Trump faces a very different Georgia reality than when he last visited

Former President Donald Trump will speak Saturday at the Georgia GOP convention in Columbus. It's his first visit to the state since formally announcing another White House bid. (Hyosub Shin /



Former President Donald Trump will speak Saturday at the Georgia GOP convention in Columbus. It's his first visit to the state since formally announcing another White House bid. (Hyosub Shin /

Donald Trump could hardly have picked a friendlier venue than this weekend’s state GOP convention for his return to Georgia, the site of some of the former president’s most humbling political defeats.

He’s virtually guaranteed a warm reception from the 1,500 or so Republican delegates, some of whom say they were inspired by his polarizing brand of politics.

But even as Trump prepares to receive a hero’s welcome when he speaks Saturday, he faces fresh pushback from key grassroots Republicans who tire of his focus on election fraud, as well as emboldened state leaders who are for the first time speaking publicly against him.

They feel they represent a broader swath of the Republican electorate than the activists who spend weekends and evenings at party functions and who will dominate this weekend’s convention. And they blame Trump for Democratic gains in Georgia since his 2016 victory.

Trump in 2020 became the first GOP presidential nominee to lose Georgia in almost three decades, and of all the criminal investigations he now faces, his attempt to reverse his defeat in the state could lead to the most serious legal consequences.

A ribbon of metro Atlanta’s suburbs flipped to Democrats during his presidency, and his obsession with his own defeat factored into Republican losses in dual U.S. Senate races in 2021 that cost the GOP control of the chamber.

Trump’s push to oust Gov. Brian Kemp and other Republicans he accused of disloyalty backfired spectacularly last year, and his handpicked candidate for the U.S. Senate, former football star Herschel Walker, was the lone statewide GOP candidate to go down in defeat.

And as Trump leads in early primary polls in Georgia and other battleground states, some Republicans are encouraging a fresh look at his legacy as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and a growing field of other GOP contenders aim to sideline him.

While Donald Trump leads in early primary polls in Georgia and other battleground states, some Republicans are encouraging a fresh look at  a growing field of GOP contenders who aim to sideline him, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center. Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez for the AJC

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Credit: Miguel Martinez for the AJC

Cole Muzio, the head of the conservative Frontline Policy Action advocacy group, ticked off the issues he said many rank-and-file Republicans are wrestling over as Trump brings his comeback bid to Georgia.

“Even those who have a great appreciation for Trump’s four years in office have grave concerns about his handling of COVID, waffling positions on abortion, weird stances and proclamations, attacks on other Republicans, vision for the future and electability,” said Muzio, a Kemp ally.

Even as the Georgia GOP struggles with its own relevancy as its members tilt further to the party’s hard-line conservative wing, Trump’s address has given new energy to party officials still smarting over boycotts by Kemp and other elected leaders.

“This is the first time in party history that we will be joined by a former president and two other candidates at our state convention,” said DeKalb County GOP Chair Marci McCarthy, a candidate to become the party’s first vice chair.

(Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy are the two other White House hopefuls who will speak at the convention.)

She said the two-day conference at the Columbus Trade & Convention Center is a local version of CPAC, the annual conservative conference that draws rising party stars, since “every event is sold out and we are expecting every delegate slot to be filled.”

A ‘hallelujah chorus’

Trump is expected to use his speech to promote lies about election fraud, mock the ongoing Fulton County criminal probe focusing on his and his allies’ efforts to reverse his election defeat, and revive a fight with Kemp, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and others who refused his attempt to overturn the results.

He’ll be joined by other Republicans who falsely claim the 2020 election was “stolen.” Kari Lake, the keynote speaker for a Friday gala, has long contested her November defeat in Arizona’s race for governor even after courts rejected her claims of fraud.

Election conspiracy theorist Garland Favorito, whose lawsuit alleges counterfeit ballots tainted the 2020 election, will deliver a luncheon seminar to delegates. Other speakers include U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who still falsely tells audiences that “Trump won Georgia.”

