Duncan had signaled for months that he wouldn’t seek reelection, and his top aide, John Porter, said in April that his boss was unlikely to run. Still, top Republicans refrained from jumping into the race until Duncan announced his plan publicly.
The lieutenant governor would have faced a difficult campaign for a second term after his repeated criticism of Trump, which includes social media posts and appearances on cable shows panning the party’s leader for lying about widespread election fraud in Georgia.
In the interview, Duncan said the phony conspiracy theories asserting a “rigged” election have dealt lasting damage to his party that led to Democratic sweeps in the January U.S. Senate runoffs that flipped control of the chamber.
But he said he was “convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that by the time we get into the 2024 election cycle, a majority of Republicans” will buy into his vision.
“Any narrative from a Republican that the election was stolen, that it was a rigged election, is wasted energy. And it only continues to make the pathway to winning for Democrats even easier,” he said.
“It may be only a bold few to start with who join me,” Duncan said, “but I believe an overwhelming majority will eventually get there and get this party back on track.”
‘Solutions in search of problem’
Duncan’s approach to Trump stands out in the Georgia GOP. While most state Republican officials either cozy up to Trump or try to avoid his wrath, Duncan set himself on a collision course with the former president and top members of his own party by disputing the falsehoods spread about the 2020 election.
Since Trump’s November election defeat, Duncan has repeatedly urged fellow Republicans to move past the former president. He’s called proposed rollbacks to voting rights “solutions in search of a problem,” and he refused to preside over a Senate vote on election restrictions.
He’s also aggressively promoted a big-tent brand of Republican politics.
“Donald Trump validated that an outsider, business-minded change agent can be effective in D.C.,” he said. “But in order to win, we’ve got to be focused on policies that make sense to a majority of Americans, we’ve got to be more empathetic, and we’ve got to do it with a better tone,” he said. “And that’s going to be a cornerstone of GOP 2.0.”
The message has landed with a thud among fellow Republicans who say it ignores Trump’s enduring influence on the state GOP. Grassroots activists have responded by adopting resolutions at official Republican gatherings to “censure” Duncan or call on him to resign.
Chip Lake, a former top aide to Duncan, said the lieutenant governor is only trying to distract from the fact that he wouldn’t win another term in office.
“I think he was an accident, and this is what happens when accidents happen in politics,” said Lake, who had a public falling out with Duncan. “They become one and done.”
Georgia Democrats said his announcement amounted to a confirmation that “there is no room for common sense or basic truth” in today’s GOP.
“Donald Trump and the far right have completely taken over the Republican Party with extreme rhetoric, racist voter suppression policies and a barrage of blatant lies about our presidential election,” said Scott Hogan, the party’s executive director.
Duncan, who left open the possibility he might run for office again as soon as 2024, said a “silent majority” of Republicans are ready for change, sooner or later.
“Hopefully we can get there by 2022, but ultimately I believe an overwhelming majority of Americans are going to vote for the adult in the room,” he said. “We’re going to continue to see what failed policies look like, and they’ll gravitate toward the adult that’s willing to tell them honest answers.”
He cast himself as one of the leading Republican national figures who can help debunk the lies about election fraud and “reclaim this party’s ability to lead.”
“This is the most lopsided conversation in the history of the United States, in my opinion. There is not one shred of evidence that shows there was a rigged election. Not one shred of evidence,” he said. “Yet there were mountains full of evidence that proved there was a legal, fair election.”
A former professional baseball player, Duncan was a three-term member of the Georgia House from Forsyth County when he announced a 2018 run for the seat left open when then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle ran for governor. Duncan narrowly defeated David Shafer in a GOP runoff, then bested Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico in November.
He quickly positioned himself as an ally to Gov. Brian Kemp and was one of the first high-profile officials to endorse U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler. Before he became a vocal critic of Trump, he was seen as a potential contender for the U.S. Senate or other higher office.
