David Ralston and the ‘cold, hard reality’ of Georgia GOP politics

‘Stacey Abrams is coming,’ Ralston warns as he calls for Republican unity
Georgia House Speaker David Ralston. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

House Speaker David Ralston issued a forceful call to protect vulnerable Republican incumbents ahead of next year’s presidential election by urging conservatives not to demand ideological purity from candidates.

Speaking Saturday at the Fannin County GOP dinner, Ralston told an audience of dozens of supporters that the Democratic streak that flipped about a dozen legislative seats across the Atlanta suburbs was a wakeup call to the “cold, hard reality” that Republicans face next year.

The Republican advantage in the Georgia House has dwindled to 15 seats – and Ralston pointedly noted there were 15 seats that Republicans won by 55 percent or less. Those districts, largely in the suburbs, will be top Democratic targets next year.

“We face this reality: Whoever has the majority after this year’s election will control redistricting in 2021,” he said of the upcoming Census. “That, in turn, will determine who controls state government in Georgia for at least the next 10 years.”

Ralston warned of an energized band of “left-wing socialists” who want to reboot politics in Georgia. But he spent as much time castigating fellow Republicans who consider any whiff of consensus-building or compromise an act of treachery.

“Above all, we must be united. We must reject those in our midst who spend all their time – and I’m talking every second of their time - finding fault with other Republicans,” said Ralston. “We must reject those who would tear us apart from within to advance their own special agendas.”

He speaks from experience. Ralston has fended off repeated challenges from tea party candidates who try to outflank him from the right. But he also sees himself as a defender of the imperiled remaining suburbanites in his caucus - and worried that internal challenges could sabotage the GOP.

“We must say no to these small cliques, some of whom even call themselves Republicans, and spend all their time tearing down other Republicans, and never utter an ugly word about Democrats – and then they daresay they are principled.”

It’s one reason he’s advocated a pivot away from “religious liberty” and other divisive social issues that galvanize conservatives but also put the GOP’s moderates at risk. Some conservatives have chafed at the stance; Ralston warned that “infighting and internal bickering” will only empower Democrats.

“We must work hard. We must focus on those things that we hold in common. And we must never allow anyone to divide us and turn us against ourselves. We must respect that we will not always agree on every issue, but a great president said, ‘An 80 percent friend is not a 20 percent enemy.’”

As a burst of applause died down with that famous Ronald Reagan line, Ralston invoked the state’s leading Democrat, now a national figure who has designs on a U.S. Senate bid in 2020 or a rematch for governor in 2022.

“Stacey Abrams is coming. I don’t know whether she’s running against Sen. Perdue or Gov. Kemp. But she is a serious opponent. They have other serious people out there,” he said. “We have to approach this challenge as if our future depends on it. Because it does.”