On Friday and Saturday , 10 GOP presidential candidates will troop one by one into Atlanta to make their pitches to the geographic base of the Republican party. It will be the largest parade of White House wannabes that Georgia has seen in decades.
Much of the credit will go to Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose March 1 “SEC” presidential primary has come to life.
Roger Ailes and Fox News are also partly responsible. The cable network’s two-tiered, national debate of the candidates on Thursday breaks Iowa’s August hold on early campaigning, allowing candidates to – however briefly – look South toward states they’ll need to keep their bids alive during next spring’s long slog.
But even more of the credit belongs to Erick Erickson, the 40-year-old, evening drive-time talk jock who personally issued candidate invitations to the annual RedState Gathering in Buckhead. He’ll emcee this year’s two-day event, which will begin with an address by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Friday morning, and end with remarks from billionaire Donald Trump at a Saturday evening after-party at the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I’m certainly in the media. I guess you could say I’m a journalist, as long as you don’t make that a synonym with ‘reporter,’” Erickson said in an interview this week. “Analyst, pundit, commentator – however you see that. At heart, I still feel like I’m an activist.”
If the Fox News debate has stifled campaigning in Iowa, ‘twas the RedState Gathering that put the stake through the heart of the Iowa straw poll, a modern political tradition – but a corrupt one. The winner was usually the candidate who forked over the most dough to haul supporters to the event.
This year, both the straw poll and the RedState Gathering booked the same weekend – and the straw poll folded. “I called all the candidates and explained that they wouldn’t have to spend any money to get a seat at the table at RedState, but they’d have to spend lots of money in Iowa. It worked,” Erickson said.
Erickson is a man with two hats, and maybe more. For the last 10 years, he’s been editor-in-chief of RedState.com, a website for conservative thought that attracts 120,000 or so unique visitors each weekday. Seven hundred RedState followers will provide this weekend’s audience.
But since 2011, Erickson has also owned the 5-to-7 p.m. mic for AM750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB, occasionally subbing for his occupational hero Rush Limbaugh and providing commentary on Fox News. Erickson usually broadcasts from his home in Macon, but on Thursday had made his once-a-week journey to WSB Radio’s basement headquarters off Peachtree Street. He was moving into a new office — one with a window, right next to Sasha the Diva of Kiss 104.1FM.
(This is probably as good a spot as any to note that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB Radio share a parent company, Cox Media Group.)
Like Limbaugh, Erickson sees himself upholding the conservative brand, often at the expense of GOP officialdom. “Certainly I’m a Republican. But definitely, I would say that I’m a conservative more than I’m a Republican. I don’t reflect the party, but I certainly reflect a significant portion of the base,” he said.
On Friday morning, via his RedState venue, Erickson pointed to those unsettling Planned Parenthood videos on the distribution of fetal tissue for research, and federal funding the women’s health group receives. He issued this warning: “If Republicans are not willing to make this their hill to die on, and even see the government shut down to stop this, the Republican Party needs to be shut down.”
This spring, from his WSB Radio platform, Erickson skewered House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and his chamber, day after day, for blocking a “religious liberty” bill aimed at protecting religious conservatives from the impact of legalized gay marriage.
“I think there is a disconnect in Georgia Republican politics as much as there is nationally,” Erickson said.
You can see Erickson’s sense of himself as a curator of conservatism in this weekend’s line-up of presidential candidates. He issued invitations to Christie; Trump; governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin; former governors Rick Perry of Texas, Jeb Bush of Florida and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas; businesswoman Carly Fiorina; and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.
Erickson purposely snubbed former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Santorum exhibited rudeness during his 2012 presidential campaign that was truly bothersome, the talk show host said. On Carson: “I don’t see a rationale for his candidacy.” He offered no explanation for leaving Graham off the list.
As for Kasich, Erickson takes umbrage at the Ohio governor’s explanation for expanding Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act: When the time came, the governor said he wanted to face his Maker with a clear conscience. “I don’t need a preacher-in-chief. I’ve got a preacher already,” Erickson said.
That sentiment might strike some as inconsistent. If there is one thing that differentiates the WSB Radio host from other conservative talk jocks, it is his religiosity. Erickson already has a law degree. He’s currently pursuing a masters in biblical studies at a local seminary.
Erickson mentions his faith often during his broadcasts. This at first unsettled his bosses. “That has been their No. 1 concern the entire time I’ve been here,” he said. “They finally realized, we’re in the South. It kind of plays well already. Talk radio is, for lack of a better word, Christ-centric programing. People who listen are people of faith to begin with.”
It is for that reason that you’ll see Erickson take up his microphone when the Legislature again debates the aftermath of legalized gay marriage. But he may be ready to concede much of the debate on public accommodation.
“I’m not opposed to a piece of legislation that says you can’t discriminate against anyone in your business, but you don’t have to provide goods and services to religious-related ceremonies,” he said. “The fight ultimately is about gay weddings. It’s not about anything else. It’s not about serving gays in your business. I don’t know of any Christian who says, ‘Yeah, we should close the door to them.’”
His religious studies, Erickson said, are also the reason he has toned his public language down in recent years. Yes, he compared Planned Parenthood to Nazi Germany the other day. “There are things to be righteously indignant about it,” Erickson said.
But this is also the man who once accused a U.S. Supreme Court justice of coitus with a goat. That edge has been softened.
“Part of being in seminary is making me realize that I have a harder and harder time in Republican politics, aligning my faith world view with my political world view,” Erickson said. “There are really angry people who have no business being angry. Particularly if you believe in a heaven and a hell and a Last Day – there’s absolutely no point in tearing your hair out over politics. Even gay marriage.”
A further re-ordering of Erick Erickson’s life may be in the works. As we left the building, we picked up word that he’ll soon be leaving RedState.com, which was purchased 18 months ago by Salem Communications Corp., a competing radio group.
Erickson will remain at WSB Radio, but the next RedState Gathering will need to find another host.