At GOP rally, Georgia Republicans warn 2018 was a blaring ‘wake-up call’

U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks to Republican activists at the Tillman Rally in Rome. AJC/Greg Bluestein

U.S. Sen. David Perdue speaks to Republican activists at the Tillman Rally in Rome. AJC/Greg Bluestein

Rome – One after another, Republican leaders bashed left-leaning policies, boasted of President Donald Trump's agenda and warned that last year's razor-thin midterm could be an ominous sign for next year's election.

What was largely missing: Much mention of the fraught gun rights debate rekindled a week ago by the mass shootings in Ohio and Texas.

The rally at the Tillman Hangar in Rome is one of the most popular Republican events of the year, frequently drawing the leading GOP figures in the state. This year’s event was a warmup act for the 2020 elections, a plea to keep local activists energized through next year.

Plastic “freedom straws” adorned with Trump’s logo sat next to ice-cold lemonade, and a group of Bikers for Trump paraded through the airport grounds. Hundreds waved fans stamped with Trump’s face in a sweltering hangar as a trio sang catchy patriotic songs.

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Trump was at the center of just about every speech at the rally. So were the narrow margins in last year’s midterm election – namely, the tight victory by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

“We had a wake-up call in 2018,” said U.S. Sen. David Perdue. “The most liberal billionaires in America think they’re going to import their view on Georgia — their radical, socialist views. And this isn’t the first time they’ve tried it.”

Perdue, running for what he said is his second and final term next year, was followed by a string of local and state GOP officials eager to leave a good impression on northwest Georgia conservatives.

“My friends, we don’t get to do what we do, we can’t be successful, unless we win elections. The other side is desperate to win in Georgia,” said Attorney General Chris Carr. “They’ve got their targets set in Georgia, all the way down to city and local elections. We’ve got to get back to work.”

Carr, who won a close election last year, paused as he surveyed the crowd.

“We can acknowledge that this is happening and do something about it and win. Or not and lose,” he said. “And if you want to know the consequences, watch the presidential debates.”

Time and again, the speechifying turned back to what is already a dominant theme in the election – broad descriptions of Democrats as extremist outsiders who don’t represent the values of Georgians. Many highlighted 2020 candidates pushing liberal policies such as Medicare for All.

Democrats stress that even the most liberal of their ranks don’t endorse the policies that define socialism, such as the state ownership of resources and collective control over the means of production. Republicans cast it as a battle for the soul of the nation.

“2020 will be the most consequential election in our lifetime,” said Georgia GOP chair David Shafer. “The far-left in this country hates Donald Trump. They hate him irrationally and almost rabidly and they’ve taken over so many institutions in this country.”

‘We are the new media’

The speeches were also laced with deep mistrust of journalists and the news media, with several GOP officials echoing Trump by sprinkling their speeches with attacks on “fake news.” Republican National Committeeman Jason Thompson urged the audience to embrace social media.

“We are the new media,” he said, after endorsing Twitter, Facebook and Instagram apps. “Let’s blow it up on social media.”

The lone politician to wade into the Second Amendment debate was U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, who was on the scene in Alexandria, Va., in June 2017 when a shooter opened fire on a Republican baseball practice ahead of the annual congressional baseball game.

He took issue with a tweet from Democratic state Sen. Jen Jordan criticizing Loudermilk and other Republicans for hosting a "GOP marksmanship event and BBQ" next week in Smyrna.

"Marksmanship Event just two weeks after #ElPaso and #Dayton mass shootings? And GA Republicans wonder why it has lost support of so many suburban women..." the Sandy Springs Democrat wrote.

Loudermilk said he was "offended that she's actually politicizing these horrific events" before recounting the baseball field shootings. Loudermilk hid from the gunman behind a wooden shack, and was a few feet away from a gunshot victim.

“Good intentions didn’t stop that shooting. A couple of police officers with ARs did,” he said, adding: “We have to be cautious about doing something for the sake of just doing something.”