The more than 2,000 delegates, alternates and officials who gathered in Columbus don’t reflect the overall Republican electorate. The members are overwhelmingly pro-Trump, and many mainstream conservatives followed Gov. Brian Kemp’s lead in boycotting the two-day event.
Yet they still represent an important segment of the GOP base — the activists who spend nights and weekends at party pep rallies, and devote countless hours to canvassing neighborhoods, soliciting small-dollar donations, and dialing voters ahead of the 2024 election.
And though some delegates expressed concern that Trump’s legal perils will complicate his campaign against President Joe Biden if he wins the nomination, most framed the criminal probes as obstacles from vindictive prosecutors that Trump would inevitably overcome.
“It’s a lot of smokescreen,” said Jackie McCowen, a Crawford County Commissioner who said the Republican nomination is Trump’s to lose. “The Democrats know this is their biggest threat, and they’re trying to diffuse that threat.”
The show of loyalty comes as Trump faces his most consequential legal challenge yet. Even as investigations continue in Atlanta, New York and Washington, prosecutors unsealed a 49-page indictment that charged the former president with willfully retaining national defense secrets at his Florida estate and then obstructing the government’s efforts to retain them.
The indictment, which carries the potential of significant prison sentences, is the first time in U.S. history that an ex-president faces federal charges. And the details of the charges galvanized many of the delegates, even those who said no one is above the law.
“All it’s going to do is drive more people to support him more money is going to get donated. Yesterday, people were donating money after it happened,” said Todd Gerhart, who was selling pro-Trump jars of honey to attendees. “He’s going to draw more voters – it’s going to backfire.”
‘Cling to our guns’
Few of the tributes to Trump were as bellicose as the one delivered by Kari Lake, the former Arizona gubernatorial contender who was a late addition to the lineup. She replaced former Vice President Mike Pence, who avoided what could have been a dicey reception from pro-Trump delegates.
“If you want to get to President Trump, you’re going to have to go through me and you’re going to have to go through 75 million Americans just like me,” said Lake, a staunch Trump ally who lost her 2022 bid for governor.
Most of those Trump voters, she pointedly added, are “card-carrying members” of the National Rifle Association.
“That’s not a threat. That’s a public service announcement,” she said. “We will not let you lay a finger on President Trump. Frankly, now is the time to cling to our guns and our religion.”
Others used the convention to announce their endorsements of Trump, signaling their unwavering support amid his mounting legal challenges. U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde said he couldn’t “think of a better time” to back Trump.
“He will help save this nation from the radical left-wing wackos, from the socialists and the corrupt bureaucrats who want to eliminate our country,” he said.
And Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, one of the few Trump-endorsed candidates in Georgia who were helped last year by his endorsement, welcomed the embrace of the former president’s devotees.
“I can assure you this,” he said to applause from supporters, “y’all are the reason I got elected lieutenant governor.”
The level of support for Trump unnerved Republicans who warn his polarizing candidacy will drive more swing voters to Biden. And it baffled Democrats who see the serious legal charges that Trump faces as one of their most effective get-out-the-vote tools.
Scott Holcomb, a Democratic lawmaker and U.S. Army veteran, called the misconduct laid out in the federal indictment “so egregious and willful it had to be charged.”
“If any other person did what Trump did, that person would be charged and convicted,” said Holcomb, who represents a slice of DeKalb County. “This is about the rule of law, the importance of securing our national secrets, and the consequences of intentional obstruction.”
Despite the optimism on the convention floor, some attendees aligned themselves with Kemp, who has pleaded with fellow Republicans to move beyond “sour grapes” about Trump’s 2020 election loss and focus instead on public safety and the economy.
The governor’s political network released a poll Friday that reinforced that notion, showing that most Georgians are concerned with kitchen-table issues and not “election integrity.” It also indicated that Trump would struggle more than a generic Republican in a head-to-head matchup with Biden in November.
“They’re a good number of people here looking for a forward-looking vision,” said former Republican state Rep. Scot Turner. “It cannot be denied that the governor’s concerns are valid, and I am hopeful because I am finding so many Republicans who share his concern.”
And delegates warmly welcomed Trump critic Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas governor and White House contender who didn’t mention the former president in his address. In a huddle with reporters a few minutes later, he called for Trump to drop out of the contest.
“Staying in the race does a disservice to the office of presidency and to the country and to the important decision that we have to make,” he said.
To many of the party faithful, though, those concerns were mere afterthoughts. Longshot White House contender Vivek Ramaswamy, another presidential contender, has vowed to pardon Trump if he’s convicted. He received a standing ovation from the audience.
Joanne Murdock, who wore a red-white-and-blue blouse emblazoned with GOP elephants, said Trump critics are “trying everything they can do to take him down.”
“A grand jury can indict a wall,” Murdock said. “I mean, it’s just always a one-sided thing.”
Just outside the convention hall, Matt Stout showed off a bright-red MAGA hat that advertised Trump’s 2024 “revenge tour.” He’s unfazed by the talk of political blowback.
“He won’t have any problem winning the primary, and he’ll win the November election,” said Stout. “The legal problems will just haunt the opposition – not Trump. They’ll just rile up Republicans. His numbers are going to spike.”
Staff Writers David Aaro, Patricia Murphy and David Wickert contributed to this report.