Georgia GOP chair’s impartiality questioned after Republican primary

More than a dozen senior GOP officials, each speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they lack confidence in state Republican Chairman David Shafer’s leadership and that they worry he could damage the party's attempts to unify ahead of a challenging November election. Shafer has expressed confidence that he will help unite the party. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

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More than a dozen senior GOP officials, each speaking anonymously for fear of retribution, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they lack confidence in state Republican Chairman David Shafer’s leadership and that they worry he could damage the party's attempts to unify ahead of a challenging November election. Shafer has expressed confidence that he will help unite the party. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

In the halls of the Omni Hotel at the Battery, a Georgia GOP operative was searching for the state party’s annual Christmas fundraiser when he stumbled upon a closed-door meeting with David Perdue and several of his campaign staffers shortly after he entered the race against Gov. Brian Kemp.

Also huddled with Perdue in the small room was a man the aide was surprised to see: Party Chair David Shafer, who is barred by state GOP bylaws from using his title to take sides in primary fights. The operative was hustled from the room, but word of the encounter quickly spread among party leaders.

Attendees said it was a few minutes of small talk afforded to any dignitary at a state GOP function. But the episode called attention to Shafer’s cozy relationships with candidates backed by Donald Trump, most of whom were resoundingly rejected by Republican voters in the May 24 primaries.

Those relationships, as well as his public attacks against fellow Republicans, have put Shafer on the wrong side of many of the people who rely on the state party he leads to marshal millions of dollars and coordinate grassroots organizing efforts ahead of the November election.

Interviews with more than a dozen senior GOP officials, each who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution, revealed a lack of confidence in Shafer’s leadership and worries that he could damage Republican attempts to unify ahead of a challenging November election.

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The close relationship between Donald Trump, shown dancing at a March rally in Commerce, and state GOP Chairman David Shafer has put the party boss at odds with Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republican leaders who top the former president's revenge list following his loss in Georgia in 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The close relationship between Donald Trump, shown dancing at a March rally in Commerce, and state GOP Chairman David Shafer has put the party boss at odds with Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republican leaders who top the former president's revenge list following his loss in Georgia in 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
The close relationship between Donald Trump, shown dancing at a March rally in Commerce, and state GOP Chairman David Shafer has put the party boss at odds with Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republican leaders who top the former president's revenge list following his loss in Georgia in 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Some pointed to Shafer’s repeated broadsides against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican who repelled a Trump-backed challenge. Others say he has alienated Kemp and other state Republican leaders with his allegiance to Trump, who put the governor and his allies at the top of his revenge list following his 2020 defeat in Georgia.

Shafer made no attempt to appear neutral in September when he spoke at a Trump rally in Perry that the former president used to bash Kemp and other GOP incumbents. Even Shafer’s allies acknowledge he has played favorites.

“Everybody knows who he was supporting, but he was prohibited by the rules from taking a greater role in it,” said Debbie Dooley, an activist close to Shafer. “He was personally backing the pro-Trump candidates. People know he privately supported them, but he couldn’t publicly support them.”

Shafer’s strained ties with Kemp and other leaders — several who say they plan to steer clear of the state party — raise questions about the role the Georgia GOP will play in a general election with races for governor and the U.S. Senate that are expected to attract record midterm spending.

While the state Democratic Party recently launched a coordinated campaign to marshal tens of millions of dollars, Georgia Republicans have not issued similar plans.

And some top GOP officials are privately discussing efforts to oust Shafer or route money through an alternate organization — even if it means giving up financial advantages afforded to state parties.

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Gov. Brian Kemp and other leading Republicans, in a sign of unease with state GOP Chairman David Shafer’s leadership, recently skipped the state party's annual spring gala to instead attend a law enforcement appreciation cookout in southeast Georgia. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Gov. Brian Kemp and other leading Republicans, in a sign of unease with state GOP Chairman David Shafer’s leadership, recently skipped the state party's annual spring gala to instead attend a law enforcement appreciation cookout in southeast Georgia. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Gov. Brian Kemp and other leading Republicans, in a sign of unease with state GOP Chairman David Shafer’s leadership, recently skipped the state party's annual spring gala to instead attend a law enforcement appreciation cookout in southeast Georgia. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Shafer’s allies say the criticism will only hinder Republicans in November. B.J. Van Gundy, the state GOP’s first vice-chair, said the state party is “ready to go forward in full support of our candidates.”

“David was reelected almost unanimously less than a year ago and is strongly supported by the grassroots,” said Van Gundy, who has been involved in state party leadership for more than a decade. “It is time to get past the primary battles and move forward.”

In a sign of unease with Shafer’s leadership, Kemp and other party officials recently skipped the Georgia GOP’s annual spring gala to instead attend a law enforcement appreciation cookout in southeast Georgia.

Jay Morgan, a former Georgia GOP executive director, said the rift is beyond repair.

“I cannot imagine craving the attention of a former president so much that you would betray your own governor,” said Morgan, now a lobbyist. “I have routinely advised clients not to donate to the GOP ever since he became chair. I knew it would end badly — but not this badly.”

From boos to blowout

The internal turmoil comes as Shafer is also facing mounting legal pressure tied to his effort to recruit an unsanctioned, alternate slate of GOP “electors” after Trump’s defeat in Georgia.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis recently confirmed that she’s probing the December 2020 ceremony at the state Capitol engineered by Shafer to cast Electoral College votes for Trump despite his loss in Georgia.

And the Justice Department is investigating Shafer and others who took part in the alternate elector scheme, according to interviews with several state Republicans who told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they have received subpoenas.

