In 2 Georgia counties, GOP activists aim to purge ‘deceptive’ Republican candidates

An attendee is seen at the Georgia GOP convention in Columbus on Friday, June 9, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /



An attendee is seen at the Georgia GOP convention in Columbus on Friday, June 9, 2023. (Arvin Temkar /

When Buddy Hill ran his first campaign for solicitor general in Chattooga County, local officials did a double-take as he lined up to qualify for office as a Republican.

Back then, the county’s leadership was dominated by conservative Democrats, and Hill’s 2012 victory became a watershed moment for local Republicans. It was the first time in recent memory a GOP contender won a countywide race in Chattooga.

As Hill prepares to compete for another term, though, he’s ready to wage a legal battle against the local Republican Party that once feted him, outraged at new rules that govern which candidates can run on the ballot with an “R” by their name.

“If they decide I’m not Republican enough and they try to disqualify me from running, I’ll fight it. It’s just not right,” Hill said. “It denies the voters their power to elect who they want.”

It’s not an idle concern. GOP committees in Chattooga County and nearby Pickens County have adopted rules that give party leaders the final say on whether candidates for county office are eligible to run as Republicans.

It’s a miniature version of a failed statewide effort by hardline conservatives to pass rules that could have blocked state candidates from qualifying as Republicans if they’re deemed to be insufficiently conservative.

Pickens County Republicans adopted the so-called “accountability” platform in August with little outcry. There’s been far more backlash in Chattooga County, another GOP safe haven where Gov. Brian Kemp captured 84% of the vote in last year’s midterm.

Chattooga County GOP chair Jennifer Tudor said the rule requires candidates to earn the blessing of a five-member committee to run as a Republican for countywide offices, though it can’t reject contenders for state or federal seats from running on the party’s ballot.

“Should we be forced to accept a candidate who claims to be Republican but supports abortion, gun control, big government and high taxes?” asked Tudor, who added: “Deceptive politicians should not be allowed to take advantage of poor, low information voters.”

Chattooga County Commissioner Blake Elsberry.

Credit: File

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Credit: File

Critics say the system disenfranchises primary voters who often decide the victors in heavily Republican counties. Among the opponents is Andy Allen, who recently announced he would challenge Blake Elsberry, the county’s powerful sole commissioner.

A newcomer to politics, Allen calls himself a “true conservative Republican” but said he fears he’ll be disqualified by party leaders who want to protect Elsberry and other incumbents.

“My concern is that a panel of five people would have influence over who is elected in a county of 25,000 people,” said Allen, who is considering taking legal action to oppose the rule. “I think that’s all sorts of wrong.”

‘A traitor’

The local overhauls echo a proposal championed by the Georgia Republican Assembly, a conservative faction that has vilified Kemp and other state incumbents who rejected then-President Donald Trump’s demands to illegally overturn his defeat in 2020.

They tried to force a vote at the Georgia GOP convention earlier this 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.

“If the candidate has shown himself to be a traitor to the principles of the party, then the party can vote to exclude him from qualifying at the next election,” was how Nathaniel Darnell, a GRA leader, explained the proposal to supporters earlier this year.

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, which has been riven by internal fissures.

Nathaniel Darnell, the Georgia director for the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, speaks during the Georgia March for Life rally Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, at Liberty Plaza in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

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Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Some of the most intense opposition was driven by Trump loyalists who warned the change could come back to haunt them if moderate Republicans win control of grassroots party infrastructure in the future.

“I believe in the power of the ballot box. I believe that GOP primary voters should decide who they want as their nominee,” said Debbie Dooley, a former Tea Party leader. “A small group of activists shouldn’t decide it.”

‘It seems idiotic’

It’s unclear if the new local party rules run afoul of state or federal law. Alex Johnson, the GRA president, said there is legal precedence for the policies, including the Wyoming GOP’s decision to oust then-U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney from the party. Opponents say they are bound to be rejected in court or circumvented by the Legislature.

Nor is it apparent how broadly the so-called “accountability” initiatives will spread. Georgia GOP officials, who have not taken a public stance on the local overhauls, say Chattooga and Pickens are likely the only two counties in the state that have so far adopted the rules.

Pickens County GOP Chairman Christopher Mora said local Republicans weren’t out to start a trend when they voted in August to authorize a group of roughly 32 party officials to vet each candidate’s eligibility to run as a Republican.

“We were concerned about having to accept just any old person willing to show up with a check and sign the oath,” said Mora. “It seems idiotic.”

The committee hasn’t disqualified any contender yet, though that could change when it meets in January. Those who are rejected can still run as Democratic or independent candidates, he said.

“This isn’t some purity test. We’re just trying to stop Democrats running as Republicans,” Mora added. “The majority of the county is Republican, and we want to make sure the people that are running it are actually conservatives.”

‘Common sense?’

In nearby Chattooga, a political shift is underway. Conservative Democrats who held key county posts have either retired or joined the GOP in recent years, including four office-holders who became Republicans in 2019.

Chattooga Democrats exit party after social media backlash

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But local activists say the loyalties of the party-switchers aren’t in question. Instead, they say they’re more dubious of political newcomers without long track records in public office. Tudor, the county GOP chair, compared the vetting process to a job application.

“They make decisions on what happens to tax money taken from you. In many cases they have the ability to create or vote on laws that can possibly change your lives,” she said. “It’s really common sense.”

To Allen, the commission candidate, it’s a blatant power grab. He said that the sinister nature of the new rules became obvious when Tudor and other party leaders announced them just hours after he filed paperwork to challenge Elsberry. (Tudor said the timing was a coincidence.)

“I’m about as conservative as they get,” said Allen. “This isn’t about that. They’re trying to infringe on voters’ rights. They just want to protect incumbents.”