Georgia GOP meeting will test Kemp and Trump’s influence

Former President Donald Trump's hold on Georgia's Republican Party will be on display at the state GOP's convention, which begins Friday on Jekyll Island.

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Former President Donald Trump's hold on Georgia's Republican Party will be on display at the state GOP's convention, which begins Friday on Jekyll Island.

If this weekend’s state Republican convention is a test of Donald Trump’s grip on the Georgia GOP, the former president may have aced it before it even began.

The party chair is expected to breeze to another term thanks to Trump’s endorsement. Gov. Brian Kemp is facing fallout from activists hungry to punish those seen as disloyal. And two of Trump’s most prominent critics in the state GOP weren’t even invited to the Jekyll Island meeting.

Trump’s legacy will no doubt shape the gathering of hundreds of activists Friday who will determine the tone and direction of a once-dominant state GOP still smarting after losses in November’s presidential race and January’s U.S. Senate runoffs — and still not ready to come to terms with the defeats.

That’s reflected in the party’s splashy “After Action Report,” which glossed over the Democratic wins and scapegoated Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, for what went wrong in the 2020 cycle.

And many grassroots movers and shakers have amplified Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud in Georgia — conspiracy theories discredited by state and federal elections officials and dismissed in court — and echoed his attacks on Republicans who refused to overturn his defeat.

ExploreLive updates: AJC coverage of the Georgia GOP state convention, Day 2

Though the meeting agenda is unclear, activists expect to pass resolutions that rebuke Raffensperger and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who both disputed falsehoods about systemic election irregularities and cast Trump as the author of his own defeat.

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Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a critic of former President Donald Trump, was not invited to speak at this year's state Republican convention. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a critic of former President Donald Trump, was not invited to speak at this year's state Republican convention. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a critic of former President Donald Trump, was not invited to speak at this year's state Republican convention. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Neither is set to attend the convention. Aides to Duncan and Raffensperger said the two weren’t invited to speak. It’s little surprise. Trump has endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice’s bid to unseat Raffenspeger and cheered Duncan’s decision not to stand for a second term.

Raffensperger and Duncan also were certain to get a cascade of boos if they had delivered their message. Duncan, for one, said that any GOP narrative about a stolen election is “wasted energy” that makes it easier for Democrats to prevail in 2022.

“The easy fix is for former President Trump to stand up and dismiss that there’s fraud and move on,” Duncan said. “But our job as Republicans is to walk into every GOP meeting — whether it’s comfortable or uncomfortable — and convince them there’s no fraud.”

Duncan added, “Some days it’s like convincing people hundreds of years ago that the Earth isn’t flat.”

‘For granted?’

The bigger question might be the reception awaiting Kemp, who is racing to shore up once-solid support with the party’s base.

The state’s first lifelong Republican governor since Reconstruction is no favorite of some of the activists, who fault him for refusing Trump’s demands to call a special legislative session to overturn his defeat.

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Gov. Brian Kemp still faces opposition from some grassroots activists in the state GOP because he refused to call a special session of the Legislature to overturned Donald Trump's loss here in the presidential election. But Kemp, who is running for reelection in 2022, thinks he can still win them over. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Gov. Brian Kemp still faces opposition from some grassroots activists in the state GOP because he refused to call a special session of the Legislature to overturned Donald Trump's loss here in the presidential election. But Kemp, who is running for reelection in 2022, thinks he can still win them over. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Gov. Brian Kemp still faces opposition from some grassroots activists in the state GOP because he refused to call a special session of the Legislature to overturned Donald Trump's loss here in the presidential election. But Kemp, who is running for reelection in 2022, thinks he can still win them over. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

More than a dozen county GOPs passed resolutions this year reprimanding Kemp, and one larger gathering of suburban Republicans voted to “censure” him. A rural district voted this week to express concern about his “ability to put Georgia and Georgians first” after Trump’s defeat.

The governor’s poll numbers sank following November’s election but have steadied this year thanks in part to efforts to woo skeptical conservatives, including his support for new voting restrictions and demands for less stringent coronavirus rules.

Yet ahead of an expected rematch with Democrat Stacey Abrams, he’s facing pressure from his right flank. Democrat-turned-Republican Vernon Jones, a primary challenger, has led the charge with a call for a “forensic audit” of election results meant to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victory.

Kemp has repeatedly refused to hit back at Trump, though he’s expressed frustration with the narrative that he had power to overturn the election. In an interview, Kemp expressed confidence he could win back their support.