Duncan told the AJC that he’s certain he would have won a second term, and his aides pointed to internal polling that showed him in a solid position. But even before Duncan made his plans clear, Republicans were openly jockeying for his job.
Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller filed paperwork to run for the seat shortly after Duncan announced his decision, and a formal announcement could come in the next week or so. Other potential contenders include state Sens. Steve Gooch and Burt Jones. GOP activist Jeanne Seaver is also running.
Two Democratic legislators are already in the race, promising a fresh approach to the office: State Rep. Erick Allen announced his campaign in March, and state Rep. Derrick Jackson entered the contest in April.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Duncan is only one of several top GOP officials under pressure from pro-Trump forces. The former president endorsed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice’s bid to unseat Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who defied Trump’s call to “find” enough votes to overturn election results in Georgia.
With a special legislative session for redistricting and another 40-day legislative session looming, Duncan is taking a risk announcing his plans this early. But the lieutenant governor said he’s convinced he won’t be sidelined by ambitious Republican lawmakers who could cut him out of the legislative process.
Duncan is headlining a fundraiser next month with four powerful Republican incumbents for Advance Georgia, the PAC he launched to promote Senate GOP candidates. And he expressed confidence that Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republican leaders will work with him to navigate thorny political issues through next year’s election.
“I’ve never been accused by a baseball coach of not running through first base hard,” he said, “and we’ll be running as hard as we possibly can the next 19 months and tackle the job that millions of Georgians sent us here to do.”
Excerpts from Duncan’s interview with the AJC
On whether he’s worried about being a lame duck:
“We’ll continue to have folks gravitate toward us. There’s no doubt the next 19 months are going to continue to present challenges and opportunities. We have a special session we’re already working hard to prepare for, and we’re starting to build out a very aggressive 2022 legislative agenda that will continue to focus on gaining ground on health care, foster care, post-pandemic economic planning and education.”
On running for office again in the future:
“Certainly that’s a possibility. I’m not leaving this role because I don’t enjoy it. I see an opportunity for my family and I to use my skills to help heal and rebuild the Republican Party. I’ll continue to stay in politics, I’ll just use a majority of my political energy to help heal and rebuild.”
On how he wants to reframe the future of the GOP:
“We’ve kicked off an organization called GOP 2.0, which is a national effort to heal and rebuild the Republican Party nationally. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Republican that wouldn’t admit the Republican Party is broken now.
“There’s two choices — the crowd that’s trying to ignore it and the crowd that’s trying to fix it — and I would consider myself front and center in the crowd that’s trying to fix it. And for me, it’s about trying to build a movement that allows us to remind millions of Americans of the conservative policies that got us here. Why Republicans are best to be in charge of the economy, of public safety of national security. These are cornerstone issues that, unfortunately in the previous election cycle, if we had done that on a national level, we would have a Republican in the White House and a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.
“There’s millions of Americans that would have probably voted for a Republican on the top of the ticket if a better tone had been used — if we had a tone that encouraged them rather than a condescending tone.”
On his view of former President Donald Trump:
“If you look at this through the lens of a business owner, you’d look at the product of Donald Trump and say, look he got out of the gates really quickly. We did some really, really good things. But unfortunately, we lost some market share. We’ve got to make some adjustments.
“For me, Donald Trump validated that an outsider, business-minded change agent can be effective in D.C. But in order to win, we’ve got to be focused on policies that make sense to a majority of Americans, we’ve got to be more empathetic and we’ve got to do it with a better tone. And that’s going to be a cornerstone of GOP 2.0.”
On the future of the Republican Party:
“We’ve got work to do. ... I want to be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem. It’s a herculean task thinking about trying to grow a grassroots organization from napkin to national story. But I’ve done this before ...
“I’m convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that by the time we get into the 2024 election cycle, a majority of Republicans will buy into a GOP 2.0 mindset. Some will get there because they just believe from A to Z that GOP 2.0 is the right way forward, some will partially agree and others will just get tired of losing.”