Priscilla Bence holds a sign to support during 2019 Georgia GOP state convention in Savannah. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Trump at center of Georgia Republicans’ strategy in 2020 race

Cardboard cutouts of the Republican greeted the more than 1,000 delegates who crowded a vast meeting space. His merchandise lined stalls in the hallways. Party organizers raffled off Trump 2020 memorabilia. His name was plastered on campaign buttons for candidates seeking party posts.

And his approach to politics creeped into just about every speech from party leaders plotting the GOP’s course for next year’s election.

Gov. Brian Kemp echoed Trump’s attack on “agenda-driven” media. U.S. Sen. David Perdue spoke more about Trump than his own election campaign, warning that the president is the only one who can prevent a “100-year slide toward the socialist agenda.” And other GOP officials praised his style, his agenda, even his machismo.

“The left has changed how people talk, how people speak, and there’s been an emasculation of boys and men,” said Jason Thompson, a Republican National Committeeman.

“And that’s why the left is so absolutely fixated on our president: He’s a real man. And they don’t like that. He says what he means, and they don’t like it.”

As Georgia Republicans ready for what could be their most challenging election cycle since winning control of state government, leaders are betting that the same insurgent tide that swept Trump to office in 2016 will float Republicans to victory next year.

Contrast that with the last Republican convention in 2017, when Trump took a backseat to the evolving race for governor and a feverish contest to lead the cash-strapped party. Even his most ardent supporters at that convention rarely mentioned his name, focusing instead on state and local matters.

‘No negotiating’

Two years later, virtually no trace of the Never Trump movement in Georgia Republican politics remains. Trump’s loyalists fill key positions in the party, and the critics who assailed him in the runup to the 2016 election are now enthusiastically supporters, or are holding their tongues.

Banking on Trump’s appeal holds risks. He won the state by five percentage points in 2016, but lost Republican strongholds in metro Atlanta. The GOP’s suburban swoon deepened last year, when Stacey Abrams nearly led Democrats to a string of statewide upsets across the state.

Now Democrats feel they’re on the cusp of a comeback after the third consecutive GOP sweep of statewide offices. And they, too, are undergoing a shift from the more moderate approach of past decades toward more liberal policies to energize voters who oppose Trump and Perdue.

The party wants to build on the string of legislative victories that put Republicans on the defensive in the suburbs last year with a message focused on voting rights, Medicaid expansion and opposition to socially conservative legislation such as the anti-abortion “heartbeat” law.

“To stop the inhumane conservative policies that are sweeping the nation, we have to vote out Republicans,” said Adrienne White, the state Democratic party’s vice-chair of recruitment. “There is no rationalizing with them. No negotiating.”

‘Consequences’

Kemp and Perdue headlined the GOP message, with strong backing from the party’s newly elected chairman: former state Sen. David Shafer.

Once one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate, Shafer narrowly lost last year’s GOP lieutenant governor runoff to Geoff Duncan before planning a comeback. He won over delegates by promising to beef up a “neglected” grassroots network in dozens of counties that have no local party organizations.

His victory over three rivals puts Shafer in charge of the state GOP apparatus that will coordinate how the party will spend millions of dollars and chart out campaign strategy in the 2020 presidential race. And he pledged to take a more muscular approach to taking on Democrats.

“I believe our Republican Party is in trouble. In the last election, we found ourselves on the defensive for the first time in a decade,” he said. “We need to go back on the offensive.”

His stance echoes a wider Republican shift toward appealing to the conservative base rather than reaching out to the political center.

While then-Gov. Nathan Deal angered activists by vetoing the “religious liberty” measure and blocking gun expansions, Kemp won office with the help of Trump supporters energized by socially conservative promises.

He capped his first legislative session by signing a “heartbeat” law that would outlaw abortions as early as six weeks, a measure that supporters traced directly to Trump’s influence on Republican policy.

“In 2016, we elected Donald Trump as president. The consequences have been great. And in 2018, we elected a new governor, Brian Kemp, and a new lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan,” said state Sen. Marty Harbin, a Tyrone Republican who sponsored the legislation.

“They not only campaigned like Republicans, but they governed like Republicans.”

‘C-list celebrities’

Kemp would not disagree. He took office with a promise to work across party lines and “put people ahead of divisive politics,” but he’s insisted he will not abandon campaign promises to expand gun rights, crack down on illegal immigration and tackle other partisan issues.

He repeated that pledge Saturday with a fiery speech, as a convention hall full of delegates interrupted him with ovations.

He blamed “out of control” Democrats for threatening Georgia’s progress and mocked the growing fallout from Hollywood celebrities and some production firms who have called for boycotts of the state’s film industry because of the anti-abortion law.

“I understand that some folks don’t like this new law. I’m fine with that,” said Kemp, adding: “We are the party of freedom and opportunity. We value and protect innocent life — even though that makes C-list celebrities squawk.”

He urged the same volunteers who flocked to his campaign to redouble their efforts next year against an energized political left that is “angry, they’re radical and they’re ridiculous.”

“Trump, like us, is just getting started. Let’s stand with the president. In a lot of people’s eyes, he’s already made America great again. He’s just got to keep it great.”

Perdue took the same tack. He reminded the crowd of his close ties to Trump, saying the president calls him late at night, early in the morning and recently invited him to the White House for a lunch date that stretched into a six-hour meeting.

“We had a wake-up call last year. In 2018, the governor’s race and lieutenant governor’s race got a lot closer than it should have,” he said.

“The battle for the White House is right here in Georgia in 2020,” Perdue added. “If President Trump doesn’t win Georgia, he won’t win the presidency.”

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