Voting at convention of the Chatham County Republican Party, Savannah, Ga., Saturday, March 11, 2023 Credit: Craig Nelson

A group of upstart Republicans led by the president of an ultraconservative GOP regional organization has won a majority of leadership posts in the Chatham County Republican Party.

At the local party’s convention in Savannah on Saturday, candidates endorsed by the Chatham County GOP went down to defeat in five of six executive committee races, losing to a candidate slate organized by Brittany Brown, who won the top job, routing Ayeda Shihadeh Ali by a vote of 123-52.

Running on a technocratic platform promising “reliability and accountability,” Brown said her election was a testament not to any particular political positions she holds. Rather, she said, it was her commitment to a “big tent” party and to no-nonsense organizing that drew the votes of a majority of Republican conventioneers.

“My goal is not to shut anyone out,” she told The Current in an interview yesterday. “It’s to make sure that everyone feels welcomed, that people interested in the Republican Party get their phone calls and emails returned, that we establish a headquarters.”

Yet whether the insurgent slate’s victory on Saturday will heal — or deepen — long-running divisions among the more than 45,000 registered Chatham County Republicans is far from certain. Despite Republican domination of coastal and state politics, those divisions run deep.

Some of the rifts are ideological and political. Others stem from differences over Donald Trump and the controversial 2020 presidential election. Still others spring from what some see as the lack of aggressiveness by establishment Republicans in defending “conservative values.”

Fresh direction, more energy

Brown’s supporters say the rejection of the official candidate slate on Saturday had less to do with politics than with the need for a fresh direction and more energy, as well as the need to avoid a repeat of the 2021 county convention, which broke up in shouting and disarray without naming delegates to the state GOP gathering.

Indeed, the two-minute speeches allowed each candidate were heavy on technical skills and community roots. In the convention’s 4½-hour proceedings, neither the words “Trump” or “election fraud” or “election integrity” were ever uttered.

And among some 200 people crowding the hall, there was only one person sporting a scarlet “Make America Great Again” hat.

Unlike the 2021 gathering, this year’s convention succeeded in choosing 58 delegates to the district party convention later this spring and 42 delegates to the state party convention in Columbus in June.

Jeanne Seaver, who leads the Chatham County Conservative Coalition and was a member of the committee that interviewed all the candidates who ran for leadership posts, said the election of the Brown-led slate wasn’t aimed at steering the Chatham County GOP in a different political direction.

“This is not about taking over the local party,” said Seaver, who also heads Moms Against Gambling. “It’s about having qualified, organized candidates that are willing to make sacrifices and have the skills to grow this party in Chatham County.”

Political struggles unlikely to subside

Still, partly due to Brown’s political pedigree, struggles over control of local party machinery and political direction are unlikely to subside, especially heading into the GOP’s state convention and next year’s presidential primaries. It will be a daunting challenge to demonstrate that the local GOP is — politically and ideologically, at least — a “big tent” party.

Brown is president of the Southeast Georgia Republican Assembly, an affiliate of the Georgia Republican Assembly, which describes itself, in Ronald Reagan’s words, as the “conscience of the Republican Party.” She also is co-host, with Bill Edwards, of the “Get Real America” podcast, which seeks “truth and real American values.”

In a Jan. 17, 2023, letter to state Sen. Ben Watson (R-Savannah) and state Reps. Jesse Petrea (R-Savannah), Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) and Bill Hitchens (R-Rincon), Brown and Marolyn Overton, president of Ladies on the Right, urged the lawmakers to ban voting drop boxes, bar third-party election monitors, and condemned pending legislation that failed to mention the promotion of American patriotism.

Besides lingering political differences, the suspicions that persist among Chatham County Republican factions — some of them, to be sure, the usual personal dislikes and jealousies that accompany community groups anywhere — won’t fade quickly, either. That mistrust was evident at Saturday’s convention.

Fearing that some current party officials would resort to chicanery to defeat their candidate slate, the insurgents successfully forced a change in the convention agenda, calling for an executive committee vote before other new business, not after it.

‘Big tent’ gets a test

A shadow likely to loom over the remodeled Chatham County GOP until it moves to dispel it is the accusation that some of the new leadership’s followers are homophobic, racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic.

Those charges challenging the local party’s “big tent” boast were leveled by Kevin Gough, a St. Simons-based lawyer representing Ayeda Shihadeh Ali, who lost to Brown in the chairmanship race.

In a letter dated March 3 to David Shafer, chairman of the Georgia GOP, Gough requested that measures be taken to protect Ali at Saturday’s convention.

Gough cited a series of Islamophobic and personal attacks carried out by members of SEGRA and the Chatham County GOP, starting with an incident in which a person allegedly spit on Ali at the state GOP convention on Jekyll Island in 2021 and continuing through last month with what Gough describes as other verbal assaults by so-called Chatham “patriots,” including accusations that she is a “Palestinian terrorist.”

In two subsequent letters, Gough, who also represented Faye Fernandez, another candidate for a post on the executive committee, urged Shafer to nullify in advance the results of Saturday’s convention, pointing to purported procedural irregularities leading up to the meeting.

Gough said Monday that Shafer has not responded to any of his letters.

Saturday’s proceedings passed without apparent incident. In comments immediately following the announcement of her victory on Saturday, Brown turned to Ali, saying, “Thank you so much for running. I hope we can work together moving forward.”

That hope is not universally shared.

Ken Yasger, a gay U.S. Army veteran who ran on the establishment ticket for vice chairman of the county GOP and lost, wrote Monday on Facebook: “The majority of the sane Republicans on Saturday lost. Like I said before, we don’t need the Republican Party, the Republican Party needed us.”

Surely aware of the local party’s recent, tumultuous history and perhaps knowing how difficult it will be for the Chatham County GOP to achieve common ground politically, Watson, Petrea and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, in their brief remarks to the convention on Saturday, sought to forge party unity by stirring fears of Democrats and Democratic policies.

Watson said, “we need to be working against the socialist, leftist, progressive Democratic Party, both here locally in the state and in the nation.”

Urging Republicans to “unite or die,” Petrea warned about the migration of Midwesterners and Northeasteners to Georgia who, he said, threaten to change the state’s landscape for the worse. Already, he added, Democratic lawmakers in Atlanta are so crazy that “they need to be put in straitjackets.”

Said Carter: “We are not the enemy here. The enemy is on the other side of the aisle. We’re fighting for our country. We’re fighting for our way of life.”

‘They don’t understand that’

Watching the convention wind up on Saturday, a member of what the insurgents describe as the Old Guard of the Chatham County GOP was pensive. She predicted that the local party’s new leaders face trouble ahead.

“They don’t know how things are done here,” she said.

Later, in a telephone interview, the woman, a lifelong Savannahian with deep roots in the Republican Party, explained:

“These new party leaders aren’t ‘grassroots’ representatives of the Republican Party, as they claim. They’re inexperienced people who are new in town.

“While they believe in their hearts they’re doing what’s right, they don’t know the business people and the movers and shakers here. They don’t have the knowledge about how to progress. They don’t know the history and the intricacies of how this community developed and how it operates.  

“It’s a place that is arrogant and prideful, and rightly so. And if you’re from Savannah, it’s not an arrogance against other people. It’s an arrogance and a pride in the community and what this community is and has stood for.

“They don’t understand that. It won’t be easy.”

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...