GOP voters backed state Rep. Matt Gurtler, R-Tiger, in last month’s primary even though a number of Georgia Republican leaders supported his opponent. The rare move to unseat a legislator from their own party was prompted by Gurtler’s numerous “no” votes on bills that were part of the Republicans’ legislative agenda. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

GOP voters say leadership, not party rebel, strayed from their values

When Georgia GOP leaders took steps to campaign against state Rep. Matt Gurtler last month, their actions were nearly unprecedented — it is rare for Republicans to try to unseat a member of their own party.

And for many Republican voters in North Georgia, the opposition that Gurtler faced from the likes of Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston only strengthened their support for the representative, who ultimately carried 60 percent of ballots last month.

“We (Republicans) have been in control of Georgia’s government for some time, but we have expanded the role of government, contrary to our party’s values,” said John Van Vliet, a professor of business and public policy at Young Harris College who supported Gurtler. “Republican voters appreciate that Matt stands up for the basic values of the Republican Party.”

Gurtler drew the ire of Republican Party leaders during his first term by voting no 40 percent of the time in 2017 and 2018, including against Republican priorities such as the state budget and education funding. He defeated Mickey Cummings — who was backed by Deal, Ralston and other top Republicans in the Legislature — in the primary.

Gurtler will face no opposition in November’s general election.

Voters in last month’s primaries booted eight incumbents from the Georgia General Assembly in favor of new representatives. Although he had served one term, Gurtler’s overwhelming victory — along with other wins by anti-establishment candidates last month — is emblematic of widespread frustration with establishment party politics among Republican voters in Georgia.

“I was told if I voted against the budget or the speaker’s bill that it would be hard to get elected, that they would come for me. … They use these bully tactics to tell you what to do,” Gurtler said. “My win really proves that even if they come after you with the governor and speaker in your district, you can win big.”

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Secretary of State Brian Kemp emerged as the top finalists in Tuesday's election.

The success of Gurtler’s rebellious, anti-government message aligns with a nationwide dissatisfaction with establishment politics. Gurtler compares himself to President Donald Trump as an outsider who wants to shake up the Legislature, and his supporters say his voting record — as well as the opposition he faced from party leaders — is evidence of authenticity in the face of cronyism.

“Matt has a strong base here. He did what his constituents wanted him to do, which is not the same as following the good ol’ boys,” Towns County GOP Chairwoman Betsy Young said. “I wish we could clone him.”

Spokespeople for Ralston and Deal declined to comment for this story.

As he enters his second term, Gurtler finds himself at the forefront of a hard-line conservative agenda that is gaining momentum in Georgia politics and shaping statewide elections.

Last year, Gurtler introduced House Bill 156, which would have reduced requirements for carrying firearms — while Gurtler couldn’t get the bill through committee, similar “constitutional carry” measures have since been endorsed by both of the remaining Republican candidates for governor.

Gurtler also put forward House Resolution 1472 in March urging school districts to begin arming teachers and staff, which he says was killed by Republican leaders in the General Assembly before it could go to a vote. In May, Fannin County — represented by Ralston — became the first school district in the state to vote to arm teachers.

“I became the litmus test, I became the conscience of the party,” Gurtler said. “Hopefully, this new class will have a lot of guys coming in, and we can get them before they get corrupted and get them on board with the conservative cause.”

Candidates who adhere to Gurtler’s brand of hard-line conservatism are already picking up seats in this year’s elections. State Rep. John Deffenbaugh, R-Lookout Mountain,lost his seat in last month’s primary to the 24-year-old Colton Moore, who spent less than $5,000 on his campaign and ran on an anti-establishment, small-government message that echoes Gurtler’s.

“It shows that our districts are fed up with the swampish politics of Atlanta,” Moore said. “My agenda is primarily going to be focused on removing government control.”

Moore, Gurtler and other candidates have been able to harness a perception on the part of voters that state Republicans are too moderate.

“The GOP voter base has long been disappointed with what it sees as too many party leaders who campaign as conservatives but govern as moderates,” said Douglas Young, a professor of political science at the University of North Georgia. “Many conservative and libertarian GOP voters are suspicious of the party establishment or what is now called “the deep state” of entrenched professional politicians and government bureaucrats.”

In coming election cycles, Gurtler’s supporters hope to see more lawmakers who oppose establishment control.

“There’s maybe not likely to be any sort of major sea change,” Van Vliet said, “but I think there will be more Matt Gurtlers in the General Assembly.”

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