About two dozen Republican Georgia state senators gathered in the state Capitol’s second-floor lobby on Thursday, still bleary-eyed from the previous night’s legislative chaos.
They weren’t there to rehash the clamorous finale of the legislative session. They were enthusiastic attendees of a closed-door meeting with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the presumptive presidential contender in town for a stop on his book tour.
Not long ago, it might have been inconceivable for prominent Georgia Republicans to so eagerly court an alternative to former President Donald Trump. Local parties frequently purged themselves of “never Trump” members, and many elected officials would only dare criticize him privately.
But DeSantis’ visit to Atlanta illustrated anew how willing many Georgia Republicans are to encourage rivals to Trump’s comeback bid. His stop at Adventure Outdoors, a gun store in Smyrna, was filled with GOP activists and officials who were once as enthusiastic about Trump.
“I’m 100% open to his candidacy,” said Allen English, president of the Atlanta Young Republicans. “Ron DeSantis has everything that many Republicans love about Trump minus what we don’t like. There’s no perfect candidate, but he does come close.”
English wasn’t alone in his willingness to hear DeSantis’ pitch. The Floridian met privately with Gov. Brian Kemp, who recently said they enjoy a “really good relationship.”
And more than a dozen state legislators piled into the second floor of the gun shop, along with Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper, to hear DeSantis’ remarks. Also spotted in the crowd was Brad Carver, an Atlanta attorney who was one of the fake Trump electors in 2020.
“I am for whoever the nominee is,” Carver said. “No matter who it is.”
‘Where woke goes to die’
DeSantis’ stop was part of a media blitz that’s widely seen as a prelude to an official 2024 announcement expected within months. And it was accompanied by a poll released by a pro-DeSantis super PAC that showed him with a lead over Trump in Georgia.
Before a crowd of roughly 650, DeSantis praised Georgia lawmakers for expanding gun rights and banning “sex change operations for minors,” a reference to a new law that limits what health care treatments transgender youth can receive. And the audience roared when he called his state the place where “woke goes to die.”
While DeSantis received a warm welcome inside the massive gun store — a favorite stop for local Republicans — his visit faced other pushback. In the sprawling parking lot outside, the site of many GOP rallies, a group of pro-Trump activists rallied to show support for the former president.
And Democrats called on DeSantis to scrap the visit to the “World’s Largest Gun Store” just days after a deadly mass shooting at a private school in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Holding a campaign event at a gun store days after another horrific school shooting where innocent children were murdered should be beyond the pale, but Ron DeSantis seems to not care,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, chair of the state Democratic Party.
Another DeSantis event, scheduled Monday in Nashville, was canceled by organizers.
The visit to Cobb County highlights the transformation of a suburb that was once an important Republican stronghold that changed during Trump’s presidency into a Democratic bastion. In 2020, President Joe Biden carried the county by 14 points.
“As we have recently seen many red counties in Georgia flip blue, I believe Georgia voters need to hear what Gov. DeSantis has to say,” said Jason Shepherd, a former Cobb GOP chair and outspoken Trump critic. “More so, we need his kind of leadership now more than ever.”
DeSantis has been ramping up his national appearances in recent weeks as he prepares a likely White House bid. He’s seen as the top threat to Trump, who launched his comeback tour months ago but has yet to return to Georgia, where he has a checkered history.
Two other GOP candidates have also entered the contest: former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who held fundraisers in Atlanta earlier this month; and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.
Although Trump remains the front-runner, dozens of elected officials and activists surveyed recently by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution say they’re reluctant to embrace his comeback bid and ready to embrace an alternative.
In his remarks, DeSantis made no overt references to a White House run. The closest he came to knocking Trump came when he praised Kemp for scaling back economic restrictions during the first weeks of the pandemic — a move Trump and others opposed.
“I remember him getting criticized for that,” DeSantis said. “But he made the right decision to make sure that businesses could be open.”
DeSantis preferred instead to focus on socially conservative measures he embraced in Florida, such as limits on coronavirus vaccine mandates, tough-on-crime measures and crackdowns on illegal immigration.
He drew some of the loudest applause when he invoked his decision to use taxpayer dollars to fly dozens of migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. He summed up his attention-grabbing moves as a strategy to act in “bold colors and not pale pastels.”
“People want to know that you’re willing to fight for them. They want to know that you’re willing to stand your ground,” DeSantis said. “They want to know that you’re doing what in your heart you think is right.”