U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson speaks at the 2013 Georgia GOP convention in Athens. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM

Georgia Republicans to chart how to go ‘on the offensive’ at convention

On the defensive after a close election, Georgia Republicans will gather in Savannah this weekend to chart a new strategy for 2020 that seems likely to focus on intensifying the party’s conservative base and strengthening grassroots organization.

The main goal of the two-day Georgia GOP convention is to pick a new chairman to succeed John Watson, a lobbyist and former operative who has helped rebuild the party’s finances but is no favorite of the party’s grassroots base.

But the hundreds of activists will also help influence the party’s approach to next year’s vote, when President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. David Perdue are both facing elections for new terms, and hash out what went wrong in 2018, when Democrat Stacey Abrams narrowly lost a bid for governor.

The race will pit two rivals against each other: Scott Johnson, a longtime conservative activist who was an ardent Ted Cruz supporter, and David Shafer, a former high-ranking state senator who narrowly lost a runoff for lieutenant governor. A third candidate, Bruce Azevedo, is also in the running.

At stake in the battle is leadership of the state GOP apparatus, which coordinates millions of dollars in spending and marshals thousands of volunteers each election cycle to support the slate of Republican candidates for office.

And unlike the last contest, when many of the party’s movers and shakers coalesced behind Watson, this fight has split the Georgia GOP at a time when it can ill afford a long-term divide.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan is among the party leaders endorsing Johnson’s bid, though it’s no surprise: He narrowly bested Shafer in a bitter GOP runoff. Shafer has picked up key support of his own, including former Georgia GOP Chairwoman Sue Everhart and U.S. Reps. Buddy Carter and Rob Woodall.

The indictment of state Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck on fraud charges has added a new wrinkle to the vote. He’s a longtime Shafer ally, and Johnson was among the first Republicans to call for his resignation. Shafer later joined that call after Gov. Brian Kemp said Beck should step down.

There’s no telling how the activists will line up, but the party gatherings can take unpredictable turns when mixing GOP leaders with throngs of deeply conservative delegates elected from all corners of the state.

A few years ago, then-U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss was booed at the convention. In 2011, party activists snubbed Gov. Nathan Deal when they rejected his handpicked candidate. He skipped the event a few years later, after some factions threatened to sanction him for vetoing “religious liberty” legislation.

‘Back on the offensive’

This year’s event, though, brings a new sense of urgency to Republicans after Abrams came within 55,000 votes of defeating Kemp last year and Democrats forced two other statewide races into runoffs.

And the two leading candidates aren’t sugarcoating the challenges looming ahead.

“Here in Georgia, Republicans find themselves on the defensive for the first time in two decades,” Shafer said. “And we have to go back on the offensive.”

Johnson says the state GOP needs to do a better job bolstering local organizations that excel at “vigorously” registering voters and reaching out to young people, women and minorities.

Each has his own strategy to do so. Shafer talks of a “neglected grassroots” and nearly 30 counties, most of them in Republican-dominated rural areas, where there are no local GOP organizations.

And Johnson stresses the need to improve communication between the grassroots activists and the state party in Atlanta by hiring a new full-time liaison to stay connected with the party’s beating heart.

They both agree on two important factors: In order to stand any chance of 2020 victory, the party must aggressively line up behind Trump. And it must take the fight at every political level to Democrats by branding their rivals as too extreme for Georgia.

“The Democratic Party that we replaced was a center-right party,” Shafer said. “The Democratic Party seeking to replace us is a radical leftist party.”

Close calls

The victor will inherit a fractious, but powerful, party that was stabilized by Watson after he was elected in 2017. Back then, the party was mired in a costly racial discrimination lawsuit, facing fundraising troubles and struggling 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 chairman, Watson funneled millions of dollars into ads that boosted Kemp and assailed Democrat Abrams, and the party’s efforts helped lay the groundwork for the third consecutive GOP sweep of all statewide offices.

But the November results also exposed weaknesses in a party used to winning by comfortable margins. The biggest political shift came in the Atlanta suburbs, where Republican struggles nearly cost Kemp a victory and left Democrats with a sweep of new seats.

“The elections last fall showed us that the days of large majorities are over,” said John Wood, the 1st District’s GOP chairman. “Every race now, regardless, is going to be close. And we have to prepare for that type of election in 2020.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.

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