Opinion: Two GOP runoffs and a glimpse of a Republican party after Donald Trump

July 20, 2020 Atlanta: Early voting for Georgia’s runoff elections began Monday, including at a giant polling place on the Atlanta Hawks’ home court, State Farm Arena (shown here). The runoffs will decide races left unsettled after last month’s primaries, including for the U.S. House of Representatives, Fulton County district attorney, the Georgia General Assembly and superior courts. Three weeks of in-person early voting is available across Georgia, but the biggest voting site in state history is inside State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta. The arena, equipped with 100 voting stations, is designed to ease long lines and provide a central location available to any of Fulton’s 814,000 registered voters. Eighteen other early voting sites are also available in Fulton. The arena transformed into a voting site after some voters waited for hours to cast their ballots in June because of social distancing requirements, precinct closures, poll worker shortages and difficulties operating Georgia’s new voting equipment. Election officials say they’re making changes to avoid similar problems again. They’re improving poll worker training, identifying overcrowded precincts and adding tech support staff at voting locations. After record turnout in the June 9 primary, with nearly 2.4 million voters, fewer people are expected to participate in the runoff. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
July 20, 2020 Atlanta: Early voting for Georgia’s runoff elections began Monday, including at a giant polling place on the Atlanta Hawks’ home court, State Farm Arena (shown here). The runoffs will decide races left unsettled after last month’s primaries, including for the U.S. House of Representatives, Fulton County district attorney, the Georgia General Assembly and superior courts. Three weeks of in-person early voting is available across Georgia, but the biggest voting site in state history is inside State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta. The arena, equipped with 100 voting stations, is designed to ease long lines and provide a central location available to any of Fulton’s 814,000 registered voters. Eighteen other early voting sites are also available in Fulton. The arena transformed into a voting site after some voters waited for hours to cast their ballots in June because of social distancing requirements, precinct closures, poll worker shortages and difficulties operating Georgia’s new voting equipment. Election officials say they’re making changes to avoid similar problems again. They’re improving poll worker training, identifying overcrowded precincts and adding tech support staff at voting locations. After record turnout in the June 9 primary, with nearly 2.4 million voters, fewer people are expected to participate in the runoff. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Last Friday, Jay Morgan, whose activism in the Georgia GOP stretches back more than four decades, went to his first dinner party since the pandemic struck in March.

It was a socially distant affair, of course. From afar, the host greeted Morgan on the front porch with a challenge.

“Tell me how to be a Republican right now. I’ve always been a conservative Republican,” he said. “Tell me how to be one right now.‘”

Morgan’s reply was succinct. “Pour me a drink,” he said.

Primaries are where political parties go to figure out what they believe, what they stand for. Primary runoffs, like the ones that will be decided in Georgia next week, are distilled versions of the same – as whiskey is to beer.

For Republicans, the two most consequential races on Tuesday will likely decide who represents most of north Georgia in Congress next year.

They could also offer us a glimpse of what might be President Donald Trump’s most important political legacy, whether he wins or loses on Nov. 3: A GOP in which traditional concerns — strategic international alliances, a burgeoning federal deficit, and free trade — all take a back seat to a new force.

“We’re seeing something that borders on a naked nationalism that is not very appealing — outside of a very narrow constituency,” worries Morgan, a lobbyist also who has more than two dozen political campaigns under his belt.

In the 14th District contest to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, the leading candidate is businesswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, a purveyor of QAnon conspiracies who had herself photographed brandishing an AR-15, ready to fend off an “Antifa” invasion.

Her opponent is John Cowan, a Rome neurosurgeon who argues that he’s just as conservative as Greene, but more palatable.

In the Ninth District race to replace U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, state Rep. Matt Gurtler of Tiger is considered the favorite. Like Greene, Gurtler has been known to consort with Chester Doles, a Georgia resident with long-standing ties to white supremacist groups.

Gurtler’s GOP runoff opponent is Andrew Clyde, owner of an Athens gun store whose backstory includes winning a fight with the IRS — by pushing a new law through Congress.

