We asked Georgia Republicans at their annual state convention: how do you feel about Gov. Nathan Deal not attending this year’s convention? (Video by Erica A. Hernandez/AJC)

Georgia GOP convention a tale of two pols, Trump, Gov. Deal

The Georgia Republican convention that begins Friday in Augusta could be a tale of two politicians.

There’s Gov. Nathan Deal, a one-time favorite of grassroots Republicans who is now vilified by a bloc of Georgia conservatives over two controversial vetoes.

And then there’s Donald Trump, who was outmaneuvered by his rivals at an earlier round of Georgia Republican meetings but is now, slowly but surely, rallying much of the state’s GOP faithful around him.

Both political arcs will be on vivid display at the weekend’s meetings, which will feature a gathering of old-guard Republicans grappling with Trump’s rise and antsy conservative activists seeking to potentially punish Deal for his decisions.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, both potential vice presidential nominees, will discuss the party’s future, Gingrich via video address. And much of the state’s Republican establishment will be there, too, as activists select more than two dozen delegates heading to the summer’s national convention in Cleveland.

Just as notable are the leaders who will skip the event. And the biggest name on the no-show list is that of Deal, who is citing a scheduling conflict – an event saluting Georgia’s high school elite – to stay in Atlanta this weekend. It also means he’ll sidestep what’s likely to be a sharp rebuke of his second-term agenda.

A Trump reckoning

When Republican activists last gathered at meetings across the state in April, Trump’s nomination was far from a sure thing and supporters of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich were sowing doubts about whether he could stave off Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in November.

Despite Trump’s commanding victory in Georgia’s primary, they managed to put Cruz and Kasich supporters in about 32 of the 41 delegate slots for the Cleveland convention up for grabs that weekend - a big win for the forces working to prevent the billionaire’s path to the nomination.

Since then, though, the anti-Trump movement has all but collapsed. Trump’s victory in Indiana in May forced Cruz and Kasich to abandon the race, and many of his biggest critics in Georgia and around the nation have given him their endorsement, full-throated or otherwise.

That’s hollowed out the movement by his opponents to force a fight at the Cleveland convention by depriving him of the delegates he needs to win on the first ballot. Instead of the convention serving as a proxy fight between Trump and his adversaries, there will be far less intrigue over who is selected for the remaining 31 delegates up for grabs at the meeting.

And while there are still droves of Georgia conservatives who say they won’t vote for Trump in November, many have abandoned their fight. John Wood, chairman of a Savannah-based district, said most party die-hards concerned with Trump’s rhetoric are willing to put aside their misgivings for a chance to retake the White House.

“Controlling Congress is great but it’s also like the 1986 Boston Red Sox,” invoking the team’s epic collapse, hastened by a grievous error by first baseman Bill Buckner.

“No one cares if you won the AL pennant if you didn’t win the World Series. As a party we have had eight years of the ball careening through our legs like Buckner did,” he said. “We aren’t playing for second place on Nov. 8.”

Jason Anavitarte, the former chair of Marco Rubio’s Georgia campaign, put it bluntly: “He is the presumptive nominee whether people like it or not.” But, he added, it’s still up to Trump to mend the party that he helped fracture.

“There is still a lot of healing to be done within the party,” he said. “I believe there are still many that are skeptical whether Mr. Trump will be able to bring the party together to win after this very long, intense primary season like we have never experienced.”

‘Distrust and anger’

Just as telling will be the party’s response to weighty state policy decisions.

Deal, a second-term Republican who doesn’t have to face the voters again, bucked his party by vetoing a “religious liberty” measure that broadened legal protections for opponents of same-sex marriage.

At last year’s GOP convention in Athens, an overwhelming majority of delegates urged lawmakers and the governor to pass the proposal without an anti-discrimination clause desired by business leaders and gay rights groups.

The measure that emerged in March contained no such provision, and was quickly embraced by religious conservatives as a safeguard for First Amendment rights. Corporate powers and other critics cast it as legalized discrimination and, facing boycott threats, Deal vetoed the measure days after the legislative session ended.

Even as Republican lawmakers vowed to bring it back next year, push back from grass-roots conservatives who make up the backbone of the GOP army in Georgia was equally sharp. Activists at meetings in nine of Georgia’s 14 congressional districts passed resolutions in April expressing their disappointment with Deal’s decision, and the Third District’s delegates endorsed a resolution to “censure” him.

The unrest among his critics only intensified after the governor rejected “campus carry” legislation that would have legalized firearms on most parts of public college campuses. Tanya Ditty of the Georgia chapter of the Concerned Women of America, an outspoken critic of Deal’s vetoes, said several resolutions critical of Deal’s tenure are pending.

“There is a lot of disappointment, frustration, distrust and anger with Gov. Deal,” she said, echoing many grassroots activists who have lashed out at the vetoes in the last two months.

Still, yet another group of Republican stalwarts say the push back is overblown and the resolutions are little more than soon-forgotten paper. Harry Abrams, a Cherokee County GOP activist, said the angst over Deal will do little in the long run to block his second-term goal of overhauling the state’s education system next year.

“The noisy and always vocal usual suspects are clamoring for his head,” said Abrams. “But they actually have little to say in representing the life of the average Georgia citizen.”

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