President Donald Trump’s popularity with his base in Georgia has dampened any opposition that may have existed among the state’s top Republicans. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Trump holds firm grip on Georgia GOP one year after his election win

President Donald Trump may be lacking in signature legislative achievements a year after his election victory, but he has one undeniable accomplishment: He has shaped the Republican Party — both in Georgia and nationally — to his will.

Whether it be a matter of respect, compliance or bonhomie, the Never Trump movement among Republicans in Georgia has all but vanished. There are now no outspoken high-profile critics of the president in the upper reaches of Georgia political offices.

Every GOP candidate for governor and virtually every other office in Georgia has pledged his or her support of Trump’s administration and initiatives, even as some privately worry about the federal probe of Russia’s interference in the election. Operatives tell clients there’s no room in the Georgia GOP for a vocal Trump critic.

In short, establishment Republicans in Georgia have come to terms with — or at the very least begrudgingly accepted — Trump’s hard-edged blend of nationalism and populism.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue, Trump’s most high-profile ally in Georgia, has a simple explanation: The vast majority of Peach State Republicans are enthralled by the president’s agenda and ask the senator at every turn why his chamber isn’t as supportive as he is.

“You could always talk about what he said in this tweet or that tweet,” Perdue said, “but when you back up and look at what’s happening in the country, that’s what people back home are really paying attention to.”

Most of Trump’s Washington accomplishments to date have centered on unraveling Obama-era regulations and confirming administration appointees, including a Supreme Court justice and two Georgians in the Cabinet.

He has not advanced any signature legislative priorities through Congress, which has blocked plans to repeal and replace Obamacare and his promised wall on the Mexican border. A proposed tax overhaul is only now getting off the ground and faces an uncertain future due to a boatload of competing interests.

Despite that, polling shows Trump’s popularity among Republicans in Georgia holding firm at sky-high levels, even as it plummeted among independents and Democrats. And interviews with more than a dozen GOP activists and voters show how quickly Trump has engaged the party’s grass-roots base.

“I’d never vote for an anti-Trump candidate — Democrat or Republican,” said Ricky Redmon, a lifelong conservative who owns a mechanic shop in the heart of Lula. “If they’re going to fight Trump, he’ll never get the chance to do anything for Georgia.”

His business is in Hall County, the political launching pad of both Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. But they might as well be afterthoughts in Redmon’s mind. To him, Hall County is Trump country now — the president almost carried Hall by the same margin that Deal did, by nearly three out of every four votes.

“If they let him have a chance, things would get better,” said Redmon, a 61-year-old preparing to retire next year. “He didn’t make billions by being dumb. And he’s not in it for the money. But he can’t do it overnight.”

‘Something has to give’

If politics mirrors Newton’s law, then Georgia Democrats have had their own opposite, if not exactly equal, reaction.

The fiery protest and overstuffed town hall meetings that marked the first months of Trump’s presidency have largely given way to a simmering fury and careful planning.

Still smarting from Jon Ossoff’s defeat in the contest for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, Democrats are preparing to launch a host of other challengers for posts they haven’t seriously contended for in years.

Democrats are competing in all nine special elections for legislative spots up for grabs on Tuesday, including some races where Republicans routinely run unopposed. And they’re preparing for hundreds of other races next year when every statewide post — and every seat in the U.S. House and the General Assembly — is on the ballot.

“For a while, I couldn’t find anyone in Forsyth County who thought like me, who voted like me. Now that’s not a problem,” said Melissa Davis, a Democrat challenging U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall in the 7th Congressional District, where he has long coasted to easy election wins. “We’re here because we believe in helping people. We’re here because this is a great country but things need to be changed.”

And some wait, biding their time until what they hope is an inevitable swing of the pendulum.

“I don’t quite understand it, that in good conscience any member can just stick with him, really,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, who has tangled with Trump since the weeks before the inauguration. “I don’t know how long they all can sort of hang together. Something has to give. And something will give.”

‘Do the right thing’

In Georgia, though, a break with Trump is no trivial matter. It’s one of political survival.

He won a 5-point victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton last year, despite losing the GOP strongholds of Cobb and Gwinnett counties, because of his overwhelming popularity in vast stretches of rural Georgia — places such as Lula, a town of 2,700 where Democrats are vastly outnumbered.

“I voted for him — I couldn’t vote for that crooked woman — and things are already changing,” said Roy Gowder, a 92-year-old who runs a hardware store and worries that establishment forces are trying to trip up Trump. “They ought to give him a fair chance. He’s trying to do the right thing. And both Democrats and Republicans are holding him back.”

This type of Georgia GOP unity over Trump was a Republican fantasy for much of last year.

Even after he locked up the Republican nomination, a range of party officials and activists in Georgia criticized him regularly, and there was even a movement among some Georgia delegates to the Republican National Convention to throw their votes to Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Now, say some of his onetime detractors, there’s a begrudging acceptance — if not a fervent embrace — of the president. They believe he’s their best chance to push the policies that Republicans have long dreamed of passing.

“Many of the people who voted for him are anxious for him to do what he said he wanted to do — fix health care and the crazy tax code,” said Emory Morsberger, a Gwinnett developer who first supported Jeb Bush, then Marco Rubio and finally Trump during last year’s primary.

“Everyone is a little frustrated with the erratic loose cannon nature,” Morsberger said, “but underneath, he does seem to be trying to move forward with his agenda.”

