Savannah – More than 1,000 conservative activists gathered Saturday to plot the Georgia GOP’s strategy for next year’s presidential election and select a new leader who will help steer the party’s course.
The main goal of the meeting will be to pick a successor to outgoing state party chairman John Watson, hear from party leaders and vote on a raft of resolutions that could include reprimands of House Speaker David Ralston.
We’ll have live updates below:
7:10 p.m.: The Georgia GOP avoided a direct rebuke of House Speaker David Ralston at the state party convention Saturday despite calls from many in the party’s grassroots base to punish the Blue Ridge Republican.
6:55 p.m.: Republican activists elected David Shafer as chairman of the Georgia GOP on Saturday, capping a political comeback for the former powerful state senator just months after he lost a bruising runoff for lieutenant governor.
6:50 p.m.: We’ve got results: David Shafer wins the Georgia GOP chair race.
6:35 p.m.: Still counting.
5:45 p.m.: Here’s a copy of the resolution that Republicans will likely soon approve that avoids a direct rebuke of David Ralston.
The key passage:
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the Georgia Republican Party commends the Georgia General Assembly for giving judges the authority to deny legislative leave, based in part on a review of the potential harm to alleged victims, which helps ensure the pursuit of justice is not unduly delayed.
5:30 p.m.: Voting is (finally) underway.
4:20 p.m.: The four candidates for Georgia GOP chair are delivering their speeches.
Bruce Azevedo, an Athens-area real estate agent, said he was so incensed by the 2018 results that he jumped in the race. And he noted that 52 House seats were uncontested by Republicans last year.
“Democrats now believe Georgia is a purple state,” he said. “These are the facts: The state of our party is unacceptable and we’ve got to do better.”
Mary Kay Bacallao, an educator and former candidate for state superintendent, focused her speech on preventing the state from using Common Core educational standards. She got an icy welcome.
Scott Johnson, the former Cobb GOP chair, opened with a flashy video recounting the near-miss by Democrats in the last election, and vowed the party would retire its debt of roughly $130,000 by September.
“Our party needs a chair who can beat the Democrats on the ground but can also raise the money to compete,” he said.
And former state Sen. David Shafer, pledged to bolster a “neglected grassroots infrastructure” and end a “ridiculous competition for resources.”
“I believe our Republican Party is in trouble. In the last election, we found ourselves on the defensive for the first time in a decade,” he said. “We need to go back on the offensive.”
3 p.m. We’re in the midst of a lengthy procedural debate over which resolutions can emerge for a vote. The battle is primarily between the faction that supports panning Ralston who want to ensure a reprimand is voted on.
“It’s getting close to anarchy,” quips one activist. It hasn’t gotten unruly, but tempers are flaring.
2 p.m. Gov. Brian Kemp blamed an “out of control” Democratic party for a stalled Hurricane Michael relief bill Saturday and mocked efforts to boycott the state by “C-list celebrities” angry about Georgia’s new anti-abortion law.
Speaking at the Georgia Republican convention, Kemp nodded to the growing fallout from Hollywood celebrities and some production firms who have called for boycotts of Georgia after he signed the “heartbeat” law that seeks to ban most abortions.
11:30 a.m.: U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk invoked the Alamo and the Battle of the Bulge – two of the most famed military conflicts in the last two centuries – to draw a line between the fight for freedom and next year’s election.
Of the Alamo, a Mexican victory over troops from Texas in 1836, he said it showed that “sometimes you have to take a stand against insurmountable odds for freedom and liberty.”
And he brought up the Battle of the Bulge – and the U.S. refusal to surrender to a vicious German counterattack – to connect with the Republican tussle with Democrats in 2020.
“We’re taken ground they never thought they’d lose because of the leadership of this president. Going forward we need to think of one thing: It’s going to get tough and tougher ... but we have to keep our eye on our cause,” said Loudermilk.
His closing lines:
“We’re in the battle of not our lives, but our children’s lives and our children’s children’s lives. If we stay strong, we’ll win and 2020 will begin to turn this nation back around like you haven’t seen before. Thank you, and gear up for battle.”
11 a.m.: U.S. Sen. David Perdue talked more about President Donald Trump than he did his own re-election campaign.
He praised Trump’s economic agenda, his military strategy, his judicial appointments and his decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
And most of all, he highlighted the Republican’s fight against a “100-year slide toward the socialist agenda” from Democrats.
“This president is talking about getting back to the principles of our Founding Fathers and Founding Mothers. But this president gets beat up every day,” said Perdue.
“I never thought I’d be standing here building a case about why capitalism is better than socialism. But here we are. I didn’t ask for this fight but, like you, I’m up for it.”
Perdue reminded the crowd of his close ties to Trump, saying the president calls him late at night, early in the morning and recently invited him to the White House for a lunch date that stretched into a six-hour meeting.
“He’s not taking a victory lap,” said Perdue. “I don’t know when the man sleeps.”
Left unmentioned was the stalled push by Perdue and other Republicans for Hurricane Michael relief, which has ground to a halt amid Washington infighting.
Instead, Perdue appealed to the crowd to be “fully invested” in next year’s political races.
“We had a wakeup call last year. In 2018, the governor’s race and lieutenant governor’s race got a lot closer than it should have,” he said, adding: “The battle for the White House is right here in Georgia in 2020. If President Trump doesn’t win Georgia, he won’t win the presidency.”
10 a.m.: It’s hard to miss the activists calling for Ralston’s ouster: They’re handing out bright-red placards reading: “I’m a Georgia voter and I believe Speaker Ralston needs to step down.”
Whether they have enough momentum to get an anti-Ralston resolution to a vote remains to be seen: We’re told the committee overseeing the process blocked the effort.
We checked in with a few of the leaders of the push shorty before the convention’s Saturday start. Ed Palmer, a Coweta County delegate, said it was a matter of principle.
“Character is important. Honor is important,” said Palmer. “Everybody needs their day in court, but to put off these court cases for years - well, that’s a big problem.”
State Rep. Ken Pullin, R-Zebulon, is one of about 10 legislators who signed a House resolution calling for Ralston to resign his post.
“We need to be able to hear from activists about Ralston’s alleged abuse of power,” said Pullin. “These are the ground forces that helped Gov. Kemp get elected. And we need to hear from them.”
And Catherine Bernard, a Brookhaven activist, said there’s “tremendous grassroots support behind holding Ralston accountable.”
“It’s gone way beyond the grassroots. The public cares about this issue as a matter of the core integrity of our justice system, and everyone in politics has had to take note,” she said.
“ It weakens us electorally,” she added. “And it provides a huge issue for Democrats.”
8 a.m.: Expect the state party’s finances to be a major point of debate.
While the Georgia GOP’s balance sheet has stabilized since 2017, when the party faced a costly racial discrimination lawsuit, the latest financial disclosure shows it has roughly $140,000 in debts and about $100,000 in cash on hand.
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