In Ga. GOP, Duncan fight with Trump spurs loud questions, quiet praise

Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan's fight with former President Donald Trump has only intensified since the party lost Georgia's U.S. Senate runoffs in January. Some Republicans wonder why he's taking on the most powerful influence on the state party, while others say Duncan is doing what needs to be done to woo more voters in the future to the GOP. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan's fight with former President Donald Trump has only intensified since the party lost Georgia's U.S. Senate runoffs in January. Some Republicans wonder why he's taking on the most powerful influence on the state party, while others say Duncan is doing what needs to be done to woo more voters in the future to the GOP. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Most elected Georgia Republicans are either cozying up to Donald Trump or trying to avoid his wrath. Not Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who has set himself on a head-on collision course with the former president that’s raising questions about his own political future.

Like Gov. Brian Kemp, Duncan drew Trump’s scorn for rebuking his false claims of election fraud. Unlike the governor, though, since the U.S. Senate runoffs in January, Duncan has only intensified his split with the most powerful influence on the state GOP.

In cable TV interviews, Georgia’s No. 2 Republican has repeatedly urged partisans to leave Trump in the rearview mirror and promoted his view of a “GOP 2.0” that emphasizes a big-tent approach to win back moderates.

He’s berated Republican legislators for embracing Trump’s call for new election restrictions, calling efforts to severely limit who can vote by mail and other proposed rollbacks “solutions in search of a problem.”

He refused to preside over the vote last week on a Senate overhaul of voting rules, choosing instead to watch the debate from an office in his second-floor suite in protest of rank-and-file Republicans who narrowly muscled the legislation through the chamber.

And even as he’s ruled out a U.S. Senate run, Duncan has taken steps to set up an independent group — known as GOP 2.0 — that recently launched a website claiming a “better way forward.”

Duncan’s strategy now amounts to a Rorschach test for Georgia Republicans: Did he take a courageous stand against a polarizing party figure to drag his party forward in a post-Trump era? Or is he just begging for GOP backlash in 2022 if he chooses to run again?

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, right, stands with Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, left, and Attorney General Chris Carr as they greet President Donald Trump after he arrived at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in November  2019. Since then, Duncan has forcefully rebuked Trump's claims of a rigged election and urged fellow Republicans to veer away from the former president and adopt a "big-tent" approach to win back moderates. Curtis Compton/

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Even those who know Duncan best are split on his future. Some see him preparing for reelection in 2022, when he’s set to face opposition from pro-Trump challengers. Others say he’s telegraphing a coming decision to sit out the contest and instead influence the GOP’s direction from out of office.

“Whether you like him or not, the former president is the most popular figure in the Republican Party. And I’m not sure what he’s thinking by continuing to go after him,” said state Sen. Burt Jones, a Jackson Republican who was stripped of a chairmanship by Duncan in January.

“I’ve never seen the morale of the caucus at a lower point. More and more people are questioning what he’s doing,” Jones added. “The caucus is saying one thing, and he’s going on AJC or CNN and saying the opposite. The optics just aren’t good.”

Duncan, who narrowly won office in 2018, said he won’t outline his next step until the legislative session ends later this month. But he said he believes his party “is in need of voices that can cut through the noise” and misinformation propagated by Trump and his allies.

“I’m primarily worried about the future of our party and the false narrative that Republicans lost the White House because of widespread election fraud,” he said.

“I’m willing to push back because I care about this party and what we have to offer,” he said. “And I’ll keep working for this state and all its citizens until this work is finished.”

On a Sunday appearance on “Meet the Press,” the first-term Republican drew an even sharper line.

Republicans don’t need election reform to win, we need leadership,” he said. “I think there’s millions of Republicans waking up around the country that are realizing that Donald Trump’s divisive tone and strategy is unwinnable in forward-looking elections.”

‘A martyr?’

A former professional baseball player, Duncan was a three-term Georgia House member from Forsyth County when he announced a run for the seat vacated by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

He was an underdog from the start against then-state Sen. David Shafer, who came within a whisker of winning the GOP nomination outright in 2018. But Duncan narrowly defeated Shafer in the runoff, thanks in part to a wave of outside spending framing Shafer as a sleazy insider.

One of the chief architects of the upset victory is Chip Lake, who quit his job as Duncan’s top aide in a huff in late 2019. Lake is now one of Duncan’s harshest critics, and he describes his former boss as an “accidental lieutenant governor” who wasn’t forced to evolve politically on the campaign trail.

“He didn’t go through the political birth canal and didn’t learn to breathe on his own,” Lake said. “Now he wants to be a martyr. He’s making himself a victim in order to sell the GOP 2.0 concept.”

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, center, appears at a press conference with Gov. Brian Kemp, right, and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston. Duncan's future in the state GOP is a point of division among Republicans because of his conflicts with former President Donald Trump, still the most powerful influence on the party despite his November election loss. Curtis Compton /”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Still, other Republicans praise Duncan for saying publicly what many top GOP officials will only utter confidentially: that Trump’s relentless focus on reversing his defeat in November and lies about a “rigged” election helped squander the party’s chances of winning the January U.S. Senate runoffs.

“Duncan’s taking the heat, but we have a decision as Republicans: Do we want leaders who will do what’s best for Georgia, or do we want leaders who will do what’s best for the base?” said Martha Zoller, a conservative commentator.

“It took a lot of guts to take this step. The Republican Party in Georgia is still a Jenga game — and our foundation is still rocking,” she said. “He’s trying to help us steady it.”

Before the November election and its tumultuous aftermath, Duncan seemed on far firmer footing.

He helped push a landmark hate-crimes package through a divided state Senate last year and avoided serious discussion of getting stripped of his powers, a perennial concern since he took office. His political action committee, Advance Georgia, raised about $1.7 million to promote GOP Senate allies.

Now, though, Republican senators are openly jockeying for position should he decide against a reelection bid — or to challenge him if he runs again. Among the possible contenders are Jones and Shafer, who is now the state GOP chair.

“I don’t know what he’s thinking. Why isn’t he putting as much effort fighting the Democrats as he is his own party?” said state Sen. Matt Brass, a Newnan Republican and Duncan critic. “It’s like he has a personal vendetta against Trump — and none of it makes sense to me.”

Duncan won’t get a free pass from Democrats, either, who are eager to remind voters that despite his vision of a post-Trump GOP, the lieutenant governor once eagerly supported the former president.

“Duncan has gone from riding in President Trump’s limo and supporting the big lie to openly criticizing elections legislation on CNN,” said Democratic state Rep. Erick Allen, a potential candidate for lieutenant governor next year.

“He said on ‘Meet the Press’ that Republicans need leadership,” Allen said. “But leadership is not hiding in your office during debate on horrible elections bills.”