The rise and - possible - fall of David Shafer

Once a mainstream Republican, party chair leaves behind a legacy of Trumpism
Chairman David Shafer speaks at the Georgia GOP State Convention in Jekyll Island, Georgia on June 5th, 2021. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

Chairman David Shafer speaks at the Georgia GOP State Convention in Jekyll Island, Georgia on June 5th, 2021. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

On the day he steps down as chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, David Shafer will likely take the stage one more time with Donald Trump.

For Shafer, it marks a fitting conclusion to a tumultuous four-year tenure that has largely been defined by the former president. Perhaps no single figure in the state has done more for Trump than Shafer, from supporting his handpicked candidates to running point on a lawsuit challenging the 2020 election outcome.

Shafer will soon learn whether that loyalty will have consequences. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has named Shafer a target in her wide-ranging criminal probe into election meddling. She could indict him this summer for overseeing a meeting of alternate Trump electors despite Joe Biden’s win in the state.

It’s a spectacular turnabout for a onetime prodigy of the Georgia GOP who helped to build the moribund party into a powerhouse that wrested control of state government from ruling Democrats.

Shafer’s critics said he has played a key role in sowing a deep rift in Georgia’s GOP. Under his watch, they said, the state handed control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats, electing Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in 2021. The state Republican party has been overrun by the far-right conspiracy theorists, such as Kandiss Taylor, who has said that state GOP leaders were secret Communists and Democrats were satanic pedophiles. The party has become so extreme that Gov. Brian Kemp is steering clear of the convention which begins on Friday and has assembled his own sophisticated election apparatus rather than rely on party resources.

“I think he leaves the Republican Party weak and divided to the point that many of us don’t see it coming back together for many years,” said Jason Shepherd, the former chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party who ran against Shafer unsuccessfully in 2021.

But supporters contend that Shafer respects grassroots party loyalists, many of whom still ardently support Trump and embrace his false claims, including that the 2020 election was rigged. They point to Shafer’s success in pulling the party out of debt and securing Republican wins up and down the ballot in 2022.

”The state party has always been controlled by the grassroots, the worker bees who volunteer for campaigns and knock on doors,” said Debbie Dooley, state coordinator of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots. “And David Shafer has always been a champion of the grassroots.”

Shafer downplays the idea that he leaves behind a party at war with itself.

“I think people are mistaking growth for division,” he said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He evoked party tensions surrounding the influx of Pat Robertson supporters in the 1980s and Ron Paul supporters in the early 2000s.

“You are seeing the same thing now with the influx of Trump supporters - there is pain, but the pain will make us stronger,” he said.

‘Chamber of Commerce Republican’

Shafer’s decades-long journey in state Republican politics began soon after he graduated in 1988 from the University of Georgia with a degree in political science. He was still in his 20s when he was hired as executive director of the Georgia Republican Party. There, Shafer worked to raise money and recruit candidates, trying to gain the GOP a foothold in a state dominated by Democrats.

In 1994, Shafer became campaign manager for GOP millionaire businessman Guy Millner, who narrowly lost to Gov. Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat. When Republican John Oxendine was elected state insurance commissioner, he tapped Shafer to be one of his deputies.

In 1996, Shafer made his own bid for elected office, running a campaign for secretary of state that focused heavily on policing voter fraud. Shafer lost to Democrat Lewis Massey, who attacked Shafer throughout the race for taking large contributions from the insurance industry he oversaw.

In an interview with the AJC, Massey recalled Shafer as a smart opponent who hewed to mainstream GOP ideals.

“He was a traditional Chamber of Commerce Republican,” Massey said.

Shafer suffered another loss in 2001, when Ralph Reed, the telegenic founder of the Christian Coalition, defeated him in the race for state Republican Party Chairman.

‘Always scheming’

But in 2002, Shafer finally pulled out a win, nabbing 55% of the vote in a four-way race to represent a state Senate district covering north-central Gwinnett and portions of Forsyth and Fulton counties.

It was a heady time for Georgia Republicans, who had just seized control of the state Senate. And Shafer made the most of it. He sponsored bills opposing abortion, supporting religious liberties and calling for fiscal restraint. He backed eliminating or scaling back the state’s income tax and worked to ease congestion in his fast-growing suburban district.

Shafer became known for his ambition, savvy behind-the scenes maneuvering and bare knuckles style.

He earned the nicknames “Darth Shafer” and “Shady Shafer.” Colleagues recall how he would help freshmen lawmakers pass their first bill only to kill another of theirs soon afterward as a show of power.

