The results of Tuesday’s Georgia primary showed the limits of Donald Trump’s influence on the state’s Republican Party, as the former president’s candidates were routed in the races for governor and secretary of state.

Still, the outcome does not end the rift among state GOP members between what one Chatham County Republican called “country club” and “grassroots” Republicans. Nor does it sound the death knell of the widely held belief in party ranks that the 2020 presidential election was stolen — or, at the very least, riddled with fraud.

In interviews with The Current following Tuesday’s primary, four prominent local Republicans expressed a mixture of dismay, resignation and defiance about the former president’s obsession with his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. 

They also addressed the challenge the party faces in uniting for what is expected to be some of the nation’s most hard-fought and most expensive general election races this fall, and the importance of local races for school board and Board of Elections.

But hovering over all the issues contested in the Republican primary was Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was stolen from him and how, if at all, it would affect voters. Marcia Smith, president of Savannah Area Republican Women, said Tuesday’s vote provided her with a clear answer.

“To me, the bottom line is that incumbents [Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger] won because the majority of Georgians want to get past the 2020 elections,” said Smith, who like other Republicans interviewed for this story, said her views were solely her own and did not represent those of the organizations to which she belonged. 

“Voters either believe there was fraud and want to get past it, or they don’t believe there was ever any fraud at all,” she said.

‘Moss believes in excellence’

One race that united all these Republicans was Roger Moss’ victory to lead the Board of Education which oversees the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System.

Aided by an enormous advantage in fundraising, Moss, founder of the renowned Savannah Children’s Choir, narrowly avoided a runoff, winning 50.15% of the vote.

“Moss believes in excellence, which means recognizing each child’s ability to be whatever he or she wants to be, if he or she puts out the work, and is given equal opportunity to excel,” said Beth Majeroni, co-leader of School Board Action Team, a conservative education reform group formed last year.

“I think Roger will do an excellent job of providing excellent education for our children in Chatham County because of his background, his experience, and his personal beliefs,” added Marolyn Overton, founder and chair of the executive committee of Ladies on the Right.

“He believes in education, and he’s proven that by some of the charter schools that he has founded,” Overton said.

‘He can’t control everything’

But the school board president’s race is where consensus about the primary ends. 

After Kemp and Raffensperger coasted to victory over candidates endorsed by the de facto leader of their party, local Republicans are “scratching their heads” as they ponder the future of the GOP and its relationship to the former president, said Carl Smith, vice chair of the Chatham County Georgia GOP.

“There’s a core group [of Republicans] where probably some people take it personal, but there’s a lot of people you talk to that still support the president,” said Smith, who insisted Tuesday’s results did not represent a wholesale rejection of Trump.

“But they thought the governor did a good job and he deserved another chance to run and beat [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Stacey [Abrams].”

The Trump revenge tour ran aground across Georgia. In Chatham Country, the victory margins for Kemp and Raffensperger were even wider than those statewide.

Kemp received 76.64% of the 26,094 votes cast to 19.87% for David Perdue. In the secretary of state’s race, Raffensperger received 58.28% of the 25,026 votes cast to 29.72% cast for Jody Hice.

The stark results are a political lesson, said Overton, of Ladies on the Right, which hosted speeches by Perdue, Moss, and a number of other conservative candidates in the months leading up to the primary. 



“Trump does have a lot of influence in elections and in what’s going on in the country. But he can’t control everything,” she said. “I think Donald Trump has done a lot for our country. The problem is a lot of people, I guess, are opposed to his personality.”

Trump himself was reported in Mar-a-Lago to be “recalibrating” his position, asking aides and visitors about opinion polls and weighing whether to announce a presidential exploratory committee to discourage potential challengers in 2024.

That doesn’t surprise Overton.

“I’m sure that Trump is reevaluating. I truly believe that he has a love for our country, and he wants to help make it better. And he did—he did make our country better. And now he’s going to continue doing that, or other people are going to be stepping up.”

