conspiracy theories.
Battles erupted over even relatively mild issues. In a Fraternal Order of Eagles lodge off I-85 near Atlanta, DeKalb County delegates spent almost an hour on a bland resolution that said the GOP stands for liberty and prosperity because one clause mentioned “compassionate conservatism.” Delegates stripped the offending language, calling it an anachronism out of touch with the post-Trump party.
The April conventions left little doubt about the GOP’s direction in Georgia. Ardent pro-Trump newcomers are trying to oust establishment Republicans, and they’re succeeding. That could spell danger for the party in 2022, when the state’s top elected jobs are on the ballot, according to Charles Bullock, a political scientist and election expert at the University of Georgia. “It’s really counterproductive,” he says. It’s a lesson that should have been learned in January, he says, when Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler embraced Trump’s voter fraud campaign and lost crucial suburban voters—and their seats.
The civil war within Georgia’s GOP might mean little if the state hadn’t played such an outsize role in handing control of Washington to Democrats—and if that legacy were not on the ballot again next year. The state has become a de facto laboratory for national politics, with Democratic powerhouse Stacey Abrams mobilizing new minority voters, Trump continuing to hold sway with White voters in rural Georgia, and the purpling of once-Republican Atlanta suburbs that contributed to Trump’s loss.
Georgia delivered the state’s 16 Electoral College votes to Joe Biden by a margin of less than 12,000 votes in November, and then sent two Democrats, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, to the U.S. Senate in January, giving the party its single-vote margin there. One of the senators, Warnock, has to defend his seat next year.
The Georgia Republican Party gatherings were part of a time-intensive, small-d democratic process that starts with precinct-level caucuses and culminates with the state convention and the selection of leadership in June. So far that process has only exacerbated the divide in the state party. The inflamed rank and file of the party are working to entrench an apparatus fiercely loyal to Trump and his false claims of election fraud. Chairman David Shafer, who aggressively promoted the Stop the Steal campaign to overturn Biden’s victory, is widely considered a lock to win back his chairmanship in June, despite presiding over the party’s recent losses.
One of the new leaders is Marci McCarthy, who won the chairmanship of the DeKalb County GOP after her predecessor decided not to run. “What I am seeing is a new guard that is anti-establishment and anti-RINO and very, very pro-Trump,” McCarthy says. (RINO is an acronym for “Republican in Name Only.”)
It’s already a problem for Republican Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who are both up for reelection next year. Trump attacked the men mercilessly after they refused to do his bidding in trying to overturn the election results. GOP conventions in at least 15 counties so far have passed resolutions censuring Kemp and Raffensperger, along with Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, who recently decided against running for reelection in the current climate.
By far the most vulnerable is Raffensperger, who drew praise from voting advocates and scorn from his party for working to make voting easier in the pandemic and for opposing Trump’s voter fraud claims. (Trump called Raffensperger “really, really an enemy of the people” and pressured him in a leaked phone call to find him “11,780 votes, which is one more than we have because we won the state”; a local district attorney is investigating potential election violations.) The Georgia GOP has targeted Raffensperger’s office directly, and he now has two primary challengers, one of whom, Representative Jody Hice, Trump has endorsed.
Kemp has a primary challenger, too, which would have been hard to imagine before Nov. 6. The primary should have been a cakewalk for the incumbent governor, who could point to a strong economy, low unemployment, and, for the conservative base, his status as the first governor to reopen his state during the pandemic.
Whatever the results next year, the party is headed in the wrong direction, according to Duncan, the lieutenant governor who was the third state officeholder to be censured. At 46, Duncan has been a rising star in GOP politics, and he says he and Kemp have a strong record. He also spoke out loudly and often against the Trump campaign’s and the state party’s Stop the Steal efforts. “Right now the Republican Party is being used to fan the flames of 10 weeks of misinformation and the post-election debacle that played out,” he says. “If we don’t turn the page, if we think the strategy is to double down on relitigating the election and the great hoax, then we had better get used to losing.”
Duncan has formed a PAC to support a reset for Republicans that would emphasize policy ideas, not Trump. “The best starting place is for as many Republicans to walk into as many rooms as they can and say, ‘Let me start this discussion by saying former President Donald J. Trump lost the election fair and square. Now, what can we do to help you?’ ”