Some see it as a part of the state party’s inexorable shift to the party’s fringes under Trump’s sway. John Wood, the former chair of coastal Georgia’s 1st GOP District, said more mainstream voices are being squeezed out of the party apparatus as Trump’s allies rise to the forefront.

He knows better than most: The activist who now holds his old post, Kandiss Taylor, has called for a purge of all Republican elected officials, refused to concede her crushing primary defeat to Kemp and, among other bizarre claims, alleged there’s a global conspiracy on globes.

“When Trump is making every anti-Trumper in Georgia howl and has Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kari Lake as the hallelujah chorus,” Wood said, “it’s going to be hard for anyone else to be heard.”

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Rome will also be among the speakers at this weekends state GOP convention who has refused to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election, falsely telling audiences that Donald Trump won Georgia. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

That’s exactly what Democrats expect. Fred Hicks, a longtime strategist, said Kemp in 2022 “brought soft and traditional Republicans back into the fold” and made inroads with Black voters and other diverse groups.

“Trump threatens all of that at a crucial point,” he said. “Trump’s visit is exactly what Georgia Democrats need to jump-start an otherwise sleepy electorate and bring back the hundreds of thousands of voters who either stayed home or did not vote for the ticket in 2022.

Trump, Hicks added, is the “single greatest get-out-the-vote fundraising tool that Georgia Democrats have.”

‘Sour grapes’

But Trump won’t be returning to the same environment he encountered in Georgia in 2020, when state leaders eagerly lined up behind him, or even in 2022, when his GOP critics refrained from punching back over fears of alienating his supporters ahead of a pivotal midterm election.

Senior Republicans are openly courting DeSantis, whose most recent stop in Georgia was packed with visits with Republican heavyweights. Already, U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick has endorsed the Florida governor, becoming the first prominent Republican in the state to formally back a Trump rival.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, too, has developed key support in Georgia despite her middling poll numbers, landing some of the state’s most prominent donors and the backing of state Rep. Deborah Silcox, who will lead one of her state-based initiatives.

At a closed-door fundraiser on Monday in Atlanta, Haley reminded supporters that at this stage in the 2016 race, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was polling in the single digits in Iowa. He wound up carrying that state’s caucus.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, has landed some of the state's most prominent donors, as well as the backing of state Rep. Deborah Silcox, left, who will lead one of Haley's state-based initiatives. Contributed.

Credit: Courtesy photo

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Credit: Courtesy photo

And, in a significant strategic shift, Kemp has ended his hands-off approach to the former president. After long avoiding openly criticizing Trump, the governor delivered his first direct attack against the former president a few days before the convention.

He blasted Trump for congratulating North Korea’s despotic leader for entry to the World Health Organization’s executive board, slamming the former president’s praise for a “murderous dictator” in an attack soon echoed by White House contenders.

Kemp, who is among several prominent elected officials skipping the convention, may feel free to unload on Trump now that he’s won a second term.

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, no longer practices a hands-off policy concerning Donald Trump, recently blasting the former president in a social media post. Kemp and his allies fear Trump’s “sour grapes” over the 2020 election will doom the party’s chances in Georgia in 2024. (Arvin Temkar /


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But he and his allies have deeper concerns that Trump’s “sour grapes” will doom the party’s chances in Georgia, which Republicans consider a must-win state. Some see his base of support as flimsy beyond his hardcore loyalists.

Martha Zoller, a Republican activist and radio host with deep ties to mainstream and more conservative wings of the party, estimates that the activists who attend local GOP meetings and show up at grassroots events account for roughly 10% of primary voters. That’s an important segment of voters, she said, but far from the majority.

“I’m hearing a lot of discussion of interest in other candidates. And the early states may allow other candidates to rise to the top,” she said. “I do believe Trump was a strong president on policy, but he’s got flaws I don’t want to repeat.”

Muzio, the head of Frontline Policy Action, said there’s “never been greater demand for a principled conservative that can win” under President Joe Biden’s watch.

Said Muzio: “Over the last 3 1/2 years, however, Donald Trump’s actions and rhetoric have driven significant doubt, even among those who voted for him twice, that he could be that candidate.”