Sen. David Perdue at the Georgia GOP convention. Greg Bluestein/AJC
Photo: Greg Bluestein / AJC
Photo: Greg Bluestein / AJC

Georgia GOP leaders mostly silent, voters frustrated by Trump remarks

Donald Trump’s extraordinary refusal to endorse two of his own party’s leaders and his belittling of the Muslim family of a slain U.S. soldier has led some influential Republican officials to break with him. But in Georgia, his controversial remarks have been met with a wall of silence from most of his highest-profile supporters.

Many of Georgia’s leading elected officials, who have all pledged to support their party’s nominee, were mum this week as Trump ratcheted up his war with the GOP’s political establishment. And the politicians who did comment stopped short of rebuking him for his recent controversial comments, including a call for Russia to cyberattack Democratic operatives.

Consider the statement from U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who is seeking a third term in November, on whether he stands by Trump’s criticism of Khizr Khan, the father of the U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq in 2004. Isakson extolled the younger Khan’s “ultimate sacrifice” — but made no mention of Trump.

The party they represent is increasingly more fractured over its nominee. Baoky Vu, one of the 16 Georgia Republican electors charged with formally casting his ballot in the Electoral College for Trump if he wins the state, said Wednesday that he was considering writing in a candidate if that happens. Within hours, he resigned from the post.

“Rather than earning the American people’s respect and trust through the duration of the past year, Donald Trump’s antics and asinine behaviour has cemented my belief that he lacks the judgment, temperament and gravitas to lead this nation,” said Vu, adding: “Rather than die fighting to defend the indefensible, we can live to fight another day.”

Chip Lake, a veteran GOP strategist, said Trump’s unorthodox, say-anything campaign style has “created a monster he now can’t control.”

“There’s always been a lot of behind-the-scenes hand-wringing over Trump, and now it’s elevated,” said Lake, who is not a Trump supporter. “The dam has broken. The question is, can Donald Trump repair it before it floods his campaign? I don’t think he can.”

Marion Cornett, a 72-year-old retiree from Stone Mountain, said he thinks it’s too late for Trump to salvage his campaign. A lifelong Democrat, Cornett told pollsters two months ago that he was prepared to vote Republican this November. Now, he said, his decision is between Democrat Hillary Clinton and a third-party candidate.

“I’m discouraged about what I’ve heard in the last few days. And I’m disappointed, to say the least,” Cornett said. “It’s a slow accumulation of all the things happening lately. I liked Trump when I first heard and watched him. But he’s gone off the deep end.”

‘I’m not quite there yet’

The latest fissures come after a week of negative headlines that started when Trump openly asked Russia to hack into Clinton’s email account and escalated when the New York businessman clashed with the Khan family, suggesting the soldier’s mother was not “allowed” to speak and that their message was scripted by Clinton’s campaign.

Even many of his most ardent supporters were shocked Tuesday when he refused to endorse U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and U.S. Sen. John McCain, two of the GOP’s top elected officials who earlier said they’d support him despite their reservations.

“We need very, very strong leadership,” Trump told The Washington Post on Tuesday in reference to Ryan. “And I’m just not quite there yet. I’m not quite there yet.”

The comments led to reports that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is livid over the slights and that senior GOP officials are exploring options in case Trump is forced to withdraw. Former Georgia lawmaker Newt Gingrich denied rumors that he was among the Republican elders hoping to stage an intervention with Trump’s campaign, though he said “some of what Trump has done is very self-destructive.”

Meanwhile, a growing number of elected GOP leaders are declaring their opposition to the nominee. U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna of New York became the first Republican incumbent in Congress to announce he would vote for Clinton, and GOP fundraiser Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, said she would also back the Democrat in November.

When contacted Wednesday, most of Georgia’s GOP elected officials — including Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp — did not comment when asked whether they stood by his recent controversial remarks. One Republican official, who declined to speak on the record because he was not authorized to comment, expressed shock.

“How can he be so politically smart and then act like an amateur?” the official said.

One exception was Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, Trump’s top surrogate in Georgia, who through a spokeswoman continued to defend the GOP nominee.

“No one will do more for our troops, veterans and their families than Donald Trump,” the spokeswoman said, “and this is just another media distraction spun by Hillary Clinton, as we all agree Captain Khan is an American hero.”

A ‘breaking point?’

Some voters say it’s time for Georgia’s elected officials to speak out against Trump. Sam Burnham, a 41-year-old Rome firefighter and conservative voter, said that Trump is “completely unpresidential” — and that the Georgia GOP could be tarnished if its leaders continue to stick with him.

“The party leaders, including Georgians, support him because of the party. There seems to be no loyalty to our country, our state or the people — only the party,” he said, adding: “It’s bigger than just Trump, but he’s the breaking point. I’m done with the GOP until they can prove to me that they are about the country and not the party.”

Even some of Trump’s unabashed supporters worry that he’s gone too far. Frank Mizerak, a 68-year-old retiree from Marietta, was among the Georgia Republicans who boosted Trump to a commanding victory in the state’s March 1 presidential primary. And he’s still sticking by his party’s nominee — though he’s hopeful that Trump will accept some timely advice.

“My views haven’t changed at all. I’m a Trump supporter, definitely against Hillary,” Mizerak said. “I just wish Trump would keep his mouth shut. He’s being outlandish. He’s got my vote no matter what, but I’m afraid of what he’s doing to the Republican Party. He’s just fracturing it even more.”

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Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.