When Republican delegates from around the state arrive at the Jekyll Island Convention Center for the state GOP convention this Friday and Saturday, the biggest question won’t be if die-hard Trump supporters have a place in the party, but rather if there’s room for anyone else.
Fresh off stinging defeats in November and January that saw control of the White House and the U.S. Senate flip, Georgia Republicans are at a crossroads. Heading into a 2022 election cycle that will almost certainly see nonstop national attention, several statewide incumbent officeholders like Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger are facing immense pressure from an energized Republican base that holds them responsible for Trump’s narrow but decisive defeat.
There has been little reflection on the policies, candidates or messaging that contributed to Democratic victories, with both rank-and-file members and top party brass zeroing in on the specter of voter fraud as the cause of 2020’s undesired outcome and having the effect of sweeping legislative changes to voting during the legislative session.
At precinct, county and district conventions across the state, a slew of newcomers were swept into leadership positions, angered by losses and energized by the message of former President Trump, whose unending bravado and America-first populism brought fresh faces into the political process.
To understand the newly invigorated direction of the Georgia GOP, one need look no further than the convention schedule, where delegates and guests can attend two breakout sessions — one on party development and the other on election integrity.
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who is not running for reelection, will not be in attendance this weekend. Raffensperger, who gained national attention for standing up to Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, has become a pariah in the party and will not show up either, nor top members of his staff. Rep. Jody Hice (R-Greensboro), the Trump-endorsed primary challenger, will hold a “Hice Cream Social” at a nearby hotel to court voters.
Perhaps the biggest test will be the reception that Kemp receives during his Saturday speech to convention-goers. The first-term governor has weathered both extremes of the former president’s attention, from decisively winning the gubernatorial primary runoff on the strength of a Trump tweet to facing a growing chorus of animosity for not attempting to overturn the election in Trump’s favor.
For now, he faces two primary challengers. The biggest threat is Vernon Jones, a lifelong Democrat turned pro-Trump personality that drew the biggest applause at district conventions for his speeches railing on Stacey Abrams, the Black Lives Matter movement and anyone who did not unequivocally support Trump. Kandiss Taylor, a schoolteacher who ran in the 21-person special election for U.S. Senate last year, is a fringe candidate who supports a so-called “forensic audit” of Georgia’s election that has been counted three separate times — including once by hand.
Trump has not yet endorsed Jones (or Kemp, for that matter), and there is still plenty of time left before the primary next spring. The governor’s fortunes have turned in recent months as he has staked his claim to a number of hot-button conservative issues including banning “vaccine passports,” opposing critical race theory, pledging more financial support for Israel, visiting the U.S.-Mexico border and signing Georgia’s 98-page voting law.
There are also several downballot races left unsettled, especially the U.S. Senate race to challenge Sen. Raphael Warnock. In addition to announced candidates like Latham Saddler, potential contenders such as Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) are expected to test the waters in front of a primary candidate’s most important constituency. State Sen. Burt Jones (R-Jackson) is expected to announce a run for lieutenant governor in the coming weeks, and a number of candidates to replace Hice in the 10th Congressional District have already announced their intentions.
At the party level, an easier litmus test to determine the GOP’s direction the next two years is the race for chairman. Current chair David Shafer will likely cruise to victory, touting record voter outreach, fundraising and campaign efforts as evidence he can lead the party to victory next year. Former Cobb GOP chair Jason Shepherd is also running, arguing that Shafer’s leadership contributed to Republican defeats and the party should expand its messaging and avoid alienating those that aren’t as completely pro-Trump as the base.
There are other internecine squabbles that will play out over the weekend, such as an ongoing dispute over who leads the Fulton County GOP, a rescheduled 1st Congressional District convention interrupted by pro-Trump protestors and a number of resolutions aimed at censuring current elected officials.
All of this comes against the backdrop of Georgia’s burgeoning population growth, which has accelerated demographic and political changes, turning a once-solid-red stronghold for Republican ideology into a purplish melting pot that has become ground zero for national political battles, from voting rights and policing to COVID-19 response and culture wars.
This story comes to The Current through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia