Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, tensions between insurgents and the old guard are roiling the political establishment in Coastal Georgia.

The ferment is swelling as both political parties gear up for county assemblies next month, during which delegates will be chosen to attend state conventions or state committee meetings this summer.

In a voice vote at a meeting of the Chatham County GOP in Savannah last week, supporters of Carl Smith, the local GOP’s ad hoc leader, defeated efforts to unseat him as head of the rules committee.

But that’s unlikely to halt efforts by the party’s self-described “grassroots activists,” for whom Smith has long been a bane.

These detractors describe Smith as a RINO — Republican in Name Only, an embodiment of the “good old boy” network that has quashed the kind of party reform that they and former President Donald Trump seek.

He’ll do anything, including manipulating party rules, to preserve the status quo and his role as local kingmaker, said one critic, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the party’s internal workings.

Formally, Smith serves as vice chairman of the county GOP, while Leonard Massey holds the title of chairman. Massey has played a minimal role in the committee’s activities, however. Neither official attended last week’s meeting. Smith said he was away on business.

‘Never satisfied with anything’

How representative the insurgents’ views are is difficult to gauge — Coastal Georgia, unlike the densely populated Atlanta area, is notoriously lacking in opinion surveys and political polling. But in an interview yesterday with The Current, Smith played down the degree of dissent in local Republican ranks.

“There are just different groups of people that that are never satisfied with anything,” he said. “They attack [U.S. Rep.] Buddy Carter. They complain about Gov. [Brian] Kemp. They’re just a small percentage of the people that we have in the party that are extremely radical—I’m not even sure if they’re Republican.”

At stake in the fight for control of the party, Smith said, is its growth.

“We’re trying to work with everybody and bring people to join our party, which makes it harder when you have those kinds of radicals and people who are just trying to have a litmus test and virtue-signaling about how they’re supposedly a better Republican than myself or a Congressman Carter, or (state) Rep. (Jesse) Petrea, or the governor.”

Despite the feeling of upheaval, Chatham County Republicans managed to see eye-to-eye on one thing, though. In a voice vote, they endorsed Harmeet Dhillon over the incumbent, Ronna McDaniel, for chair of the Republican National Committee. The vote is Thursday.

Dhillon, who backed Donald Trump’s attempt to throw out the 2020 election results and represented him before the House’s Jan. 6 panel, is challenging McDaniel, blaming her for the GOP’s disappointing midterm performance.

The committee’s recommendation will be passed on to state GOP officials David Shafer, Jason Thompson, and Ginger Howard.

‘Getting county committees up and running’

On the Democratic side, there’s similar anti-establishment fervor.

James "Jay" Jones
James “Jay” Jones Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current GA

At a meeting of the Georgia Democratic Party in Atlanta earlier this month, Savannah’s James “Jay” Jones won a full, four-year term as head of the 1st District’s 18-member delegation to the state party, narrowly defeating Hinesville’s Sabrina Newby.

Jones, former chair of the Chatham County Democratic Party, had already held the post for 18 months, serving out the term of his predecessor, who quit. He ran unsuccessfully in the November elections against Republican state Sen. Ben Watson (District 1).

But discord remains.

In the battle between the old and the new, “Jay Jones needs to move on,” one member of the delegation, Debby Griggs, a nursing instructor at Georgia Southern University, wrote on Facebook after the vote.

One of Jones’s responsibilities is to field Democrats to run for political office and to build Democratic committees in the 15 coastal counties that comprise the 1st District, the foundation for any improvement of the party’s political fortunes in the region. The insurgents claim he has failed in that task.

In response, Jones says that for all of the party’s successes in some urban areas of Coastal Georgia, few people fathom the enormity of the task that faces Democrats region-wide.

The Coastal Georgia counties where the Democratic Party wants to “get up and running” have been dominated by Republicans for decades, from the mayor’s office to the election board, he explained in an interview.

The daunting process has been slowed by inertia, local powerbrokers, and fears of political retaliation, not to mention the difficulty of juggling a day job with a voluntary one, he said.

“I don’t get paid for this,” he said.

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...