“He was always strategizing, always scheming,” Shepherd said.

Added former state Sen. Don Balfour, a fellow Gwinnett County Republican, Shafer would have been “happy to see his picture on the wall next to Machiavelli” and was known for stretching the truth.

“Let me put it this way, if he told me the Earth was round I would question why I hadn’t joined the flat Earth society,” Balfour said

But it paid off. In 2013 his GOP colleagues elected him president pro tem of the Senate, which made him the second most powerful Republican in the chamber behind the lieutenant governor.

He co-sponsored a bipartisan bill in 2016 that would have selected the U.S. president by the national popular vote instead of the electoral college.

“Georgians deserve to have all of their votes count in every presidential election,” Shafer wrote in a guest column about the measure for The AJC.

He said he later changed his mind on the plan after learning it would not benefit Georgia as he had expected. If it had been in place, Democrat Hillary Clinton, who led the popular vote, would have defeated Trump.

In 2018, Shafer ran for lieutenant governor. That same year he was hit with an ethics complaint from a veteran lobbyist at the state Capitol who said he repeatedly sexually harassed her. She alleged he demanded that she show him her breasts in exchange for his help passing legislation and that he suggested they “spoon naked.” He denied the claim and brought forward members of his staff to say he had a policy of not meeting with the woman alone. He was ultimately cleared by a panel of his Senate peers.

Chairman David Shafer speaks before his election at the Georgia GOP State Convention in Jekyll Island, Georgia on June 5th, 2021. Nathan Posner for the Atlanta-Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nathan Posner

icon to expand image

Credit: Nathan Posner

But the allegations were amplified by a barrage of negative ads and mailers funded by a Washington-based political action committee. Shafer fell just short of 50% of the vote needed to win in the primary election and then lost to Geoff Duncan in the ensuing runoff.

The next year Shafer was elected chairman of the state Republican Party, a perch that would put him at the center of the tumult in the 2020 election.

And now a target

Shafer spent Nov. 3, 2020 - Election Day - monitoring reports from GOP poll watchers who had fanned out across the state. When Georgians went to sleep that night, Trump led the vote tally, but reams of absentee ballots had not yet been tallied.

As the vote counting continued and Trump’s lead dwindled, claims of fraud began to pick up steam. Under Shafer’s leadership, the state party was quick to join the president in his election challenges.

Two days after the election, Shafer and other Republicans cobbled together a defiant rally in a Buckhead parking lot headlined by Donald Trump Jr. Wearing a tan sweater vest and an American flag mask, which drooped beneath his nose, Shafer applauded as the crowd chanted “stop the steal.”

The next day Biden pulled ahead in the state and stayed there. Two recounts and an audit confirmed the results. But in testimony before the Jan. 6 congressional committee, Shafer said he was frustrated because, among other things, Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger was not giving poll watchers enough access. Trump’s team and the state party filed a lawsuit challenging the Georgia results, citing irregularities with the vote.

That lawsuit was still pending when Democrats gathered at the state Capitol on Dec. 14 to certify Biden, who led by more than 11,000 votes, as the winner. In a room downstairs, Shafer presided over a meeting of Trump “alternate” electors, and he signed paperwork declaring Trump the winner.

“Crazy times,” Shafer said in an email at the time to another GOP elector. “But in the unlikely event he wins the contest, we will be screwed if we did not meet and vote.”

It would be a fateful decision. Fulton prosecutors initially said that all 16 of those alternate electors were targets of the their criminal probe. Since then, court documents show that at least half of them have struck immunity deals. Shafer is not one of them.

A photo of Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer and other "electors" for Donald Trump at a Dec. 14, 2020 meeting at the state Capitol. Photo shot and then tweeted out by WSB-TV reporter Richard Elliott.

Credit: Richard Elliott, WSB-TV

icon to expand image

Credit: Richard Elliott, WSB-TV

In a letter to Willis, Shafer’s lawyers said that he broke no laws when he convened the meeting. Shafer, they said, was following legal advice in order to preserve the former president’s electoral options in the state with the lawsuit still pending. Whether Willis agrees remains to be seen.

While some believe Shafer is reaping what he sowed, others said the grassroots remains solidly behind him.

“If he ran for a third term (as party chairman) today, he would win,” Dooley predicted.

With possible charges looming, he said he will spend his time with family and on his business, which owns industrial warehouses that are leased to the mining industry.

“My family and business have been supportive and tolerant of my volunteer service,” he said. “My immediate plans are to spend a little more time with them.”