In Georgia, Trump’s GOP skeptics are beginning to embrace him

Key Republicans who once backed other White House candidates are lining up behind former president
U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick makes a call to encourage to vote for presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a hotel lobby, Sunday, January 14, 2024, in West Des Moines, Iowa. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick makes a call to encourage to vote for presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a hotel lobby, Sunday, January 14, 2024, in West Des Moines, Iowa. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick was once the most prominent Republican official in Georgia to openly back one of Donald Trump’s GOP rivals.

The Suwanee Republican stumped for Ron DeSantis in Iowa and the Atlanta suburbs, and he said he was in wait-and-see-mode after the Florida governor quit the campaign last week.

So it was telling when McCormick fired off a statement endorsing Trump moments after he bested former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to capture the New Hampshire primary.

“I hate to say it for Nikki, but it’s a foregone conclusion,” McCormick said in an interview. “We have someone who is going to be the nominee unless something catastrophic happens.”

Even as Haley spoils for a Feb. 24 fight in South Carolina, where she won two terms as governor, a marked change is underway in Georgia Republican politics. There’s not yet a stampede to Trump. But a significant shift is underway in a party still aching from Trump-riven rifts.

Over the past two weeks, dozens of Republican state legislators have endorsed Trump. The Georgia GOP’s leaders broke with tradition by publicly backing Trump even though he still faces a major primary rival. And a growing list of county GOP organizations have declared the race over as Trump leads Haley in national and state polls.

“I don’t want to say the writing is on the wall, but I haven’t seen any persuadable argument from Gov. Haley why she should be the nominee,” said state Sen. Jason Anavitarte, one of the top Republicans in the chamber and an early backer of U.S. Sen. Tim Scott’s now-defunct White House bid.

“American soldiers are getting attacked in the Middle East. Georgians are struggling to put food on the table. And the border situation is creating serious national security concerns,” added Anavitarte, who recently endorsed Trump. “So it’s time to unite and focus on November.”

‘A process’

Gov. Brian Kemp and other mainstream Republicans long at odds with Trump have recalibrated their approach, too.

Kemp, of course, has little reason to ally himself with Trump. The former president has accused the governor of being disloyal, phony and inept. He backed David Perdue’s failed GOP challenge against Kemp. Once, Trump even said he’d rather see Democrat Stacey Abrams in Georgia’s top job than Kemp.

After assiduously avoiding a brawl with Trump during his reelection campaign, Kemp fired back throughout 2023. He mocked Trump for praising North Koreas despotic leader, skipped the former president’s visit to Georgia and called him the “loser” of the first GOP debate when he refused to participate.

But the second-term governor is now careful not to criticize the former president. Asked this week on Fox News for his take on Trump’s back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Kemp struck a diplomatic tone.

Gov. Brian Kemp, center, has recently been careful not to criticize the former President Donald Trump despite a feud that stretches back to the 2020 election. Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, right, is a strong Trump supporter and has lobbied other Georgia officials to back the former president's bid for the GOP nomination. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

“Two strong wins. No doubt about it early on. But still a long way to go,” said Kemp, who has said he’ll back Trump if he’s the nominee. “I don’t think it’s for the party leadership or anybody else to decide who the nominee is going to be. There’s a process to that.”

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, who also trounced a Trump-backed challenger in 2022, has also refrained from publicly criticizing the former president. Earlier this month, he joined a legal effort to block Colorado from disqualifying Trump from the ballot.

‘Turn our focus’

The fissures in the party sparked by Trump won’t be easy to heal.

He was the first Republican nominee to lose Georgia since 1992, and his efforts to overturn his defeat led to an indictment against him and 18 others in Fulton County. He warred with Kemp and other incumbents during the midterm, and his hand-picked candidate for the U.S. Senate was the only statewide Republican to lose during Georgia’s midterm election.

But Trump’s growing list of endorsements is expanding, thanks to both a perceived sense of inevitability and also an intense lobbying campaign. State Sen. Brandon Beach, an early Trump supporter, credits Lt. Gov. Burt Jones with wooing a surge of recent endorsements.

State Sen. Bo Hatchett, a floor leader for Gov. Brian Kemp, is throwing his support behind former President Donald Trump's bid this year to capture the GOP's presidential nomination. Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

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Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

The latest tranche of supporters announced Tuesday include two key Kemp allies: state Rep. Tim Fleming, the governor’s former top aide, and state Sen. Bo Hatchett, one of his Senate floor leaders.

“What we have in Washington isn’t working. And our policies in Georgia are working,” said Hatchett, a Cornelia attorney. “We just have to unite moving forward instead of fighting with each other.”

Haley, a decided underdog even in her home state, has tried to portray the institutional support for her rival as a selling point for her campaign.

“He’s surrounding himself with the political establishment,” she said at a weekend rally outside of Greenville, South Carolina. “It’s the same political establishment that’s given us absolutely nothing the last few years.”

And Trump critics have warned the rush to embrace Trump could backfire, if not during the primary then the November general election.

“If the party thinks forcing Nikki Haley out the door will create unity, it’s obvious they don’t understand what creates unity,” said Jason Shepherd, a former Cobb County GOP chair. “Unity will be created when she decides to get out and asks her supporters to support the nominee.”