OPINION: Engage or enrage? The choice for Republicans heading into 2022

Republicans in Georgia and nationally are at a crossroads right now between engagement and enragement. Will they offer voters a positive vision to buy into on Election Day in 2022 or simply give them a list of grievances to be mad about, over and over and over?

Enraging voters determines their mood on Election Day, but engaging voters is about their identity all of the days in between. Both can win elections, but only one builds a lasting, political movement.

Earlier this week, we had a view of which direction top Republicans are choosing as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy came to Georgia for a press conference billed as a tour of “local businesses negatively impacted by MLB’s decision to relocate its 2021 All-Star Game.”

Tall, tanned and tailored, McCarthy stepped up to the lectern set up in the bustling lunchtime Marietta Diner to talk about struggling small businesses in the area.

President Joe Biden cost Georgia the marquis event, McCarthy argued, even though it was the Republican legislature that passed the elections overhaul bill that the MLB said it was protesting.

U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, who joined McCarthy, said Major League Baseball “owes the state of Georgia an apology,” and added that Delta employees in his district are afraid for their jobs because of “the hostile work environment that’s been created there.” Like the MLB, Delta also spoke out against Senate Bill 202.

U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk said businesses all over his district are struggling, and not just because of the All-Star game announcement.

“The people feel like they’re at war not only with their own government, but big corporations are trying to kill them as well,” he said.

At one point McCarthy added, “This movement about wokeness has got to stop.”

Hostile work environments? Big corporations trying to kill us? Wokeness?

Where have the Gingrich Republicans gone, who hatched the Contract with America at the direction of the former Speaker, whose district office was once just down the road from where McCarthy and company spoke.

Unlike the enragement that Republicans were selling this week, the preamble to the Contract with America was a downright sunny document.

It promised “to make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves,” and vowed “to restore the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives.”

At a 1994 Capitol Hill press conference unveiling their ideas, Gingrich called it, “A real effort to create a positive plan for change.”

The reality of the Gingrich Revolution was hardly butterflies and rainbows, but the tone for voters heading into the midterm elections borrowed heavily from Ronald Reagan, whose bright outlook won over Americans during a bleak time.

When he announced his candidacy from a in New York, Reagan said he knew “the nation hungers for a spiritual revival” and for “honor placed above political expediency.”

On the day after elections, when Republicans added 52 House seats, defeated two Democratic senators and four governors, Haley Barbour, then the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, “Republicans could simply have run against Clinton, but we offered people something to vote for.”

Barbour added later, “This is the party of the open door.”

If that was the party of the open door, the GOP right now seems to be slamming doors, even on people who want to be a part of it.

In the latest poll from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gov. Brian Kemp is sitting at a 44% approval rating, not because of a steady lack of support from Democrats, but from a fall-off among his own Republican voters.

A lifelong Republican and conservative by any measure, months of relentless attacks from former President Trump have left Kemp wounded and making up ground with Trump loyalists, enraged by his failure to stand up for the former president after the 2020 elections.

The same thing is happening at the county level, where a dozen local parties have spoken out to censure the governor and secretary of state, while others have been embroiled in leadership challenges, not by Trump-friendly factions, but by Trump-only factions.

While the 1994 Republicans saw people like Sen. Richard Shelby from Alabama join the party, look for more and more familiar faces in the Georgia GOP to take a pause from Republicans, or from politics altogether.

“I just don’t think there’s a place for me anymore,” one longtime party leader told me this week.

But even those who do want to be a part of leading the party forward know they are in trouble if they have failed to support Trump’s attempt to overturn Biden’s win.

McCarthy has made it known he’s ready to replace Rep. Liz Cheney in the GOP leadership after her vote to impeach Trump enraged the former president and the grassroots voters who support him.

I asked McCarthy this week if there is still a place in the party for people who support Republican policies but did not support Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election that Biden won — like Kemp and Cheney.

Without offering support for either fellow Republican, McCarthy smiled and said, “This is a big tent. All are welcome.”

Of all of the people who spoke at the Marietta Diner, just one, the owner Gus Tselios, talked about how to solve problems, not inflame them.

“In life, you know we can’t all agree on everything. Life would be boring if we all agreed,” he said. “The best way to figure out or reconcile differences is sit down and come up with a better solution. That’s my opinion.”

That’s my opinion, too, Gus. Engagement over enragement every time.