Candidates to helm state GOP offer different plans to rebuild party

Former President Donald Trump addresses, virtually, the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

Former President Donald Trump addresses, virtually, the Georgia GOP convention at Jekyll Island on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta-Journal-Constitution)

In between the visits by Donald Trump and other White House candidates and debates over the future of Republican politics, the Georgia GOP’s delegates will decide a three-way race for the next leader of the state party.

All three hopefuls promise to turn the page from Chair David Shafer, the embattled party leader who could face criminal charges for his part in orchestrating a pro-Trump fake elector slate. Shafer said he’s done nothing wrong.

Each contender has different visions of rebuilding a state party that’s battling irrelevancy. Gov. Brian Kemp and other mainstream GOP leaders have steered clear of the state GOP as its members move toward the party’s ultraconservative fringes.

And many of the convention’s speakers have echoed Trump’s election fraud lies at a time when Republican elected officials plead with the party to focus on issues such as the economy and public safety that will dominate the 2024 election.

Former state Sen. Josh McKoon pledges to be a “relentlessly positive” unifying force in the state party who can refocus the party on those kitchen-table issues.

Rebecca Yardley, who chairs the 9th GOP District, has developed an ambitious 100-day plan to boost fundraising, reshape the party’s image and increase training.

And Dennis Futch, a South Georgia activist, wants to boost GOP turnout in 53 counties in part by giving “true Republican candidates” blank checks from the party to spend on their campaigns how they want.

If there’s a front-runner, it’s likely McKoon. He’s endorsed by Shafer, who is still popular with some delegates, and he’s worked furiously to lock up support across the state with an aggressive outreach campaign.

But internal GOP elections can be hard to predict, and some party watchers say the contest could go to a second round of voting that pits McKoon against Yardley, who also has a devoted base of support.

Here’s a closer look at McKoon and Yardley:

Former state Sen. Josh McKoon says the state GOP needs to focus on kitchen-table issues, such as the economy and public safety. BOB ANDRES/BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Josh McKoon

As a state senator from Columbus, McKoon was perhaps best known at the Capitol for two reasons.

He was a champion of the controversial “religious liberty” legislation beloved by many grassroots conservatives and hated by establishment-minded officials.

And he was a proponent of more stringent ethics legislation that aimed to bring more transparency to how politicking works under the Gold Dome.

He paid a price for his outspoken stances. A majority of his Republican colleagues in the Senate banded together in 2016 to oust him from his chairmanship of a key committee.

But a year later, many of the same Republicans endorsed his quest to oversee state elections. He wound up finishing in third place, about 70,000 votes shy of the eventual victor, Brad Raffensperger.

A close ally of Shafer, McKoon nonetheless advocates a pointedly different approach that shifts the focus from Trump’s 2020 defeat.

“It’s all about bringing everyone to the table, and I’m able to do that,” McKoon said. “I have excellent credentials with state leaders and grassroots activists, and I’m best positioned to bridge the gap and focus on 2024.”

His platform includes a new program for “intense grassroots training” for field operatives, more aggressive outreach to activists and voters, and a revamped fundraising team.

After watching Democrats capitalize on mail-in voting, McKoon also wants to break from a GOP tradition of focusing much of the party’s resources on Election Day turnout instead of emphasizing absentee ballots.

“We’ve got to recognize there are people who want to vote by absentee ballot and don’t have much confidence in our electronic voting machines — and we have to reach them,” he said. “We need to focus on getting them to make a plan to vote.”

To those worried about the Georgia GOP’s shift to the party’s fringes, McKoon has this advice:

“Watch what happens over the next 24 months, because what people will see is a Georgia GOP focused on kitchen-table issues,” he said. “They’ll see Republicans focused on prosecuting the case against Democrats rather than shooting at other Republicans.”

If she takes the reins of the state GOP, Rebecca Yardley plans to hold votes on key financial decisions, including moves to audit the party’s finances, raise expenses and slash costs.

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Rebecca Yardley

A veteran activist, Yardley has long served as the chair of the 9th District GOP — arguably the most reliable trove of Republican votes in the state.

An administrator with the White County School System, Yardley entered the race before Shafer announced he wouldn’t stand for another term — and immediately set out to strike a clear contrast with him.

“Our party deserves a chairman who is fully focused on taking the steps required to win Georgia elections,” she said. “Now it’s time to have our top leadership at the state match the same energy, concentration and drive shown by our local members daily.”

Yardley won the endorsements of some of North Georgia’s most prominent Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde and former Congressmen Doug Collins and Jody Hice.

She plans to hold votes on key financial decisions, including moves to audit the party’s finances, raise expenses and slash costs. And she vowed to raise about $500,000 to help fund the group’s operations.

Yardley said she’d build out the party’s staff to hire a political director, a communications expert and a county chair liaison to engage voters of color, organize more counties and develop a clearer message.

Like McKoon, she also contends the Georgia GOP has squandered chances by neglecting to focus on absentee ballots. She tells audiences about an effective mail-in ballot initiative she spearheaded during the midterms in North Georgia.

Yardley also said she can help heal fissures in the party by being a trusted voice for all factions of the GOP. She notes, for instance, her attendance at a recent meeting of the far-right Georgia Republican Assembly even though the group endorsed McKoon.

“We’ve got to build relationships across the board,” Yardley said. “It’s not just with our elected officials. It’s with our donor base. It’s with our grassroots. We’ve got to bridge the gap to unite our party so that it can move forward.”