Georgia’s GOP convention is a clash over the party’s future

Tribune Content Agency

ATLANTA — The Georgia GOP convention this weekend is more than an important milestone in the race for the White House. It’s also a microcosm of the bitter rifts over Donald Trump and his devotees that still divide his party.

When the two-day event opens next week in Columbus, the most popular Republican officeholder in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp, and many of his mainstream allies will be notably absent from the proceedings even as Trump makes his first campaign stop in Georgia since announcing his comeback bid.

An emboldened coalition of ultraconservatives will push a policy that would give activists power to block Republican “traitors” from qualifying as GOP candidates.

The party’s chairman, David Shafer, has been named a target in the ongoing Fulton County investigation into whether Trump and his allies violated state laws by helping to orchestrate a slate of fake Republican electors.

And the party will count among its newly elected leaders a cadre of far-right activists who have promoted Trump’s election fraud conspiracy theories and vowed payback against Kemp, who was loudly booed the last time state GOP delegates convened over his refusal to help Trump overturn his 2020 election defeat.

There may be no better illustration of the Georgia GOP’s direction than a scheduling switch for the convention’s June 9 keynote address that swapped former Vice President Mike Pence, a villain to many Trump supporters, with Kari Lake, who falsely claimed the 2020 election was “stolen” and has refused to concede her defeat in last year’s race for Arizona governor.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, a Trump ally who is one of the few statewide Republicans who plan to attend the weekend’s events, has framed the party’s power struggle not as a rapid move toward the flanks but a drive to expand its core supporters.

“It’s the grassroots,” he told Channel 2 Action News, “and I believe you’ve got to have a strong party system to be successful in the long term — and help build the brand and expand the tent.”

Others are not so optimistic. Kerry Luedke, a former Cherokee County GOP chair, was recently targeted by far-right activists who tried to block her from attending the convention. Disillusioned and dismayed, she nonetheless successfully appealed to restore her seat as a delegate.

“What do I hope to get out of this convention?” Luedke asked. “I’m not really sure — except to say that I hope to represent all of the noncrazy Republican women who are out there.”

Why it matters

The fight goes beyond ideology.

Even as Kemp and other Republican leaders distance themselves from the state GOP — the governor is skipping the convention and promoting his political machine as a more effective alternative for supporting Republican candidates — the party still plays a crucial role in Georgia politics.

It can marshal millions of dollars in donations, muster legions of foot soldier activists and appoint the delegates who will formally vote to anoint the party’s presidential nominee at next year’s Republican National Convention.

And Trump’s decision to make the convention’s friendly environs the setting for his first return trip to Georgia since launching his 2024 campaign has only elevated the party’s importance. Many party leaders are quite happy with the tilt toward Trump, who leads early Republican presidential campaign polls in Georgia and across the nation.

“I like the job President Trump did. Our economy was rolling, we were respected around the world. The border was in check,” said Jones, the lieutenant governor. “I supported him in 2016 and 2020, and he’s the front-runner now. He’s the person to beat.”

Since then, two other White House candidates — former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Vivek Ramaswamy — have announced plans to address the delegates. Georgia speakers include Jones, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

The deep fissures will be on vivid display. T.J. Dearman, a former Jackson County GOP chair, is an outspoken critic of Republicans who “echo every conspiracy theory and lie Trump continues to spew no matter how crazy or laughably false.”

He plans to leave the GOP after the convention until the “madness” subsides and Kemp and the more mainstream wing of the party are again ascendant.

“Instead of embracing the most conservative and accomplished governor our state has ever had,” Dearman said, “many in party leadership and delegates blindly worship a former president who was given the boot after one term.”

‘Extremism sells’

If there’s a face of that movement that Dearman and his allies deride, it’s the Georgia Republican Assembly, a once-fringe organization that has gained tremendous clout within the state party in recent weeks.

The faction won a string of victories at recent county-level and districtwide meetings and has endorsed a slate of contenders in June elections for top party posts.

Among its loyalists is Kandiss Taylor, who waged a failed primary campaign against Kemp last year and then refused to concede. She has called for a purge of every Republican official in Georgia, claiming they are Communist collaborators who forged a deal with the devil. More recently, her musings about whether Earth could actually be flat have gone viral.

“We’ve got a woman who is accusing Democrats of being globalists but she doesn’t even believe in globes,” said Ed Henderson, an officer with the Rabun County GOP who is distraught at his party’s direction.

“We’re going to have to reclaim the party. You have a complete divorce between what 1,500 activists want and common sense,” said Henderson, who is also a member of the state GOP committee. “We’re a party now of performance artists. And extremism sells.”

The faction’s leaders, meanwhile, present themselves as purists. Taylor has promised “big things” for state Republicans on her watch. And Alex Johnson, the assembly’s president, is putting his energy behind a proposal to give the party new authority to determine which candidates can qualify to run as a Republican.

“The primary for both parties has been corrupted by big-money interests, which has harmed the Republican brand,” Johnson said.

‘An anomaly?’

For seasoned observers of GOP politics, the infighting between an old guard and upstart insurgents is, well, old hat.

Sonny Perdue warred with activists after he was elected the first Republican governor in Georgia since Reconstruction, and Nathan Deal boycotted the GOP convention in his second term. Former U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss was among many officeholders to be heckled at the meeting.

None was so tense as the 1988 convention in Albany, when loyalists of television evangelist Pat Robertson split from the party’s establishment. Both factions tried to send slates to the national convention in New Orleans that year.

Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican operative well-versed in the party’s internal conflicts, summoned forth that long-ago struggle while taking a this-too-shall-pass approach.

“There’s going to be a leadership change at this convention, and it’s an opportunity to turn the page and bring people together,” he said.

Several of the contenders seeking to replace Shafer, who isn’t standing for another term, promise a fresh start. Rebecca Yardley, chair of the GOP’s 9th District, wants to expand the party’s engagement efforts and corral activists behind a more unified message.

“We’ve got to build relationships across the board,” Yardley said. “It’s not just with our elected officials. It’s with our donor base. It’s with our grassroots. We’ve got to bridge the gap to unite our party so that it can move forward.”

Former state Sen. Josh McKoon, who is running with Shafer’s support, talks about bringing conservative messages to “no-go zones” where Democrats dominate, stepping up fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts, and promoting a relentlessly positive brand of politics.

“Watch what happens over the next 24 months because what people will see is a Georgia GOP focused on kitchen-table issues,” McKoon said. “They’ll see Republicans focused on prosecuting the case against Democrats rather than shooting at other Republicans.”

Still, some worry the damage to the party’s foundation is beyond repair. Luedke, the Cherokee County activist, said she’s tired of bullying, purges and intimidation tactics. Even so, she’s headed to Columbus this year with a mission in mind.

“I hope to show the country that people like Kandiss Taylor are just an anomaly.”