‘They are not going to change their minds’

While Trump’s slate of election deniers fared poorly Tuesday, the results don’t mean an end to the insistence by many local Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen, rigged or fraudulent.

“There are many Republicans who actually believed a lot of things went on in the [2020] election that shouldn’t have gone on, but they want to get past it,” said Marcia Smith, of Savannah Area Republican Women. “They don’t want to talk about it anymore because they think it’s hurtful to us.”

“Those who believe it, believe it to their core, they are not going to change their minds. I don’t care what you tell them. All they do is say, ‘Watch 2000 Mules,’ ” she said, referring to the movie by conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza released in early May, that purports to show election fraud, particularly in Fulton County.

One of those local conservatives who “believe it to their core” is Majeroni, who is also an advisory board member of Ladies on the Right.

Although D’Souza recently admitted that his movie does not show evidence to prove his claims about ballots being collected and submitted, she is unwavering.

“We were all on board with the fact that the 2020 election was rigged before ‘2,000 Mules.’ But once you see it, there’s no way you can’t agree, unless you just want to close your eyes. It’s all there.”

The belief that the 2020 election was stolen, she said, is “stronger than ever” among Republicans. But political expedience, she said, has seized Republican politicians.

“There are a lot of Republicans out there that are looking at their political futures, they’re going to turn their eyes, they’re going to say it didn’t happen,” she said. “But I think the majority of Republicans, those who are truly honest, are more convinced than ever that 2020 was stolen, particularly after ‘2000 Mules.’ ”

Coming up short

With the exception of Moss’s victory to lead the school board, candidates backed by conservative Republican groups for seats on Chatham’s Board of Elections and the school board came up short on Tuesday.

Election board candidates Beverly Meng and Robin Greco were defeated. So were school board candidates Treye’ Burrison (District 5), Keith Padgett (District 6), and Jasmine Polley (District 8).

Their losses represent a setback for conservatives who see these two agencies as crucial fronts in the war to reverse society’s moral decline and “save the soul” of Georgia, as well as the nation.

The defeats of Burrison, Padgett and Polley, in particular, dismayed Marcia Smith. Those three, like Moss, had been endorsed by a local political action committee which had raised $87,000 in support of the slate.

“I hated that because I thought they had their emphasis on the children, the students of Chatham County, more so than the administration,” she said. “The present administration is just too top-up.”

Meng, the election board candidate, was defeated by Republican incumbent, James Brisson Hall. That pleased the vice chair of the Chatham County GOP.

“I’m very glad James [Brisson Hall] got reelected,” Carl Smith said. “At least have one person that’s going to try to watch what’s going on and hold some people accountable.

With all but possibly one statewide race heading to a runoff on June 21, Smith said he hoped Republicans “will be able to take a deep breath and start working on getting everybody together and focusing on November.”

‘Country club’ versus ‘Grassroots’

That may be easier said than done.

Georgia’s Republican Party is divided not over those fed up with Trump but between “country club” Republicans who support Kemp and “grassroots” Republicans who support a change in current state Republican leadership, Majeroni said. This split, she said, made unified backing for Trump’s primary candidate impossible. 

Majeroni accused Georgia’s “country club” Republicans — “Republicans-in-name-only” or “RINOs” — of breaking party rules in different counties and districts to preserve the status. The party’s state chairman, David Shafer, has not consistently enforced the party’s rules and bylaws on county election procedures, she said.

Smith, of the Chatham County GOP, acknowledges the splits inside his party but says most people don’t care.

“There is a deeper disconnect between some of the grassroots and the party people than there is with actual elected officials themselves. Your general public, 80% to 90%, are too busy to focus or even pay attention to a lot of the minutiae and discussion that’s going on.”

Craig Nelson is a former international correspondent for The Associated Press, the Sydney (Australia) Morning-Herald, Cox Newspapers and The Wall Street Journal. He also served as foreign editor for The...