Both the Ninth and 14th Districts are solid GOP territory. Trump may be hurting Republicans in the suburbs of Atlanta, but Democrats are unlikely to scratch in these two mountain races.

All four runoff candidates are sworn Trump loyalists, which the climate demands. Like televangelist Pat Robertson in the 1980s, Donald Trump has brought a new set of voters into GOP ranks, and they will have their say.

What the two 2020 races have in common is the remarkable degree to which the state’s GOP establishment is backing the two underdogs, Cowan and Clyde. And the strong possibility that this support might not matter.

In Washington, most Republican leaders of the U.S. House have disavowed Greene, save for Jim Jordan of Ohio. U.S. Rep. Jody Hice of Monroe has withdrawn his endorsement of Greene.

Cowan has the support of U.S. Reps. Austin Scott of Tifton and Buddy Carter of Pooler, and U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise of Lousiana.

In the Ninth District race, state Senate President pro tem Butch Miller of Gainesville is backing Clyde, as are congressmen Hice, Carter and Scott.

On a pedestrian level, these ranking Republicans may be identifying the candidate they think is most likely to help protect or extend the state’s interests in Congress. The team player, in other words. Then there is the quieter fear that Greene and Gurtler could aggravate a serious case of Trump fatigue in some areas of Georgia.

“There are two dozen races in the state House that could depend on how badly the turnout is dampened by some fatalistic view of the 2020 election,” Morgan said. “That’s my concern for the party, that Trump so damages the brand that they just give up. They don’t go vote.”

And yet there is the still larger matter of where Republicans are headed as a party.

Jason Pye is the vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, an organization that financed much of the early tea party activity that began in 2009. He now describes himself as politically homeless.

The Republican Party has often been described as a three-legged stool – held up by fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and advocates of an aggressive foreign policy.

“Defense hawks — they seem to be a dying breed,” Pye said. “You’re seeing more and more foreign policy skepticism within the Republican Party. And that’s perfectly fine with me, given the 18 to 20 years we have been consistently at war.”

Fiscal conservatism has been set aside by a pandemic and multiple trillion-dollar spending bills to cope with the economic aftermath. Simple math will return the federal deficit as a major GOP concern, Pye hopes.

But then you have that new, fourth GOP leg of conservative nationalism — an amorphous term that, by some definitions, bespeaks an emphasis on culture and tradition. Whether spoken aloud or not, race and unease over America’s shifting demographics is an essential ingredient. Which means immigration is, too.

So is religion. You’ll recall that the clout of Christian conservatives was on the wane when President Barack Obama took office in ’09. They revived their standing by aligning with tea partyers – witness Ralph Reed’s formation of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

Last month, Evangelicals for Trump, an all-important arm of President Trump’s reelection campaign, held a rally in Alpharetta. Reed was one of the speakers who laid out what was at stake.

“Let’s go out and do it, and not just to reelect [Trump], but to glorify God and make sure that Christians are the head and not the tail, and the top and not the bottom of our political system,” he said.

Economic concerns are at play as well. Which brings us back to Jason Pye of FreedomWorks.

“There have to be some questions asked about what the Republican party looks like in a post-Trump world. Are you going to double down on aggressive nationalism – where you become antagonistic toward trade?” Pye asked.

“The problems with China are well known. Trying to bring supply chains back to the United States is going to be quite a lift, to say the least, and it’s going to drive up the costs of goods,” Pye said. “It doesn’t seem to be the best way to go. It seems like diversifying supply chain chains would be the better thing.”

This is an important point. If there is a single economic theme to 17 years of Republican rule in Georgia, it is the expansion of international trade, particularly in agriculture exports but also in manufacturing. Consider the expansion and deepening of the Port of Savannah, and the Kia automobile plant in West Point.

The tariff wars of the last three years have strained those international ties. If the pandemic hadn’t obliterated all other concerns, we might be talking about that now.

Nonetheless, that is what is at stake for Republicans on Tuesday. One stiff drink may not be enough. Make it a double.

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