‘A takeover’: Trump loyalists exert control over county GOPs

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on Sept. 25, 2021, in Perry, Georgia. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on Sept. 25, 2021, in Perry, Georgia. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Four years ago, Brian Kemp went to a Cobb County GOP breakfast to launch his campaign for governor to a cheering crowd of supporters. A few weeks ago, the leaders of the county GOP voted to “censure” him for not meeting campaign promises.

The dramatic change highlights more than just the governor’s ongoing struggles with the Republican base after refusing Donald Trump’s entreaties to overturn the results of November’s presidential election. It’s also an example of how pro-Trump activists who emphasize loyalty to the former president have won control of party infrastructure and more influence across the state.

Those Trump-aligned activists showed up in record numbers at party gatherings this year, where they channeled anger over the former president’s defeat into efforts to take control of the machinery of local GOP organizations. That’s happened in at least a dozen counties across the state, including several in metro Atlanta and its exurbs.

The Trump loyalists have brought enthusiasm to some local organizations. But they have also contributed to the ongoing friction that’s dividing the state GOP ahead of elections in 2022, when Kemp and other statewide officials face the voters.

“All families have disagreements, but we’ve got to learn how to disagree in private and move forward in public together,” said DeAnna Harris, who as head of the Cobb County Young Republicans opposed the rebuke of Kemp. “Because it’s going to set the stage for next year — and the next presidential election.”

DeAnna Harris, the head of the Cobb County Young Republicans, opposed the county GOP's censure of Gov. Brian Kemp. She says the party's members need "to learn how to disagree in private and move forward in public together.” (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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The “Trump takeover,” as Harris put it, goes beyond mere political symbolism.

In many counties, the local activists are the backbone of the party’s operation, working to recruit candidates, raise cash and knock on doors. They also often help set the agenda for what local and state officials should advocate — and what they should oppose.

It reflects a broader trend as Trump loyalists wage internal war on mainstream Republicans who long controlled the gears of power. Some were encouraged by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s call to “take this back village by village” by seizing control of the GOP machinery from the ground up.

‘Trump versus Trump’

Kerry Luedke figured she was in good position to get elected to lead the Cherokee County GOP earlier this year. She chaired the local party through much of 2020 after the previous leader stepped down, and local turnout efforts helped generate 20,000 more votes for Trump than the county tallied in 2016.

But at meetings in the spring, a crush of newcomers began showing up, many inspired by Bannon. And they were determined to oust whoever was in charge.

“While I was out there knocking on doors for the runoff candidates, they were Christmas shopping. But in their view, we had to go,” said Luedke, who lost her election. “It didn’t really matter to some of these activists what we had done. They just wanted a clean sweep.”

In neighboring Forsyth County, Bobby Donnelly experienced similar backlash.

Republicans set up pro-Trump flags in the Atlanta exurbs. Supporters of the former president have started showing up at GOP county meetings and ousting mainstream Republicans. “The funny thing is we were all pro-Trump. It’s a Trump civil war. It’s Trump versus Trump,” said Bobby Donnelly, who was the vice chair in Forsyth County before losing his bid this year to lead the county GOP.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

He had been part of a tea party faction that a decade ago tried to take over the Forsyth GOP and, by 2020, had mostly succeeded. It had wrested control of four of the county’s six executive committee posts. Donnelly had risen to become the party’s vice chair.

In 2021, Donnelly and the rest of the committee’s leaders were wiped out by newcomers motivated by Bannon and others to clean house.

“The funny thing is we were all pro-Trump. It’s a Trump civil war. It’s Trump versus Trump,” said Donnelly, who lost his bid to lead the county GOP.

The victor was a young former field organizer named Hunter Hill, who shares the same name as the former gubernatorial candidate. Within three months, Hill resigned from the post amid allegations that included claims of misspent funds. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

‘Circular firing squad’

Some of the newcomers who won office were quickly met with the mundane realities of the new job.

