Enthusiastic or wary, Georgia Republicans come to terms with Trump

When Georgia’s Republican Convention last convened a year ago, Donald Trump was at the tip of every activist’s tongue, whether they enthusiastically invoked his name or solemnly warned he could sink the GOP’s chances.

At this year’s two-day conclave in the same cavernous hotel along the Augusta Riverwalk, Trump was celebrated — if he was mentioned at all. Those who assailed him a year ago held their tongue, and even his most ardent supporters turned their attention mostly to state and local matters.

In Georgia's rollicking 6th District race and in feisty marches and town hall protests, Democrats have seized on Trump's presidency to energize supporters. But many Georgia Republicans, regardless of their level of enthusiasm, have accepted him as a fact of life.

Nowhere was that more apparent than the GOP event, where more than 1,500 activists gathered to elect a new party leader and assess the growing field of Republican candidates for governor and other higher offices.

Trump also took a backseat in the feverish race to lead the cash-strapped party, a four-candidate showdown that was the focus of most of the convention. In that contest, a battle between grassroots insurgents and a more mainstream candidate, the establishment contender won.

“People aren’t dwelling on him,” said Michael O’Sullivan, a GOP delegate, of Trump as he nodded to the hubbub at a crowded bar. “There are dozens of conversations going on right now about local or state issues. It’s not good or bad about Trump. It’s just that we’re not focusing on his every tweet.”

That sentiment was evident in interviews with more than two dozen of the convention’s delegates, many of whom form the backbone of the get-out-the-vote machine that has helped the GOP sweep every statewide office the last two elections.

Jay Morgan, a former executive director of the Georgia GOP, described the mood this way: “The GOP has experienced a leveraged buyout and is still getting to know the new owner.”

‘United in their anger’

That feeling-out process was on vivid display as candidates for next year’s statewide votes made their first pitch to the activists they’ll need to man phone banks, knock on doors and volunteer at community picnics in the coming months.

Some trumpeted their support for the president. Others didn’t mention his name. All used the event to shift the spotlight toward state issues, leaving the most pressing federal debates to politicians in Washington.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the presumptive GOP frontrunner, marveled at what he called the “cultural change” brought by Trump, but focused on his promise to add 500,000 jobs during his first term. He cited the speedy repair of the collapsed I-85 bridge as an example of efficiency.

“No one thought that bridge could be rebuilt in 45 days,” he said. “But that’s what happens when government gets out of the way and lets the private sector work.”

One of his three announced GOP rivals, state Sen. Michael Williams, took direct aim at Cagle and other “so-called leaders of our state” who he said have betrayed conservative interests. He promised his pro-Trump campaign would expose “what really goes on at the state Capitol” to undercut the political establishment.

“For generations, the same groups and individuals have controlled our political system. They have conspired with big corporate interests to create crony capitalism that allows them to line their pockets — all on the backs of every day, hard-working Americans,” he said, adding the political elite “know we’re coming for them.”

In the contest for Georgia’s 6th District an equally complicated dynamic is underway. In that June 20 matchup, Republican Karen Handel has embraced Trump and supported each of his key decisions in recent months. But she typically only mentions him when pressed by reporters or audiences.

“Our mission remains constant: And that is to elect Republicans and advance conservative principles and ideas,” Handel said. “Our opposition, they are determined. They are united. United in their anger, united in their intolerance to anyone who would dare disagree with them.”

While her Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff has veered from anti-Trump rhetoric he used early in his campaign, others have made clear the president will play a central role in their bids for state office. Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, two Democratic lawmakers who recently launched gubernatorial campaigns, both aim to capitalize on Trump unrest.

“I see the Trump effect as one that galvanizes voters to own their government,” said Abrams. “And the beginning way to do that is through voting. But the next way to do that is to sustain that energy.”

‘A little cautious’

As for Republicans, the loyalty talk is the subject of much debate. Suzanne Powell, a Hall County activist, wants all Republicans running for higher office to “openly embrace” Trump. But she said it doesn’t matter how much they beat their chests about it.

“I don’t think you actually have to say you’re a Trump supporter. You just have to say you’re an American and supporting the president,” said Powell, who backs Cagle. “We aren’t going to judge our candidates by whether they are the first supporters of Trump or the last ones.”

Interviews with other activists suggested it won’t be that simple. R. Russell Taylor, a retired executive from Thomas County, called Trump an “economic genius” who can help Georgia politicians find their way.

“Sure, it will matter to me how pro-Trump statewide candidates are. Common sense is what it’s all about. Trump understands economics. He understands how to make money,” said Taylor. “I’d be a little cautious about candidates who don’t make much mention of Trump.”

U.S. Rep. Rick Allen of Augusta made his sentiment clear when he said Trump, who won Georgia by 5 points in November, declared that the president would sweep the state by “28 points” if the election were held now.

A heated GOP battle

In the election for GOP chair, the main focus of the weekend meeting, talk of Trump was largely sidelined. The race was divided among familiar battle lines, with outsiders wielding conservative credentials competing against a statehouse lobbyist with deep ties to the GOP establishment.

The contours of the race had been set long before Trump’s election. A lawsuit filed by a black former Georgia GOP staffer claiming she was racially discriminated against by party Chairman John Padgett has drained the party’s coffers and sapped confidence in its leadership. Padgett and the party have denied the claims.

Contributions have largely dried up, and the Georgia GOP's balance sheet is in the red. The latest federal filings show the party has $223,000 in the bank — and $317,000 in debts. And the party's dysfunction has added to the volatile situation in the 6th District.

"We should not be fighting for our lives in the 6th District election," said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, a longtime GOP operative, "and if we had the team that knew how to put campaigns together, we wouldn't be."

He supported the most prominent name in the contest: John Watson, an adviser to former Gov. Sonny Perdue and U.S. Sen. David Perdue. A lobbyist backed by big-name party leaders, he said he could bring in piles of cash to solidify the party’s bottom line.

Watson defeated Alex Johnson, a Dekalb attorney and tea party favorite, in the third round of balloting — a sign of just how competitive the race was.

“Democrats are talking big and spending bigger. If we take a single vote, a single dollar for granted, we could all face the threat of liberalism,” said Watson. “I am not prepared to go quietly into that good night.”

Watson overcame bitter opposition from rivals who painted him as a tool of the establishment and an advocate for casino gambling. Johnson and Michael McNeely, the party’s vice-chairman, highlighted their support for “religious liberty” measures that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed in 2016 and that the state’s corporate leaders broadly oppose.

“Now is the time to stand up for our principles,” McNeely said.