“That’s going to be a part of the primary process. A lot of people are still frustrated because they still haven’t been able to talk to me, and that’s kind of what a primary is all about, telling people why you’re the best person,” he said.

“But,” he added, “we also have to remember there are a lot of people out there, whether they liked what happened in Georgia or not, they want the state to have a good economy, they want their kids back in school, they want to have college football games this year.”

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Newcomers to Georgia Republican meetings raise their hands last month during the 1st District GOP convention.

Credit: Brandon Phillips

Newcomers to Georgia Republican meetings raise their hands last month during the 1st District GOP convention.

Credit: Brandon Phillips

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Newcomers to Georgia Republican meetings raise their hands last month during the 1st District GOP convention.

Credit: Brandon Phillips

Credit: Brandon Phillips

Even without a top-tier primary opponent, the governor has much work ahead. Brandon Phillips, chair of the 2nd GOP District, said he’s heard gripes from activists at the 18 GOP meetings he’s attended in the past two months that Kemp is “taking the Republican base for granted.” He added that he hasn’t seen Kemp staffers at any of those meetings.

“To the base, especially the influx of new activists, that’s concerning because these folks want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to not have a Democrat win next November,” Phillips said.

Others cautioned patience. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, one of Kemp’s most powerful allies, predicted Kemp would steady shaky GOP nerves over the next 18 months.

“Anytime anybody runs for reelection, they have work to do. I think Gov. Kemp is prepared to do that work, and at the end of the day, people will unite around a candidate they believe will be successful in November 2022,” Perdue said. “Gov. Kemp will do what it takes.”

Democrats, meanwhile, say they’re stunned that the GOP hasn’t moved on from 2020.

“Instead of feeding into conspiracy theories, we are rolling up our sleeves and working,” Augusta-Richmond County Commissioner Jordan Johnson said. “And that’s what you can expect from the Democratic leadership across the state: getting back on track.”

‘A positive awakening’

The uneasy environment at a GOP convention is nothing new for elected Republican officials.

Then-Gov. Nathan Deal was scolded for vetoing a “religious liberty” measure and objecting to campus gun legislation. Before that, then-U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss was booed for his stands on immigration. Others have seen their fortunes rise or recede in front of the activists.

The Trump era, however, has only heightened the backlash. Case in point: Veteran Republicans expected incumbent Georgia GOP Chair David Shafer to face stiff opposition after several election defeats.

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Some veteran operatives in the Republican Party expected Georgia GOP Chair David Shafer to have trouble holding on to his job following the party's defeats in November's presidential election and January's U.S. Senate runoffs. But support from former President Donald Trump has made his reelection as head of the state party a near certainty. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Some veteran operatives in the Republican Party expected Georgia GOP Chair David Shafer to have trouble holding on to his job following the party's defeats in November's presidential election and January's U.S. Senate runoffs. But support from former President Donald Trump has made his reelection as head of the state party a near certainty. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
Some veteran operatives in the Republican Party expected Georgia GOP Chair David Shafer to have trouble holding on to his job following the party's defeats in November's presidential election and January's U.S. Senate runoffs. But support from former President Donald Trump has made his reelection as head of the state party a near certainty. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Instead, many of the most formidable potential challengers melted away after Trump endorsed Shafer, who played a leading role in challenging Biden’s victory in Georgia.

(Former Cobb GOP Chair Jason Shepherd is Shafer’s highest-profile opponent, but even he expressed second thoughts about a run.)

The Trump influence will also unspool in speeches from announced and possible contenders for higher office, including those jockeying to face Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock next year. The GOP race remains wide open, and patience is running thin among party leaders waiting for former University of Georgia football great Herschel Walker to make up his mind.

“The 2022 primary season in Georgia begins in earnest over the next 24-48 hours,” said veteran activist Cole Muzio, who leads an anti-abortion group. “Let’s roll.”

Joining the GOP crowd will be many new faces. Alex Johnson unsuccessfully ran several times to lead the state GOP before shifting his efforts to the Georgia Republican Alliance, an outside group aimed at pulling the party further to the right. He sees a more energized party this year, galvanized by election defeats.

“Republicans are showing up to be involved this year because they are demanding accountability from elected Republicans instead of simply going along with and believing them as they have in the past,” Johnson said. “It’s a positive awakening.”

Staff writer Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.

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