The Gwinnett County GOP has its headquarters in what might otherwise be mistaken for a small, well-appointed shrine to U.S. presidents of the Republican spectrum.
Except for the four dressing rooms in the back.
The space was once a clothing shop, a prime and central storefront in Gwinnett Place Mall. Formerly the economic hub of a powerhouse Republican county, the mall is now a struggling cavern – and ground zero for the demographic changes that will someday loosen the GOP grip on all Georgia.
Eight years ago, Ralph Reed founded the national Faith and Freedom Coalition across the street. He recently moved his offices to the other side of I-85. Barbecue joints still dot the area, but most of them are Korean now. “Welcome to K-Town,” a young waiter in one told me on Monday.
An hour and several bites of kimchi later, I sat in front of Welsh and his three rivals: Alex Johnson, a DeKalb County attorney; Michael McNeely, currently the first vice-chairman of the state GOP; and John Watson, a lobbyist and political confidante of both former Gov. Sonny Perdue and U.S. Sen. David Perdue.
Overlooking the quartet, appropriately enough, was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of our new president.
The basics of this contest for party leadership were established long before Trump’s victory in November. A lawsuit filed by a former African-American staffer, claiming racial discrimination, has drained the party coffers. Improperly insured, the state GOP is on the hook for the cost of lawyers and any future judgment against it. Contributions have dried up.
“The party made very bad decisions,” Welsh told the crowd, though neither he nor any of the other candidates mentioned the name of John Padgett, the current chairman.
In different ways, Trump may have both expanded, and perhaps limited, what comes next for the Georgia Republican party. Regardless, the president has definitely raised the stakes.
Three of the candidates for chairman live in metro Atlanta, but Johnson is the only resident of the Sixth District, which has become a national testing ground for next year’s mid-term elections.
“The Democrats have a huge number of people door-knocking. Why, three have come by my house alone,” he said. While super PACs and other organizations have stepped in, the state GOP is in no position to take the lead, Johnson added. “Turnout is scary because we don’t have enough volunteers and resources to make it happen.”
Since its beginning, the state GOP has been grassroots-oriented. Conservative purity has been important, and Johnson has been a passionate defender of that principle. This is his third shot at the chairmanship.
“I’ve been pretty critical over the past four years, maybe even longer, about the entrenched political industry — people who actually make money off our politics,” Johnson admitted to the crowd.
The primary object of that barb was Watson, a resident of west Cobb County and a 25-year campaign strategist whose successes include the Perdue cousins. Watson is also a well-known lobbyist at the state Capitol whose clients include casino interests.
In the past, Watson’s profession would have immediately ruled him out of this race. Even now, some religious conservatives and others point to potential conflicts of interest. But here’s where Donald Trump, who has owned or lent his name to several casinos, has changed the GOP conversation in Georgia.
If Republican loyalty to Trump requires one to overlook and dismiss entanglements of business, family and government that have no precedent in U.S. history, then outrage over Watson’s door-opening job at the Capitol begins to sound less than sincere.
“If we are to have a functioning state party, we must have a relationship with the men and women who are the leaders at the state Capitol,” Watson said. “I’m running not as chairman of the Republican policy committee. I’m running as chairman of the Georgia Republican party.”
Then there’s Michael McNeely, a resident of Douglas County, a former police officer who is currently an assistant deputy commissioner at the state Department of Juvenile Justice. McNeely is somewhat handicapped by the fact that he currently holds the No. 2 position at the party.
He says his warnings of disaster were ignored. “If one person could have fixed all the problems, you’d best believe that I would have done that. But that’s just not the reality,” McNeely told his audience. He has aligned himself with the party’s religious conservatives, particularly on the need for “religious liberty” legislation.
McNeely would be the first African-American to lead the Georgia GOP. He believes strongly in the need to broaden the Republican base to include more women, and more people of color.
“There’s a world out there, a lot people, a lot of families around the state that want to hear from us. We have to grow our party with people who aren’t with us today, but could be,” McNeely said. In the middle of K-Town.
His approach was necessarily circumspect. Five years ago, in the aftermath of the defeat of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, a national GOP “autopsy” recommended more outreach to minorities. (The Georgia GOP’s ham-handed approach to that recommendation is what led to the debilitating lawsuit.)
Donald Trump ignored the advice to diversify, and won last November by drawing an army of infrequent white voters to the polls. McNeely’s fate could hinge on whether the hundreds of Georgia Republicans in Augusta decide to absorb Trump’s example.
In other words, Trump won’t be just a cardboard cut-out that first weekend in June. He’ll be a very real presence, forcing the Georgia Republican party to take a very serious look at itself and its future.