Grassroots fury at Kemp bubbles up in county GOP meetings around Georgia

The grassroots anger at Gov. Brian Kemp and other top state officials who refused to overturn former President Donald Trump’s election defeat bubbled up on Saturday at several county GOP meetings across the state as activists gathered to censure or rebuke the GOP leaders for their stances.

Republican delegates in more than a half-dozen counties passed resolutions over the past week assailing Kemp for not doing more to help Trump’s false claims of voting fraud. And several more also punished Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who have also drawn Trump’s wrath.

The governor’s forceful defense of a new election rewrite that includes new restrictions to voting pushed by pro-Trump forces has put him on more solid footing with his party’s base, but the fallout of the weekend showed he’s still not in the clear.

Though he has so far escaped a top-tier Republican primary opponent, former Democrat Vernon Jones launched a challenge against him on Friday, vowing to win over anti-Kemp conservatives despite only switching to the GOP earlier this year.

And while most local GOP groups refused to rebuke Kemp, the mostly rural counties that did offered evidence that the governor must still shore up his base in an expected rematch against Democrat Stacey Abrams, the nationally known voting rights advocate and former House leader who narrowly lost to him in 2018.

Even a fraction of Republicans who remain skeptical of Kemp could pose problems to Kemp in November 2022, much like a sharp turnout drop in conservative rural areas hampered U.S. Senate incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in the January runoff defeats to Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

“Many of the Trump supporters that did not return and vote in the January runoff will not return to vote for Kemp in 2022,” said Brian Pritchard, a North Georgia GOP activist and commentator. “The only way to get a Trump supporter to vote for Kemp is to get Trump to endorse Kemp. And we don’t see that happening.”

While efforts to punish Kemp went nowhere in many counties and were blocked by the governor’s allies in others, delegates in a range of counties voted to rebuke him. They include censure votes in Appling, Chattooga, DeKalb, Jasper, Lowndes, Lumpkin, Pierce and Pickens counties. They join two others – Murray and Whitfield – that punished him last week.

110320 Atlanta: Kirsten Davies, right, and Marci McCarthy react while watching returns for Georgia coming in at the Georgia Republican Party Election Night Celebration in the Intercontinental Buckhead Atlanta hotel on Tuesday, Nov 3, 2020 in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
110320 Atlanta: Kirsten Davies, right, and Marci McCarthy react while watching returns for Georgia coming in at the Georgia Republican Party Election Night Celebration in the Intercontinental Buckhead Atlanta hotel on Tuesday, Nov 3, 2020 in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“When people censure politicians, they are holding them accountable in a public forum,” said newly elected DeKalb GOP chair Marci McCarthy, who described the vote as a part of mounting backlash against the establishment.

“I encourage all those that are not pleased with their elected representatives to vote in the Republican primary, vet your candidates and get involved.”

‘Unified’?

Still, Kemp avoided what could have been sharper fallout. In Fannin County, delegates voted overwhelmingly to censure the governor though it wasn’t formally approved because there was no longer a quorum.

Hall County activists dinged Duncan and Raffensperger – who are vilified by many in the base for more forcefully opposing Trump’s lies about a “rigged” election – but sidestepped a rebuke of Kemp.

Ellis Davis, a Camden County activist, said local Republicans rallied around Kemp and attacked Jones as someone who is not a “legitimate” candidate for the GOP nod.

“Certain individuals that have ulterior motives introduced anti-Kemp resolutions and they were promptly voted down,” said Davis. “His leadership and care is evident in all that he does and the fact that all anti-Kemp resolutions were voted down is proof of that.”

State Sen. Jason Anavitarte. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com
State Sen. Jason Anavitarte. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

And state Sen. Jason Anavitarte reported a sense of bonhomie in Paulding County around GOP efforts to overhaul the voting system and another resolution that applauded Kemp’s aggressive approach to reopening the economy during the pandemic.

“Everyone was energized and participated in the party process,” said Anavitarte, elected in 2020. “Overall, everyone was unified to win in 2022.”

Kemp’s campaign said it was “grateful” for the support from the county GOP organizations that didn’t punish him.

“We look forward to hitting the campaign trail in the coming months to highlight his successful record of economic growth, keeping Georgia open, standing up for election integrity and putting hardworking Georgians first,” said Kemp campaign spokesman Tate Mitchell.

Cheers and jeers

Several grassroots activists reported sky-high turnout for local meetings, outpacing the soaring involvement during the rise of the tea party movement in the late 2000s. Georgia GOP chair David Shafer said the “record high levels” were a sign of enthusiasm for conservative ideals and backlash to the “woke cancel culture mob.”

Many of the meetings also featured endorsements of false charges of widespread voting fraud that Trump and his allies pushed. State Rep. Jesse Petrea was interrupted in Chatham County’s GOP meeting when he asked rhetorically about why Republicans lost the Senate runoffs.

“Cheating!” the crowd cried. When he answered himself, saying it was because Republicans “didn’t show up and vote,” boos echoed in the room.

And in Fulton County, GOP attorney Brad Carver promoted false claims about fraudulent and dead voters on the rolls in the most populous county in Georgia.

The DeKalb GOP, too, had a particularly sharp reaction. Once led by more mainstream Republicans, the county apparatus has shifted further to the right with the election Saturday of McCarthy, whose platform involved promises to more stridently support the former president.

ExploreRead the DeKalb resolutions

The county party not only rebuked Kemp and other GOP officials, it also censured Baoky Vu, a longtime Republican activist and vice-chair of the DeKalb elections board with a history of opposing Trump.

GOP activist Baoky Vu of Decatur. AIn this July photo, the Olympic rings and torch from the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta stand near the formerly named Centennial Olympic Stadium, now Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team in Atlanta. AP/David GoldmanJC file
GOP activist Baoky Vu of Decatur. AIn this July photo, the Olympic rings and torch from the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta stand near the formerly named Centennial Olympic Stadium, now Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team in Atlanta. AP/David GoldmanJC file

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

In 2016, Vu made national headlines when he resigned his position as a GOP elector rather than cast his ballot for Trump, and more recently spoke out against the new election restrictions that Kemp signed into law.

In a statement before the vote, Vu warned that the state GOP risked losing support because independents and some Republicans refuse “to entertain the pathetic claims of widespread fraud and dangerous conspiracy theories propagated by their tax-cheating, draft-dodging RINO Presidential candidate after he lost this past November.”

Longtime Republicans elsewhere said they were concerned about being dragged deeper into an ongoing GOP civil war coming off Democratic victories in November and January. In Gwinnett, three resolutions censuring Duncan, Kemp and Raffensperger failed to pass, to the delight of Kemp allies.

“Resolutions condemning Republican elected officials distract us from what we need to be doing,” said former state Rep. Buzz Brockway, “which is offering Georgians an optimistic agenda of opportunity for all.”

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