Georgia Republicans prepare for a circle-the-wagons convention

Gov. Nathan Deal speaks during the Georgia GOP state convention in Athens in 2015. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Gov. Nathan Deal speaks during the Georgia GOP state convention in Athens in 2015. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



In less than a week, the Georgia GOP will gather in Savannah for what could be the most important two days in the party's history since it won complete control of the state Capitol in 2004.

In the privacy of a hall filled with a few thousand like-minded activists, the language will be sharp and volatile. Any delegate playing a drinking game that includes the words “socialism” or “Marxist” will need to be carried out.

The chief order of business will be the election of a chairman to replace the departing John Watson, who has limited himself to a single two-year term. The two strongest candidates are longtime Cobb County activist Scott Johnson, who chairs the state Board of Education, and former state Sen. David Shafer of Duluth, who lost a 2018 primary bid for lieutenant governor.

Bruce Azevedo, the former two-term chairman of the Ninth District GOP, is also in the contest.

Shafer and Johson have their differences, but agree on one important point. GOP wagons will need to be circled in 2020. “The Republican party is on the defensive for the first time in 15 years,” Shafer said.

The former Senate president pro tem elaborates in a 12-page, full-color flyer that will be distributed to voting delegates: “We find ourselves having to defend multiple seats with statewide margins narrowing and our majorities in the General Assembly and congressional delegation beginning to erode.”

Johnson’s worry can be seen in his promise to sponsor a bid for the 2024 Republican National Convention. “It would be work, but it would excite our folks. We’re a state that can no longer be taken for granted that we’re a red state,” he said.

Both candidates named two north metro Atlanta congressional races as top priorities: The retaking of the Sixth District, lost to Democrat Lucy McBath last November, and the preservation of the Seventh District, a seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville.

Many state House and Senate districts contained within the Sixth and Seventh were lost to Republicans in 2018. With President Donald Trump at the top of the 2020 ticket, Democrats are hoping the trend will continue.

Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in the presidential contest will be at stake in November 2020, but so might crucial parts of the state machinery. Last month, Kevin Abel of Sandy Springs became the sixth Democrat on 14-member state transportation board – a prize that came with McBath’s victory in the Sixth District.

The Seventh District seat on the state DOT board, which is organized along congressional lines, comes vacant next April. Democratic state lawmakers think they already have the votes to pick the winner. Which means that by the time we elect our next president – and U.S. senator – Georgia Democrats could already have shared control of a major part of state government.

Republican leadership races can be strange affairs, a result of the GOP’s long trek through the wilderness of Georgia politics. In the 1980s and ‘90s, with election victories scarce, control of the party was dominated by grassroots activists.

But since Sonny Perdue broke a 19th and 20th century string of Democratic governors in 2002, state GOP conventions have often become tense venues where ideology espoused by the rank-and-file clashes with the compromises that elected officials require to govern.

Party activists snubbed then-Gov. Nathan Deal in 2011 when they elected Sue Everhart to another term as party chairwoman over his handpicked candidate.

The chronic conflicts have strategic implications. The grassroots drives voter enthusiasm. The money follows those in elected office. In their chairmanship campaigns, both Johnson and Shafer say they can bridge the gap.

Johnson is a business executive who can tout a legacy of party grunt work that stretches back more than 25 years. “I’ve been a precinct chair, I’ve been a county chair, I’ve been a district chair. But I got my start stacking chairs,” Johnson said. “I’m by any definition a grass-roots guy. I’m not a politician.”

Shafer likewise has a long GOP pedigree. He served 16 years in the Legislature, where he earned a reputation as a champion of social conservative causes. Long before that, in the 1990s, Shafer was the state party’s executive director. He has run for chairman once before, losing in 2001 to Ralph Reed. Yeah, that Ralph Reed.

“I think we’ve allowed the grassroots base of the party and the donor base of the party to become estranged from each other,” said Shafer. “I’m in a unique position to bring them together.”

Shafer’s bid for lieutenant governor last year was torpedoed, in part, by a “dark money” group whose membership has yet to be fully revealed. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who beat Shafer in a GOP primary runoff, has endorsed Johnson.

One of Shafer’s most important endorsements has come from former state Sen. Josh McKoon of Columbus, who left the Legislature to make a failed bid for secretary of state. McKoon was – and remains – an advocate for “religious liberty” legislation. McKoon is also closely connected to the Georgia chapter of Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition.

But let’s return to the crucial matter of the Sixth and Seventh congressional races and the northern arc of metro Atlanta. Both Shafer and Johnson agree that winning college-educated women back is crucial.

Yet neither candidate for state GOP chair, when laying out their strategies for 2020 victories, mentioned Georgia’s new “heartbeat” law, which will require most women to carry their pregnancies to term once the embryo is about six weeks old.

“The Sixth is absolutely re-capturable for Republicans,” Johnson said. “Because those people like prosperity, too. They don’t like high taxes. And they like a growing economy — and it probably means more to people in their income strata than it does to a lot of others.”

A disavowal of President Trump isn’t part of his formula. “A candidate that supports the president, that is with him on lowering taxes and growing the economy is a good fit for the Sixth District,” Johnson said.

But to save both congressional districts, Republicans will need to match the success Democrats have had when it comes to voter outreach. “We’re behind on that, and on voter identity targeting and driving them to the polls. The party’s job will be to do that in the Sixth and Seventh immediately,” Johnson said.

Shafer draws a distinction between the Sixth and the Seventh. “Our challenge in the Sixth District is winning back educated, suburban women,” he said. One issue he mentioned was the HOPE scholarship.

“Most educated suburban women do not want to turn the HOPE scholarship into a welfare program, which is what Democrats have been advocating for years,” Shafer said. “They would like to keep it merit based.”

The challenge in the Seventh District, he said, will be less gender-oriented and more about “winning over demographic groups that have historically not been Republican.”

Shafer, a resident of Gwinnett County, said he’s had success at this. “I was the only Republican in the Senate, maybe in the Legislature, who represented a district that was majority non-white,” he said. “I think we need to be more comfortable campaigning among people the pundits say will never vote for us.”

Clearly, the chairmanship will be a heavy lift for whoever wins. And did we mention that it comes with no salary?

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