Trump leaves behind a Georgia GOP mired in conflict

President Donald Trump arrives at a rally in Dalton, Ga., while campaigning for Republican U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Trump, Perdue and Loeffler all suffered losses in Georgia's last election cycle, thrusting state into the middle of fighting within the Republican Party about its direction in the future. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
President Donald Trump arrives at a rally in Dalton, Ga., while campaigning for Republican U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Trump, Perdue and Loeffler all suffered losses in Georgia's last election cycle, thrusting state into the middle of fighting within the Republican Party about its direction in the future. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump exits the White House this week, he will leave behind a Republican Party beset by internal conflict, with some Georgia factions hungry to punish state officials who have defied his calls to sabotage the state’s election while others pursue ways to disentangle his vicelike hold on the GOP.

And though similar infighting rages elsewhere, Georgia has become a flashpoint of the post-Trump era, after backlash to his presidency helped fuel the stunning end of the GOP’s decade-long grip on state power, first with Joe Biden’s narrow flip and then the Democratic sweep of the U.S. Senate runoffs.

Georgia Republicans open the Biden administration headed toward a 2022 reckoning one way or another, with far-right forces vowing to challenge Gov. Brian Kemp and others who refused Trump’s attempt to illegally overturn the election and objected to his false claims of a “rigged” vote.

Newly strengthened Democrats are eager to brand them all as enablers of Trump, who is on the cusp of a Senate-led trial on charges he incited an insurrection, proceedings made possible by the underdog victories this month of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock that flipped control of the chamber.

But Trump still retains significant sway with elected officials and influential activists, despite the ignominy of being the only president to be impeached twice. An informal survey of more than a dozen leading Georgia activists found a wellspring of support for the one-term president. And polls show his approval ratings remain virtually unchanged among his base.

The political crosscurrents set up a grand, but confusing, collision course.

Georgia Democrats led by Stacey Abrams, who is likely to mount a new bid for governor, aim to hold Warnock’s seat in 2022 and flip every statewide seat. Already, Democrat Charlie Bailey has announced a rematch attempt against Republican Attorney General Chris Carr, kicking off a new campaign season.

Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp greet lawmakers as they leave the state House Chambers after he delivered the State of the State address. Kemp urged his fellow Republicans to move on from November's election, a message aimed at members of the party who entered the year on a mission to “assign blame, settle old scores, and relive and relitigate 2020.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Gov. Brian Kemp and first lady Marty Kemp greet lawmakers as they leave the state House Chambers after he delivered the State of the State address. Kemp urged his fellow Republicans to move on from November's election, a message aimed at members of the party who entered the year on a mission to “assign blame, settle old scores, and relive and relitigate 2020.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

But far from being united at such a precarious political point, Republicans are in the middle of their own opening skirmishes of a broader battle over the direction of the party.

‘Eye for an eye’

The competing forces started to crystallize over the past week as a socially distanced legislative session opened under a heavily guarded Gold Dome, with establishment figures trying to sideline some of the leaders of the pro-Trump movement.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, Georgia’s No. 2 politician, punished three fellow Republicans, demoting them from influential committee posts after they led efforts to invalidate the state’s election and promoted sham conspiracy theories.

And Kemp appealed during his annual State of the State address to put 2020 in the rearview and set aside the “ridiculous and harmful conspiracies” — a not so subtle message to those in the GOP who entered the year on a mission to “assign blame, settle old scores, and relive and relitigate 2020.”

“When people start settling down a little bit, and really thinking through this, they’re going to realize that I really had taken the conservative approach,” Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview, referring to his refusal to call a special session to overturn the election. “And that is supporting and defending the constitution of this state, the Constitution of the United States.”

Kemp and Duncan, along with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, face mounting pushback from their own party’s rank and file. Some former allies have labeled the trio “RINOs” — Republicans in name only — or traitors to the GOP cause.

Meanwhile, senior GOP officials worry about the threat of hard-line Trump supporters parlaying their newfound fame into primary challenges against establishment-friendly candidates in 2022.

Among them is former state Rep. Vernon Jones, an ex-DeKalb County Democratic chief executive who formally announced he was switching parties during the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington that preceded the deadly insurrection Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol.

And many GOP figures expect a statewide run by U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has spent her first days in Washington in pursuit of controversy, including promoting lies that earned her a brief suspension from Twitter and issuing a widely mocked call for Biden’s impeachment.

Her former Republican opponent, Rome neurosurgeon John Cowan, said rank-and-file conservatives might see a “fighter” in Greene’s attention-seeking broadsides, but it only alienates the more moderate voters the party is desperate to win over.

“The U.S. Congress is not the appropriate forum to enact an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ rhetoric,” he said.

‘Get your shotgun’

Some leaders of the pro-Trump faction predict Democrats could squander their advantages by overreaching in the next two years, giving conservatives a reason to unite.

Many also predict that Trump will remain a potent force in Georgia Republican politics even if he’s convicted in the impeachment trial. Several Republicans over the weekend circulated an NBC poll that showed nearly 9 in 10 Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, a figure unchanged from surveys conducted just before the November election.

State Sen. Burt Jones was among 16 Republican members of the chamber who drafted a letter earlier this month to Vice President Mike Pence urging him to delay congressional certification of the Electoral College votes.

It was never delivered to Pence — Jones said he and his allies “saw the writing on the wall” — but he said Republicans shouldn’t dismiss the lasting power of Trump’s loyal base.

Gov. Brian Kemp, left, shakes hands with state Sen. Burt Jones, who was part of a group of state lawmakers who wrote a letter to Vice President Mike Pence urging him to delay the certification of the Electoral College vote. Jones and the others never sent the letter, he said, because they “saw the writing on the wall.” But Jones is still trying to appeal to President Donald Trump's base of supporters in Georgia, calling for changes in the state's election laws. “There was an element of voters out there who felt disenfranchised by the November results, and they’re still upset,” Jones said. “If you don’t address some sort of election changes this session, the base is going to be furious.” ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Gov. Brian Kemp, left, shakes hands with state Sen. Burt Jones, who was part of a group of state lawmakers who wrote a letter to Vice President Mike Pence urging him to delay the certification of the Electoral College vote. Jones and the others never sent the letter, he said, because they “saw the writing on the wall.” But Jones is still trying to appeal to President Donald Trump's base of supporters in Georgia, calling for changes in the state's election laws. “There was an element of voters out there who felt disenfranchised by the November results, and they’re still upset,” Jones said. “If you don’t address some sort of election changes this session, the base is going to be furious.” ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“There was an element of voters out there who felt disenfranchised by the November results, and they’re still upset,” Jones said. “If you don’t address some sort of election changes this session, the base is going to be furious.”

Other voices in the Georgia GOP have loudly clamored to decisively move on. Duncan admonished Republicans for forgetting that they shouldn’t “let a person be more powerful than our party.” Former Attorney General Sam Olens advocated a clean break.

“For the Republican Party to successfully move forward, its leaders must support limited government and free-market economics — and disavow Trump and far-right radicalization,” Olens said. “We must support equal opportunity and optimism — not isolation.”

In the interview, Kemp said he was confident he would best a Trumpist primary opponent in 2022 if one emerges by relying on the strength of his conservative record. But he pointed to the Democratic upset victories in the runoffs as a harbinger of Republican challenges ahead.

“I had somebody the other day say, ‘We want you to get your shotgun back out and fight.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve had my shotgun and I’m fighting for the law and the Constitution,’ ” he said.

“If we’re going to be a party that is not going to stand up during those times,” Kemp said, “then we’ve got a bigger problem than people realize.”

In Other News