Opinion: The GOP division – and unity – that Donald Trump has brought to Georgia

10/16/2020 -Macon, Georgia - Georgia Governor Brian Kemp speaks at a President Donald Trump rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Friday, October 16, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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10/16/2020 -Macon, Georgia - Georgia Governor Brian Kemp speaks at a President Donald Trump rally at Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon, Friday, October 16, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

Nothing will bring a disparate collection of state Capitol leaders together like a common threat — one that is both political and physical in nature.

Fittingly, Monday was Pearl Harbor Day, marking the 79th anniversary of the Japanese attack that unified America — and pushed it into World War II.

On that same day, Gov. Brian Kemp certified Georgia’s vote following the recount that was requested by President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, reconfirming Democrat Joe Biden’s Nov. 3 victory.

But before that, the Republican governor was in Athens, addressing newly elected lawmakers who had gathered for a training session.

To them, Kemp explained why he had rebuffed a personal request from Trump — made during a phone call over the weekend — to throw out the votes of nearly 5 million Georgia voters and put the state’s 16 Electoral College votes into the hands of a GOP-controlled state Legislature.

That would be wrong, he told them. “Simply put, this is not an option under state or federal law,” Kemp said. The governor has paid for his decision with many an angry outburst from the president of the United States. But that is not the point I’m driving at here.

Kemp was introduced at the Athens event by House Speaker David Ralston. During the past 15 months, the two have been engaged in a series of bitter feuds — over state budget cuts as well as Kemp’s choice of Kelly Loeffler as a replacement for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.

Then there was the governor’s sudden, and eventually aborted, decision this summer to call lawmakers into a special session (over an issue that had nothing to do with Trump). Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Ralston banded together and threatened to override one of Kemp’s vetoes if the governor summoned the Legislature to Atlanta.

But the climate has changed significantly. “I appreciate more than he knows his leadership and his friendship both to me and every legislator here today,” Ralston said.

Ralston is a habitually polite man. But in this instance, the House speaker was also expressing solidarity with a governor under attack.

Duncan has also been hit by Trump, after urging the president to accept his defeat for the sake of national unity. And Attorney General Chris Carr was the recipient of another Trump phone call on Tuesday, after he condemned the Texas lawsuit that attempted to tell Georgia how to conduct its business.

Carr is chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association. The message from the president: Don’t try to rally other members of your club against the Texas lawsuit.

President Trump’s refusal to accept his electoral defeat has fractured the Georgia GOP along the line that separates the state Capitol and Washington.

Residents of the Atlanta campus are on one side. Their actions have become coordinated. Staff-level conversations, once rare, have become a daily practice. The bonhomie isn’t absolute. Late Thursday, Ralston said he would push for a constitutional amendment to allow the Legislature to choose the secretary of state, who oversees elections, rather than voters. Ralston was highly critical of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s decision this spring to mail absentee ballot applications to voters for the June 9 primaries.

On the other side of this divide are Loeffler and fellow U.S. Sen. David Perdue, both of whom are locked in Jan. 5 runoffs. They were among the first to join Trump’s campaign to turn his defeat into victory. They issued a joint call for Raffensperger’s resignation.

Perdue and Loeffler also endorsed the Texas lawsuit -- dismissed late Friday -- asking the U.S. Supreme Court to nullify the presidential election in Georgia and three other states. So did several Republican members of the U.S. House from Georgia. Throughout, the loudest has been U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, whose constituents include the governor of Georgia.

“There’s no question that the buck stops with the secretary of state, but there are questions. The governor is the chief executive officer of the state as well. Why doesn’t he take action to put some pressure on the secretary of state?” Hice said on Newsmax, one of Trump’s new favorite media outlets.

There are several reasons for this split. One is political.

Between now and Jan. 5, Perdue and Loeffler are wildly dependent upon President Trump and his hold on Georgia’s GOP base. And given the gerrymandered nature of the state’s congressional districts, Republican members of the U.S. House are likewise dependent upon Trump’s good graces — especially given all the evidence that even after he exits the White House, he intends to keep a firm grip on his Republican Party.

On the other hand, the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, and even the House speaker will be dependent upon a statewide vote in 2022. More bluntly, they will need a good showing in the suburbs of Atlanta if they are to keep their offices.

And a president who won’t concede the obvious isn’t helping them.

Legalities, too, separate Georgia’s state Capitol Republicans from the ones in Washington. Elections and their aftermath are subject to a web of state laws that a governor, secretary of state and attorney general are obliged to obey. In Washington, Republicans representing Georgia are free to pretend that these laws don’t exist.

There is another factor that has led to the shedding of minor feuds in the state Capitol — one that also puts its residents at odds with Georgia Republicans participating in Trump’s game.

And that factor is the very real threat to their persons and their families.

I had not originally intended to write about this. But midway through this column, Brian Robinson called. He’s a Republican communication specialist who has been retained by the secretary of state’s office.

Robinson pointed me to a website on Parler, the right-wing social media platform that many Trump supporters are drifting to, now that Twitter, Facebook and other better-known platforms have begun monitoring content more tightly.

The website lists public officials it has deemed “enemies of the nation.” Mugs of these individuals appear in red crosshairs. Among them are Georgia’s governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and Gabriel Sterling, the election official who earlier this month warned that hot rhetoric and the constant stream of disinformation from Trump and his supporters could lead to violence.

Accompanying photos of Kemp, Duncan, Raffensperger and Sterling are their home addresses. The address listed for Kemp isn’t the well-protected Governor’s Mansion, but his home near Athens.

No one is accusing Georgia’s senators or House members of condoning violence, and Republicans in the state Capitol understand the bind that their Washington brothers and sister are in. “It’s nothing personal — strictly business,” one Capitol voice told me. The line’s from “The Godfather.”

Still, one cannot ignore the contrast.

We have two Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and their allies who are alleging that a collapse of civilization that would follow the election of their Democratic rivals, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the state Capitol understand the far more real danger posed by fringe elements in their own camp.

And that is an important difference.

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