OPINION: Even OxiClean can’t remove Trump’s stain on the Georgia GOP

Staffers decorate the podium before an Election Night party for U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Buckhead on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Staffers decorate the podium before an Election Night party for U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Buckhead on Tuesday, January 5, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

It has become an article of faith for many: Donald Trump can giveth, and Donald Trump can taketh away.

In the past two months he’s given rambling conspiracy theories, and he’s taken away a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.

Thank you, say the Democrats concerning last week’s runoff defeat of Georgia’s two Republican U.S. senators. Please, can you help us some more?

Now, we all know that Trump is not leaving politics. Sure, he’ll lose his current digs on Pennsylvania Avenue. But he’s raised more than $200 million on the guise of rampant election fraud and not a lot of it has been spent on actual legal fees. That means much of the leftovers can be used as political action committee cash where he can reward friends and punish enemies in the future.

And punishing enemies is a favored hobby of his. Right, Gov. Brian Kemp?

It’s now Donald Trump’s party, with all the passion and purulence that come with it.

I suppose this all crossed the minds of the six U.S. representatives from Georgia — all Republicans, of course — who voted last week to throw out electoral votes based on unproven and often wild allegations.

Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and congressmen Jody Hice, Rick Allen, Buddy Carter, Barry Loudermilk and Andrew Clyde all voted to toss Arizona’s Democratic electoral votes not long after reconvening following the break for the riot/siege at the Capitol that killed five people, including a police officer.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who had just lost her runoff the previous night, had pledged to do the president’s bidding. But she now figured: I lost and I don’t have to play these stupid, dangerous games any longer. So, she backed out of the charade.

Most everyone of sound mind is now disavowing the insanity that occurred at the Capitol that day. But there remains a stain on Trump and the Republican Party that all the OxiClean at Walmart can’t remove.

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It seems like Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue have gulped a dose of reality and will not be Trumpian in defeat. Both conceded fairly quickly last week.

I called three old Republicans, members who served in the state Senate two and three decades ago, back when the GOP at the Georgia Capitol played the role of the Washington Generals in a Harlem Globetrotters game.

The three — Eric Johnson, Rusty Paul and Chuck Clay (the latter two also chaired the Georgia GOP) — all said the state party has taken a beating, and they hope the madness of Jan. 6 might sober some of the crazed rhetoric. Good luck with that, considering Marjorie Taylor Greene and Jody Hice are in your delegation.

They say the GOP must somehow win back suburban voters whose defection, because of Trump, was the margin that allowed the recent losses to occur.

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on March 6, 2020, as President Donald Trump, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield, and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler listen. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gov. Brian Kemp speaks at the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on March 6, 2020, as President Donald Trump, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield, and U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler listen. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Now, that wasn’t exactly a newsflash. Governor Shotgun certainly knew that. That’s why he picked Loeffler in 2019 to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, rather than tapping that rabid Doug Collins, the Trumpian congressman from Gainesville who lobbied for the gig and would have scared suburbanites away. Loeffler would bring some moderate Republicans back into the fold, Kemp figured.

Obviously, that strategy didn’t work.

“Trump put himself on the ballot Tuesday,” said Paul, referring to Trump’s incessant stream of complaints and conspiracies.

Perdue and Loeffler “were in the absolute untenable situation,” Paul said. “They were always one tweet away from disaster, always looking over their shoulders. If Perdue and Loeffler didn’t have Donald Trump tied to their back, they’d have won.”

Jeez, I almost feel sympathy for them. That’s no way to campaign, having to have eyes in the back of your head watching out for a delusional person closing in on you.

Paul is now the mayor of Sandy Springs, a historically Republican city in north Fulton County that’s now decidedly purple, maybe even leaning a bit blue.

“A lot of people here, because of their antipathy for Trump, switched,” he said. North Fulton and Cobb County, he added, helped Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff win the Senate runoff, and Joe Biden win the presidency.

Trump’s sway is the rural voters, those who feel forgotten, snubbed and overlooked. He rode that wave of anger like a surfing champ, although it finally crashed down on him and on Georgia’s Republican U.S. senators.

You can’t win elections by angering “the fastest-growing parts of the state,” said Paul, referring to ‘burbs like his. “Rural voters are a declining population.”

“If the Republican Party doesn’t change, we’ll be back where we were,” he said, referring to the Georgia chapter of the GOP back in the last century.

Eric Johnson, a former GOP state senator from Savannah, was the guy who in the late 1990s helped flip then-state Sen. Sonny Perdue from D to R. Perdue later won the governorship in 2002, heralding a golden age for the Georgia GOP that has recently lost its luster.

In the late 1990s, the all-powerful Democratic Party was a coalition of African Americans, rural conservatives, and liberals and moderates from metro Atlanta. The combination seems almost like something that might exist in Atlantis, a mythical land.

But ultimately there were cracks, and the GOP swooped in and snatched up those rural conservatives, teaming them with suburbanite Republicans for a winning combination.

“Those two have to be on the same side for you to win,” Johnson said.

That may be problematic with Trump hanging around. And if he does, grievance and invective is sure to linger. Johnson said almost every Republican he has talked to recently, even those who can’t stand Trump, complain about massive fraud and a stolen election.

“But there’s no evidence, so move on,” he said, adding that if Trump goes through with his vendetta to push a candidate against Kemp in next year’s Republican primary, “then you’re turning it over to Stacey Abrams. That’s a big deal.”

Former Georgia gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams makes remarks during a U.S. Senate campaign rally for Georgia Democrats in Atlanta’s Summerhill neighborhood on January 4, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Former Georgia gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams makes remarks during a U.S. Senate campaign rally for Georgia Democrats in Atlanta’s Summerhill neighborhood on January 4, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

With her voter-registration drives and money raising, Abrams — who was Kemp’s 2018 gubernatorial opponent — is more responsible than anyone for the election of Ossoff and Warnock. Except maybe Trump.

Chuck Clay, an eight-term state senator who retired in 2004, said the “litmus test to see if we are really post-Trump will be if he comes back to try to defeat a public servant who had the temerity to do his job.”

He was referring to Trump’s threats to endorse a primary opponent against Kemp, who pushed back when the president kept complaining of fraud. Clay grew terse when talking about conservatives beating up on Kemp: “‘He’s a RINO. He’s a traitor.’ Oh, shut up! You keep that up, the bleeding will be hemorrhaging.”

Clay recalled the 1992 presidential election when Bill Clinton beat President George H.W. Bush. “I don’t recall the older Bush complaining when a young whipper-snapper came in and beat him,” Clay said. “Bush was humiliated but he put on his big-boy pants and said, ‘Welcome, Mr. President.’“

That seems like a past that is oh, so long ago.

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