Marci McCarthy launched a pro-Trump women’s group a few years ago in heavily Democratic DeKalb County, staging events at local restaurants that attracted large crowds of enthusiastic supporters.

She easily won election earlier this year to lead the DeKalb GOP as a more mainstream Republican who worried about the party’s tilt toward the “Trumpiest candidate” decided against running for another term.

The crowds who attend recent meetings have built a “new kind of energy that didn’t really exist” before in the DeKalb GOP, McCarthy said. But she’s also navigating issues that she once overlooked, such as upcoming municipal races and local financing measures.

Marci McCarthy, right, organized a women's group a few years ago in heavily Democratic DeKalb County that supported then-President Donald Trump. She's now the chair of the county's Republican Party. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“It’s given me a dimension that there’s more to politics than just the presidential race,” McCarthy said. “These down-ballot races really impact lives and livelihoods, and that’s been eye-opening to me.”

In other cases, a compromise candidate was needed.

A Chatham County GOP meeting in Savannah in April turned into an angry yelling match between long-standing party members and a group of Trump supporters, forcing the chapter’s leaders to abruptly adjourn the meeting.

Since then, the group elected Leonard Massey as the new chair to bridge the divide between the warring factions. Massey said the tensions have eased in recent weeks as he works to strike a balance between those who “believe the system is rigged and the more traditional activists.”

Massey, who joined the Chatham GOP in 2016, said he posed a question to members of the frustrated protest group: “Do you want a circular firing squad, or do you want to actually change the direction of the country?”

“The vast majority of people got on board when the rubber meets the road,” he added.

‘Not giving up’

Many Republicans worry the grassroots takeover is yet another symptom of the dissension that helped Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock sweep the January runoffs that flipped control of the U.S. Senate.

Trump has continued his vendetta against Kemp and other state leaders who defied his attempts to overturn the results of November’s presidential election, and the internal dissension could dog efforts to oust Warnock next year and maintain control of every statewide constitutional post.

Former state Rep. Scot Turner noted that the Democratic Party of Georgia has happily trumpeted the Cobb GOP’s rebuke of Kemp.

Former state Rep. Scot Turner opposes the Cobb County GOP's recent rebuke of Gov. Brian Kemp, saying that Georgia Democrats are using the move "as fodder on their website.” He said the Trump loyalists “are essentially guilty of aiding and abetting a political enemy.” BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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“The Georgia Democrats are using what the Cobb GOP has done as fodder on their website,” he said. The Trump loyalists “are essentially guilty of aiding and abetting a political enemy.”

The “censure” was surprising in other ways, too. While Cobb County has shifted roughly 27 percentage points against GOP presidential nominees since 2012, the local party has moved increasingly to the right in recent years.

Once, its activists helped elect more mainstream Republican candidates such as former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, known for a pragmatic streak in Atlanta and Washington.

Now the county’s new chair, Salleigh Grubbs, won with a “Cobb First” platform modeled after Trump’s mantra. And under her watch, the GOP’s county committee voted to rebuke Kemp for failing to curb illegal immigration.

She said the sentiment of those who voted for the resolution was that Kemp made a “commitment to stop illegal immigration in Georgia and he has not made good on that campaign promise.”

Within hours of the censure, some veteran members of the county GOP went public with their disapproval, and Jason Shepherd, a former chairman of the group, quickly stepped down from the committee.

“They’re looking for their pound of flesh, and once our nominees are chosen, they could be in a very uncomfortable position,” Shepherd said, adding that he questions how “an organization like the Cobb GOP can remain influential” with such stances.

He noted that other groups in the county will fill the void, notably a local conservative women’s group that attracts hundreds to its meetings.

Donnelly has a feeling something similar could happen in Forsyth.

He spoke by phone Tuesday from an annual fair in Cumming where he had set up a tent for his local tea party organization. It happened to be directly across a walkway from the Forsyth party’s exhibit.

“I’m not giving up,” Donnelly said, “but I don’t know what the future of the county GOP is.”

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