Shafer has denied wrongdoing, saying the alternate slate was arranged in case pro-Trump lawsuits to reverse his election defeat were successful. Each was rejected by courts, and bipartisan officials have repeatedly debunked Trump’s baseless claims of systemic fraud in the election.

The state party’s future is under the microscope at a time when the activist base of the Georgia GOP appears more disconnected than ever from rank-and-file Republican voters.

The governor was once regularly booed at local and state GOP gatherings, including the party’s 2021 convention on Jekyll Island, by partisans who fed off Trump’s attempts to blame Kemp and Raffensperger for his loss.

And state party officials trumpeted the results of a May 17 straw poll of more than 3,400 Georgia GOP delegates and alternates that showed Kemp, Raffensperger, Attorney General Chris Carr and Insurance Commissioner John King all lagging behind challengers endorsed by Trump. Each of the incumbents won the May 24 primaries by wide margins.

In a statement, party Executive Director Brandon Moye said Shafer has “promoted neutrality to all staff” and was adamant that the party’s resources were made available to all candidates.

“As we have continuously stated,” Moye said, “Chairman Shafer and the Georgia Republican Party remain committed to supporting all of our Republican nominees.”

‘A stickler’

Unlike many pro-Trump figures, Shafer is no newcomer to party politics. Once a powerful state senator, Shafer lost a bruising 2018 runoff for lieutenant governor to Geoff Duncan before setting his sights on leading the machinery of the state party.

He defeated a Duncan-backed opponent in the 2019 race for GOP chair, promising to revitalize the party’s grassroots and “go back on the offensive” in 2020.

They wound up going into retreat instead. Georgia voted Democratic for president for the first time in 28 years, and Democrats swept the U.S. Senate runoffs to take control of the chamber.

Shafer made the Georgia GOP the chief staging ground for the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election based on lies about widespread voting fraud, a conspiracy theory he continues to promote.

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Scrutiny of state GOP Chairman David Shafer heightened after it became known he had met with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue shortly after he launched his challenge to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp in the Republican primary. Perdue ran at the urging of Donald Trump, and Shafer's ties to candidates supported by the former president have strained his relationships with Kemp and other GOP incumbents. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Scrutiny of state GOP Chairman David Shafer heightened after it became known he had met with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue shortly after he launched his challenge to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp in the Republican primary. Perdue ran at the urging of Donald Trump, and Shafer's ties to candidates supported by the former president have strained his relationships with Kemp and other GOP incumbents. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Combined ShapeCaption
Scrutiny of state GOP Chairman David Shafer heightened after it became known he had met with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue shortly after he launched his challenge to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp in the Republican primary. Perdue ran at the urging of Donald Trump, and Shafer's ties to candidates supported by the former president have strained his relationships with Kemp and other GOP incumbents. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

An “after action report” distributed by the Georgia GOP at district meetings across the state gave scant mention to the party’s stumbles in 2020, instead heaping blame on Raffensperger for the losses.

With Trump’s glowing endorsement, Shafer easily won another two-year term as party chair in 2021. And Trump began publicly encouraging candidates to challenge Kemp, Raffensperger and others he claimed didn’t do enough to help him reverse his defeat in Georgia.

The former president’s most visible recruitment effort took place at a September rally in Perry, when he showcased loyalists he endorsed in competitive GOP races and pleaded with Perdue to take on the sitting Republican governor.

Also holding court at the same rally was Shafer, who briefly joined chants of “audit” urging officials to reexamine the election results. The Georgia GOP sold VIP tickets to the rally, ruffling feathers among Kemp supporters and others stunned the state party was involved in a rally targeting Republican incumbents.

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A man carries a flag stating that "TRUMP WON" before a rally in September where former President Donald Trump promoted candidates he endorsed to challenge Republicans incumbents in Georgia. State GOP Chairman David Shafer also spoke at the rally, even though the party's bylaws require its top official to remain neutral in primary fights. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

A man carries a flag stating that "TRUMP WON" before a rally in September where former President Donald Trump promoted candidates he endorsed to challenge Republicans incumbents in Georgia. State GOP Chairman David Shafer also spoke at the rally, even though the party's bylaws require its top official to remain neutral in primary fights. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
A man carries a flag stating that "TRUMP WON" before a rally in September where former President Donald Trump promoted candidates he endorsed to challenge Republicans incumbents in Georgia. State GOP Chairman David Shafer also spoke at the rally, even though the party's bylaws require its top official to remain neutral in primary fights. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Shafer has made no apologies about attending the event, saying it was organized by Trump and not the state party. His aides said it was one of the state party’s biggest fundraisers, amassing roughly $250,000 for GOP efforts.

The runup to the primaries did little to smooth over differences. Shafer publicly cast doubt on decisions made by Raffensperger, who was formally censured by the state GOP. Other contenders maneuvered around Shafer. At Kemp’s primary election party, he was the subject of much ridicule backstage.

“The job of the chairman is to deliver wins for Republican nominees,” one senior GOP official said. “And many of the current nominees believe he can’t do it because he’s been actively working against them.”

Since the May 24 vote, Shafer has expressed confidence he will help unite the GOP and has posted a string of social media messages urging Republicans to coalesce against Democrats Stacey Abrams and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

Dooley, his ally, downplayed Shafer’s influence in the GOP primaries. Any role he could have played privately wouldn’t have mattered in statewide races, she said, given the blowout victories of Trump’s Georgia foes.

“He’s a stickler for the rules. I can tell you that about him,” Dooley said. “If he was public about it, it wouldn’t have made a difference in the outcome anyways.”