The tilt toward the right in the deeply Democratic stronghold is but one illustration of Trump’s enduring grip on the Georgia GOP.
Trump has been out of office for almost two months after a chaotic term in the White House, but his influence in Georgia politics only seems to grow. The former president is exerting a gravitational pull at the grassroots level that’s manifesting in all levels of government in Georgia.
At county GOP meetings, local activists fight to prove their loyalty to the twice-impeached former president. In 2022 contests, pro-Trump challengers threaten state Republicans who refused to try to reverse his defeat. And in the Legislature, rank-and-file conservatives stand largely in lockstep behind proposed voting restrictions following his lies about a “rigged” election.
Republican grassroots leaders made clear in interviews that the former president’s nativist policies, take-no-hostages approach and his war with the Washington “swamp” have taken root with the all-important tier of activists who serve as the backbone of local campaigns and could one day run for higher office.
“Trump absolutely remains the leader of our party,” said Marci McCarthy, Flynn’s heir apparent as the DeKalb GOP leader. “He isn’t going anywhere — and his return is going to be even stronger.”
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Credit: Curtis Compton / firstname.lastname@example.org
The fervent devotion to Trump underscores the challenges facing Republicans ahead of another polarizing election year.
Even as Trump maintained soaring approval levels with conservatives, Democrats capitalized off disgust for the Republican to woo independent voters and energize liberals. It helped them carry the state in a White House race for the first time since 1992 and elect Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to the U.S. Senate in January.
As much as state GOP leaders on the wrong side of Trump’s wrath might quietly wish his influence in Georgia will fade, he’s already taken steps to tighten his hold on the levers of GOP power here.
He’s continued to vow revenge against Gov. Brian Kemp, who he deems an ingrate for refusing to call a special session to overturn his defeat. He’s encouraged U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other far-right Georgia politicians and urged donors to pump money into his super PAC rather than the Republican Party.
“He’s not going to take a back-seat approach here,” said Cobb County GOP Chair Jason Shepherd, who is competing to lead the state party this year. “The base support for Trump still runs really deep. He’s not a career politician, and he had a strong economic record. There are many, many Republicans who still want him to play a role in the state.”
Indeed, as Trump seeks to shape the developing race against Warnock next year by encouraging Herschel Walker, the football legend who lives in Texas, to run for the seat.
“He would be unstoppable, just like he was when he played for the Georgia Bulldogs, and in the NFL,” Trump said in an email to supporters Wednesday that sent state political operatives scurrying. “He is also a GREAT person. Run Herschel, run!”
‘Be their voice’
Kemp and other state GOP officials are facing plummeting approval ratings from fellow Republicans who just a year ago strongly supported them, as well as the threat of an ascendant Democratic coalition led by Stacey Abrams and Warnock looming in 2022.
They also face challenges to their political power at the Statehouse, where Trump’s false claims of systemic fraud have driven efforts to roll back voting rights. Just days ago, GOP lawmakers muscled through legislation that would severely limit who can cast mail-in ballots despite opposition from Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and, according to the governor’s allies, from Kemp.
Four GOP senators — including three in competitive suburban Atlanta districts — all ducked the vote after failing to water down the measure. Duncan was so peeved that he refused to preside over the vote, choosing instead to watch the proceedings from his second-floor suite while nursing a Coke Zero.
“Republicans don’t need election reform to win, we need leadership. I think there’s millions of Republicans waking up around the country that are realizing that Donald Trump’s divisive tone and strategy is unwinnable in forward-looking elections,” Duncan said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
“We need real leadership, we need new focus, a GOP 2.0 that includes moderates in the middle, to get us to the next election cycle.”
That stance is already factoring into his reelection chances. Jeanne Seaver, a Savannah activist, recently launched a challenge to Duncan, saying she was infuriated that the lieutenant governor is promoting a post-Trump vision instead of steadfastly supporting the former president.
A former investment executive, Seaver said she was so convinced by Trump’s claims of systemic voter fraud that she briefly felt she “wanted to give up” during the January runoff. After some reflection, though, she decided to organize other Chatham County conservative groups to mobilize at the polls to support the president and the GOP agenda.
“We can sit around or do nothing, or we can organize,” said Seaver, whose conservative credentials include a claim that she helped coin the “Sore Loserman” slogan to pan Al Gore and Joe Lieberman’s efforts to contest their 2000 defeat in the race for president and vice president.
“We want our elected officials to stand up and be our voice. That’s been the big problem. People are very disheartened,” she said. “I want to be their voice.”
Other pro-Trump figures warn that Georgia Republicans who oppose the former president are only inviting payback from the party’s base.
“If politicians think Trump or his influence in a Republican primary is going away,” said Brandon Phillips, who once led Trump’s Georgia campaign, “then I’ve got some beachfront property in southwest Georgia I’d be willing to sell them.”
She won’t be the only Republican in the race against Duncan, and it probably won’t be long until Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger also draw formidable pro-Trump challengers eager to tap into the former president’s formidable base of support.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed how deep that undercurrent runs. While a majority of Georgians disapprove of Trump, about 84% of Republicans support him, with two-thirds saying they “strongly” do so. His approval rating was even higher before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when 95% of Georgia Republicans gave him a positive review.
John Wood, a longtime conservative grassroots leader from coastal Georgia, cautioned that while Trump’s sway is undeniable, it’s also not permanent, particularly as other presidential hopefuls jockey for influence.
“Obviously, with more than 74 million people voting for Trump, he’s got his power base,” Wood said. “But we’ve got to get back to the conservative platform that made Republicans what they are. We can do that with Trump, but we should at least have that debate over whether we need to be fighting a perpetual culture war.”
That battle will play out most acutely in Atlanta’s suburbs, where Republican support has decayed at a remarkably fast pace.
Democrats now represent much of the former Republican strongholds arcing north of the city in the U.S. House and in the state Legislature. An NBC news analysis found that Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties increased their Democratic vote share between 2008 and 2020 by more than any other county in the nation.
Still, Gwinnett GOP Chair Edward Muldrow said he believes Trump has staying power among conservatives in the suburbs, though he worries about a rift between “big tent” adherents like himself and others who want to tilt the GOP further to the right.
“We can’t do it the way we’ve always done it anymore. Look where that’s gotten us. And here’s where I give credit to Trump: He encouraged Black voters to support him. He asked, ‘What do you have to lose?’ ” Muldrow said. “Can the party continue that trend? I’m not going to hold my breath.”
And the anger among Republican activists who believe Trump was cheated out of his election victory is still front of mind.
Dozens of Georgia state legislators endorsed legal complaints that would have invalidated the state’s election results, and six of Georgia’s eight Republicans in the U.S. House challenged Biden’s Electoral College victory. The few GOP leaders who pushed back on the false narrative have been marginalized and attacked by his supporters.
“He’s still a force. At this point, he’s still the leader of the party. Things can completely change in six months, but people fought hard for him. People in South Georgia put everything they had behind him,” said Kay Godwin, a Pierce County activist and founder of a string of conservative groups.
“We had parades. We had cookouts. You name it, we did it,” she said. “The people gave it their all, and they’re having a hard time coming back from the disappointment.”
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@
That helps describe McCarthy’s mindset. She moderated a breakout session at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that seized on debunked conspiracy theories. Now she’s channeling her frustration over his defeat into her push to revitalize the DeKalb GOP.
“When something is taken from you — even for a brief period of time — you tend to miss it. Well, we Republicans are on the other side and the grass isn’t as green,” she said.
“There’s nothing more important than having a reenergized grassroots base right now. If you don’t support Trump, it’s a deal-breaker,” she said. “His power and influence is even greater now than it was.”