Georgia judge blocks Catoosa GOP from purging Republicans from ballot

Party officials refused to abide by the ruling
An attendee is seen at the Georgia GOP convention in Columbus on Friday, June 9, 2023. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

An attendee is seen at the Georgia GOP convention in Columbus on Friday, June 9, 2023. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

A judge blocked the Catoosa County GOP on Tuesday from enforcing a new policy that gives party leaders the final say on whether candidates for county office are eligible to run as Republicans.

But local party officials refused to abide by Superior Court Judge Don Thompson’s decision, triggering a legal standoff that could have ramifications beyond the northwest Georgia county of roughly 70,000 people.

The Catoosa GOP’s policy was challenged after several candidates, including two county commissioners and a former commissioner, were denied a spot on the GOP primary ballot by party officials this week.

Among them was Steven Henry, who was rebuffed again from qualifying on Tuesday even after he brought Thompson’s order to the county party. His attorney, Bryan Tyson, urged the party to comply with the order.

“We are pleased the judge required the party to follow the law,” Tyson said. “The people get to pick the candidates — not a small group of insiders.

In Georgia, the two major political parties handle the process for candidates to qualify for office. The five-day qualifying period began Monday.

The party’s leaders refused to comment on the ruling. But Chairwoman Joanna Hildreth said the policy was designed to ensure Republican candidates who “share our values” are on the ballot.

“Too often, voters are rightfully disappointed by candidates who run with ‘Republican’ by their name only to abandon the platform once elected, if they ever really supported it to begin with,” she said.

‘No way’

Like many rural areas in Georgia, there’s little chance of a Democratic takeover in Catoosa, a county along the state border with Tennessee that Donald Trump won with more than three-quarters of the vote in 2020.

But party hard-liners in some small counties have tried to exert more influence over the GOP primaries, where most countywide races for influential offices are decided.

Chattooga and Pickens counties also recently adopted rules that give party leaders more control over which candidates can run on the ballot with an “R” by their name, though it’s not clear if any office seekers in those counties were blocked from qualifying as Republicans.

In Catoosa, Hildreth said the policy also helps party leaders “get to know” candidates seeking powerful offices. She said those who are rejected can still apply as an independent or run as a Democrat.

The policy is a miniature version of a failed statewide effort by hard-line conservatives to pass rules that could have blocked state candidates from qualifying as Republicans if they’re deemed to be insufficiently conservative.

The approach was championed by the Georgia Republican Assembly, a conservative faction that has vilified Gov. Brian Kemp and other state incumbents who rejected Trump’s demands to overturn his 2020 defeat.

The group tried to force a vote at the Georgia GOP convention last year that would have given the state party’s roughly 1,500 delegates the authority to decide who was eligible to run as a Republican in top races.

It was sidelined by a coalition of far-right activists and mainstream conservatives who issued dire warnings that it would shift significant power from voters to the state party.

Alex Johnson, the GRA president and an attorney for the Catoosa GOP, didn’t return calls seeking comment. But he has referred to the Wyoming GOP’s decision to oust then-U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney from the party as a legal precedent.

Opponents say the policies are bound to be rejected in court or circumvented by the Legislature. Tyson argued the county party violated Georgia law several different ways, including failing to follow procedural rules.

“There’s simply no way what they’re doing is allowable under Georgia law,” he said.