No ‘Never Trump’

It helps explain why Georgia hasn’t produced a vocal Trump critic such as Bob Corker or Jeff Flake, Senate Republicans who recently tussled with Trump over his bare-knuckle brand of politics. Their subsequent retirement announcements made one thing impeccably clear: The political prospects are grim for any Republican, from Tennessee to Arizona, who breaks too hard from Trump.

No similar GOP voices have emerged in Georgia, and that’s for good reason.

Georgia’s “business community tends to be moderate, but our base isn’t. So I think what has happened is (Trump has) forced politicians to kind of choose a side, and most of them are coming home to their base as a result,” said Jack Kingston, a former Savannah Republican congressman who has become a prominent Trump surrogate.

The pro-Trump undercurrents in Georgia are so strong that GOP operative Brian Robinson tells his clients that if they’re planning on running as a “Never Trump” candidate, they’re wasting their time because they’ll get crushed in a primary.

“If you can’t say, ‘I voted for President Trump and think his agenda will make America great again,’ then don’t run as a Republican,” he said.

The state’s Republican lawmakers have seemingly taken that to heart. Georgia’s GOP members of Congress have voted with the president’s preferred legislative positions an average of 96 percent of the time, according to data compiled by the political analysis blog FiveThirtyEight.

They have wholeheartedly lined up behind Trump’s more mainstream policy goals, such as overhauling the tax code and repealing Obamacare, while papering over any differences on issues such as free trade or immigration.

“They might not always agree with his style or the manner in which he goes about his business,” GOP strategist Chip Lake said, “but they believe that he represents what they want out of a president, anger and resentment toward business as usual in Washington.”

There’s also significant pressure from constituents to back Trump’s agenda. Former state Sen. Mike Crane, now chairman of the 3rd District GOP, said many supporters blame much of the administration’s woes on Congress — not the president.

“Republicans in Georgia want to see the president supported,” he said, “and they’re pretty frustrated with Congress’ inability to do anything whatsoever.”

‘Powerful tool’

If they do disagree with Trump, their clashes are worked out in private, lest they attract primary challengers from pro-Trump candidates. That’s no idle threat: Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was in Atlanta last month to press Republican mega donor Bernie Marcus to help finance his effort to challenge establishment politicians.

And many Republican officeholders duck commenting directly on Trump’s boldest social media tiffs — and are quick to blame the media for getting wound up by them.

Woodall, the four-term congressman, pointed to a bill Trump signed that overhauled the accountability process at the long-mismanaged U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Georgia voters should not lose sight of all that’s possible with Trump in the White House, the Lawrenceville-based congressman said.

“Right now I can move any piece of legislation on behalf of my constituency that’s out there and the president will put his signature on it,” said Woodall, who is currently running to lead the House Budget Committee. “That’s a pretty powerful tool.”

Trump’s supporters throughout the state are quick to point out how his fortunes have also helped boost a generation of Georgians.

Sure, there was former U.S. Rep. Tom Price, Trump’s former health secretary who was driven out of office after a spate of reports about misused tax dollars.

But Trump’s ascent has also raised the political fortunes of other figures, including former Gov. Sonny Perdue, now the secretary of agriculture, and his onetime aide Nick Ayers, who is Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff.

Trump has tapped Georgians to lead the FBI (Chris Wray) and his ethics office (Stefan Passantino) and to hold coveted ambassadorships (Randy Evans). And David Perdue’s loyalty has suddenly made the first-term political newcomer a key player in the U.S. Senate, complete with a Trump-backed measure to overhaul the nation’s legal immigration system.

‘Pay the price’

Other establishment Republicans have had to walk a delicate line to cope with Trump’s rise.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, perhaps the embodiment of the GOP status quo in Georgia, settled on a carefully calibrated approach to his party’s nominee while campaigning last year for a third term.

After endorsing Trump during the Republican National Convention, Isakson took great care to separate himself from the candidate. He refused to comment on most of Trump’s actions during the campaign while making sure not to criticize Trump directly. And he’s stuck to that strategy since returning to Washington in November.

“All of my public engagements, people want to know about the ports, about the Department of Education, about what I’m doing on the Veterans Committee,” Isakson said, referring to his chairmanship of the Senate VA panel. “In terms of me speaking out (against Trump or his actions), that hasn’t been something that was important to them.”

U.S. Rep. Karen Handel may have proved a model for how Republicans can win in districts where Trump struggled. In her victory over Ossoff in June’s epic special election, she framed herself as an independent-minded conservative who was quick to embrace support from Trump — and any other GOP figure who would lend it to her.

And in Georgia’s crowded gubernatorial contest, every prominent GOP candidate has embraced Trump — some fervently so. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp has a self-styled “Georgia First” message that echoes the president’s mantra; state Sen. Michael Williams has modeled his campaign on bringing Trump’s swamp-draining ethos to Atlanta.

For Republican voters, there’s little other choice.

“People need to give him a chance. He’s the most criticized president I’ve ever seen,” said David Edmondson, a 43-year-old pastor in Flowery Branch. “He can’t do anything without getting criticized. And that’s ripping apart our nation.”

Still, some worry the party will long be haunted by the quiet purging of Trump critics.

Clint Murphy, a Savannah-based former GOP operative who once worked for U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell and Handel, said he is concerned that Trump’s success will drive away more serious policy-minded candidates in favor of more ego-driven ones. The GOP, he said, is fast becoming a party where “anything goes now.”

“We’re going to pay a price for it down the road in terms of other elected officials,” he said.

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