Georgia's Kemp veers from Trump, but state GOP not moving on
BUFORD, Ga. (AP) — A slate of Georgia Republicans led by Gov. Brian Kemp handily won reelection last year over far-right primary opponents endorsed by Donald Trump and backed by the state party chairperson, showing the limits of the former president and his 2020 election lies in the critical swing state.
Despite those stinging primary losses, the state GOP is showing little interest in moving on from Trump.
Last weekend, Republicans in Georgia's 1st Congressional District, which includes Savannah, elected as their chair Kandiss Taylor, a Kemp gubernatorial challenger who ran on a “Jesus Guns Babies” platform and denies the legitimacy of her primary defeat. In metro Atlanta's 6th Congressional District, Republican activists considered a resolution rejecting the results of the 2020 election and declaring Democrat Joe Biden the “acting” president.
“In many ways, the Georgia Republican Party is a train that has left Crazytown, and the governor is trying to present a scenario and lead and demonstrate that that’s not the path to success,” said John Watson, a former state Republican Party chair aligned with Kemp.
Kemp and a handful of other elected Republicans said this week that they won’t attend the state's GOP convention in June, when the new leader of the state party will be chosen, citing unhappiness with current party leaders.
Georgia is one of a number of states where far-right Republicans aligned with Trump are joining the ranks of party leadership, giving them increasing influence over the party's direction. But mounting electoral losses, including in last year's midterms, raise questions about whether the state parties are growing out of step with the voters they're supposed to represent.
Republican delegates in Michigan earlier this year elected Kristina Karamo as state party chair, elevating an election conspiracist who was defeated in November in her secretary of state race. In Kansas, Mike Brown, a conspiracy theorist who lost his primary bid for secretary of state, was named chair of the state party. And in Idaho, Dorothy Moon, an election denier and former state representative, became state GOP chair last year shortly after her unsuccessful primary run for secretary of state.
In addition to concerns about the party’s direction, Georgia Republican incumbents are still mad at outgoing party Chair David Shafer, who promoted a Trump-aligned ticket of primary challengers against them in last year's primaries. Those state officials, including Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Attorney General Chris Carr, not only won their primaries but also went on to beat their Democratic rivals by convincing margins.
“I am going to stand up with those that believe in electing and supporting Republicans, but I don’t think it’s right when you have a party that went after an entire statewide ticket and undermined our ability to get elected,” Carr said Wednesday after a bill-signing in Buford.
Carr and others voice hope that one of the three candidates running to replace Shafer as party chair will patch things up. Chairman since 2019, Shafer is stepping down while a target of investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis into attempts to overturn Biden’s Democratic victory in Georgia in 2020.
Shafer said he isn't seeking reelection because he wants to refocus on his family.
Republicans have also lost three races for U.S. Senate since January 2021 under Shafer. Democratic Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, representing a once reliably Republican state, provide the margin of Senate control for their party.
Kemp has been trying to promote a Trump-divergent vision for Republicans since shortly after the 2020 election, when he defied the then-president's demands to help overturn Trump's narrow loss in the state. His impressive win over Democrat Stacey Abrams last year stoked presidential speculation, but Kemp has said he's not going to seek the White House in 2024. He has, however, been angling for national influence through the Republican Governors Association and could be setting up a 2026 Senate run against Ossoff.
“If you look in the rearview mirror too long while you’re driving, you’re going to look up, and you’re going to be running into somebody, and that’s not going to be good,” Kemp told CNN in mid-April, shortly after delivering the same message at the Republican National Committee donors’ retreat in Nashville.
But it's not Kemp who elects the leader of the state party — it's activists. And that setup has caused conflict before.
Kemp got booed at the 2021 state party convention, and some members tried to censure Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, Kemp’s predecessor. Deal skipped the two conventions in his second term.
“The people show up at party events are not representative of Georgia’s Republican primary electorate,” said Brian Robinson, a political consultant who was Deal's chief spokesperson. “They are, by and large, much further to the right, much more ideologically driven.”
The discord is also raising questions about whether control of the party apparatus matters anymore. In Georgia, voters don't register by party and can participate in whatever primary they like. Unlike in some states, Georgia party leaders can't kick candidates off the primary ballot for disloyalty. And a recent Georgia law allows Kemp and some other state officials to raise unlimited sums of money and coordinate with campaigns, which used to be key party functions.
Kemp kept his political operation running after his reelection and loaned its get-out-the-vote effort to the unsuccessful Senate runoff campaign of Herschel Walker, while forming a federal political action committee that lets the governor influence races for Congress and president.
“I don’t have a rift with the state GOP,” Kemp told reporters Tuesday in Atlanta. “You know, I just think that to win, we have to have a robust ground operation. The state GOP was not doing that. And so we did that ourselves.”
The three candidates running to lead the state party acknowledge that a new chair needs to focus on rebuilding an organization that has shrunk to two employees, increase fundraising and do more to train party activists how to win votes. Shafer is backing Josh McKoon, a former state senator who is now a lawyer for the state technical college system. McKoon acknowledges a need for unity, saying that a focus on ousting Biden in 2024 should help.
“There’s been a lot of infighting, not just within the primary, but between Republicans, between party officials and elected officials," McKoon said. "We’ve got to lay that aside.”
But Watson said that may be hard to achieve if activists aren't ready to change.
“If the party and the party organization continues to focus on conspiracy, backward looking, fringe ideas, fringe policies, then again it will have completed its path to irrelevance," Watson said.