Georgia GOP chair John Watson. YouTube still from Nydia Tisdale video.
Photo: File
Photo: File

Georgia GOP chair won’t seek new term as Republicans brace for 2020

The Georgia GOP will soon have a wide-open election for a new leader after chair John Watson told supporters Saturday he would not seek another term at the top of the organization. 

Writing that he’s achieved goals of “stabilizing and professionalizing” the state party, Watson said he would leave it to his successor to prepare for a 2020 presidential election. 

“I, along with so many of you, have poured my heart, soul, time, treasure, and passion into rebuilding the party we so love,” he wrote to GOP activists. “I am now looking forward to time with my wife, my daughter about to leave for college, and my other daughter soon behind her.”

Watson was elected in 2017 to lead a party that was mired in a costly race discrimination lawsuit, hobbled by fundraising struggles and struggled with poor ties with elected officials. 

A lobbyist and former adviser to Sonny Perdue, Watson pledged to bring in piles of cash to solidify the party’s bottom line and hire top-notch staffers to execute its strategy. He was backed by a string of big-name officials who warned that political exile was just an election away. 

Watson defeated an outsider candidate in the third round of balloting after hours of tense vote-wrangling, becoming the first establishment-backed candidate to lead the party since Republicans won complete control of the Statehouse. 

As party chair, he funneled millions of dollars into ads that boosted Gov. Brian Kemp and assailed Democrat Stacey Abrams, and the party’s efforts helped lay the groundwork for the third consecutive GOP sweep of all statewide offices.

“The Georgia Republican Party has the cash available to meet its obligations,” wrote Watson. “Our donors have a renewed trust in the organization and its practices. And our diligent activists made millions of door knocks and phone calls to deliver historical electoral victories in 2018.” 

But the November results also exposed weaknesses in a party used to winning by comfortable margins. Energized by Abrams’ bid, Democrats came close to forcing the race for governor into a runoff. Two other down-ticket contests went into overtime. 

The biggest political shift came in the metro Atlanta suburbs, where President Donald Trump struggled two years ago. This time, Democrats painted the ‘burbs a deeper shade of blue, flipping about a dozen state legislative seats and fueling Lucy McBath’s upset victory over Rep. Karen Handel. 

After a rural-based strategy in 2018, Republicans aim to reverse their suburban wipeout in the next election. Democrats expect to draw more attention and resources than ever, particularly if Abrams decides to challenge first-term Sen. David Perdue.  

Watson’s departure comes at a time of transition for state parties

His counterpart, Democratic Party of Georgia chair DuBose Porter, was succeeded in January by state Sen. Nikema Williams, who promised to continue Abrams’ focus on mobilizing voters who often skip elections. 

The field is still forming for Watson’s replacement, a vote that will be held over the summer. Bruce Azevedo, a real estate agent who chairs the Ninth District GOP, has told activists he’s seeking the job. 

And on Saturday, shortly before Watson made his decision formal, veteran GOP activist Scott Johnson announced his candidacy. 

Johnson, an ally of Watson, sits on the board of the Georgia Department of Education and the Stone Mountain Memorial Association and is former chairman of the Cobb GOP. 

Here’s Watson’s full letter:

To the Executive and State Committees, and all Republicans:

 

Nearly a generation ago, during this same time of year, I sat in Phillips Arena and watched with deep admiration as Georgia’s 81st Governor Sonny Perdue was sworn into office, issuing in a long-awaited era of conservative governance. The path to this moment was winding, and already heavily tread by Georgia Republican legends the likes of Bob Shaw, Bo Callaway, and Newt Gingrich, to name a few. 

 

This Republican victory was no accident; it was the the culmination of thousands of Republicans working, striving, planning, preparing, and fighting for sound conservative governance. Many of you were among that group of footsoldiers, and many of you were diligent in keeping this path to victory carefully maintained for future leaders like Governor Brian Kemp. 


When I ran for Chairman two years ago, I was deeply troubled by the state of the Georgia Republican Party, and saw a need for someone to clear the brush and debris off the path for the next generation of conservatives. I ran for Chairman on a vision of a unified conservative family - grassroots members and donors working closely with the Party apparatus to support our elected officials. To do this, we needed a financially solvent Party, a professional organization capable of remaining politically competitive with an ever-strengthening Democrat Party. 

 

As a Party - as a family - we have come a very long way in achieving these goals. The Georgia Republican Party has the cash available to meet its obligations. Our donors have a renewed trust in the organization and its practices. And our diligent activists made millions of door knocks and phone calls to deliver historical electoral victories in 2018. 

 

I am honored to have fought these tough but rewarding battles with you all by my side; however, I am writing today to make known my intention to not seek re-election as Chairman. 

 

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven. After two years of daily effort, I believe that we’ve achieved our mission of stabilizing and professionalizing the Georgia Republican Party. I am forever indebted to Carmen for her role in this endeavor, and I couldn’t have done the job without her. 

 

I, along with so many of you, have poured my heart, soul, time, treasure, and passion into rebuilding the Party we so love. I am now looking forward to time with my wife, my daughter about to leave for college, and my other daughter soon behind her. 

 

I am so proud of our work, and I am committed to helping serve this Party and its next Chairman in a meaningful capacity. Because, while the proverbial war is never “won” in this life, we must always continue to fight. 

 

God bless you all for your help in this journey, and my best wishes to the next Chairman as they continue to blaze the path for future Republican success in Georgia.

 

Yours, in service,

 

Chairman John K. Watson

 

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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