JEKYLL ISLAND — The Georgia GOP convention was supposed to be a chance for thousands of conservative activists to project unity and chart out their strategy headed into 2022 races. Instead, much of the conference was focused on Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud in 2020.
Gov. Brian Kemp was jeered by activists upset he refused to invalidate the state’s election. So was Attorney General Chris Carr, whose office defended the outcome in court. Georgia GOP chair David Shafer honored a trio of legislators with “Warrior Awards” for their attempt to reverse the former president’s defeat.
And in a sign of the ongoing internal friction, the delegates passed resolutions to censure Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican who is the state’s top elections official, and call for a legislative review of the voting system the Republican-controlled Legislature only recently adopted.
“It’s obvious that there was fraud,” said Michael Ovitz, an East Cobb attendee, capturing the sentiment of many of the delegates. “A civilized society depends upon truths and facts, not deception and deceit.”
Noticeably absent from the proceedings at the Jekyll Island Convention Center were Raffensperger and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, two high-ranking Republican officials who both refuted Trump’s false claims about widespread election fraud and point out repeatedly that the results were upheld in three separate tallies.
“Since I got into politics 10 years ago, I didn’t come into work every day to go along and get along. I got into politics to get something done,” said Duncan, who isn’t running for a second term, in an interview. “And it’s an impossible scenario to not be truthful with the voters and expect to be rewarded with leadership positions in the future.”
‘You’re looking at him’
The lieutenant governor is one of the few GOP leaders to express that view. Facing a tough reelection campaign, Kemp has sought to win back conservatives who still fault him for Trump’s loss by taking a series of base-pleasing positions — and refusing to swipe back at the former president.
In a show of unity, Kemp was introduced on Saturday by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, one of Trump’s most loyal deputies in the U.S. Senate. However, Perdue initially appeared to forget to introduce Kemp before he praised the state’s record over nearly two decades of Republican leadership.
The governor, meanwhile, was met with loud boos mixed with cheers as he touted the conservative record of his first term: a strict anti-abortion law, a rewrite of election rules that include new restrictions, and the aggressive reopening of the economy during the pandemic.
“There is only one person who’s beaten Stacey Abrams,” he told the crowd, “and you’re looking at him.”
The GOP fissures on display offered another reminder that Trump has become “the line of demarcation in the Republican Party,” said Glen Smith, a University of North Georgia political scientist.
“On one side are those believing Trump was robbed of re-election by voting fraud, and the other side says there is no evidence of fraud in the election,” said Smith, adding that it’s led to fallout for “all those who did not stand lock-step with him during the election aftermath.”
Few politicians illustrate that dynamic better than former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who aligned herself with Trump when she was appointed to the office in 2019 and started the conservative voting group Greater Georgia after she lost a January runoff to Democrat Raphael Warnock.
In an interview, Loeffler told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the backward look was necessary to ensure Republicans don’t suffer another round of losses.
“We have to get to work today addressing the issues that we saw in 2020, in order to rebuild confidence and restore faith in elections,” she said. “That’s really what voters want to see from our officials, transparency and accountability.”
The convention offered a chance for Loeffler and other current and future candidates — she’s among several eyeing a 2022 run against Warnock — a chance to test their messages and introduce themselves to some of the most dedicated Republican activists in the state.
Getting off on the right foot with this crowd is imperative, veteran operatives say, since many have served as the backbone of successful campaigns.
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black launched his bid for U.S. Senate on Friday with a promise to halt the “liberal wave.” U.S. Rep. Jody Hice energized supporters with free food — he touted a “Hice Cream Social” — and red-meat attacks against Raffensperger.
Many of Kemp’s critics held signs supporting Vernon Jones, a recent GOP convert now trying to rebrand himself as a far-right conservative.
The former state legislator compared Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to the cowardly lion, the tin man and the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“And Dorothy isn’t leading them from Kansas, they’re being led by that Wicked Witch from the South, Stacey Abrams,” he said.
Democrats watched the division from afar with both glee and a sense of foreboding.
“They are spreading conspiracy theories because they don’t have an agenda,” said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who chairs the state party.
“They are a continued disgrace to our democracy, they have strayed from morality and decency and there is no more room for truth or common sense in the Georgia GOP. The Georgia GOP circus is on full display.”
Republicans have reasons for optimism, though, starting with the surge of newcomers — many motivated by Trump’s defeat — who packed the meeting.
Convention organizers touted the event’s attendance, saying the nearly 2,000 delegates broke a record. Nearly 1,000 additional guests and alternates filled the rest of the convention hall, causing the room to be almost uncomfortably warm.
A show of hands revealed that at least half of those at the convention were attending the event for the first time.
Unlike past GOP conventions, however, there was little drama over who would lead the party. With Trump’s backing, Shafer easily won a second term after playing a prominent role in the push to overturn the election outcome.