AMAC Exclusive – by Daniel Roman
When Donald Trump lands in Georgia on Saturday to hold a rally for U.S. Senate Candidate Herschel Walker, he will not just be launching a campaign to retake the U.S. Senate by defeating left-wing Democrat Raphael Warnock, but also pushing an effort to renew the Republican Party in Georgia.
Georgia Republicans have not had a good decade. Their problems culminated in 2020, when they oversaw a confusing election process replete with rule changes imposed incoherently across counties, and a confused counting process. Ultimately, Joe Biden was declared the winner by fewer than 12,000 votes out of nearly 6 million cast. Then, just a few weeks later, that debacle resulted in the Georgia GOP managing to lose two Senate seats, leaving almost everyone feeling the system had failed and many appearing to blame the former President for their failure.
The controversial French Statesman Charles Maurice De Talleyrand once remarked of the French Bourbon royal family upon their return from exile after 1815 that “they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” The same can be said for Georgia Republicans. Like the Bourbons, they face real challenges in changing demographics, and an extremist and often clever foe in Stacey Abrams. But also like the Bourbons, they have responded to that challenge by making all the wrong choices, decisions that seemed designed to make their position worse. At the heart of those was the decision after 2018 to appease Stacy Abrams and defy the voters, rather than the inverse. Having received a warning from the voters, Republicans chose to try and buy-off Stacy Abrams, rather than ask why people voted against them. The result was that they ended up with an even messier election, with even more disastrous consequences.
A Convenient Myth
In 2018, Republicans in Georgia got a real scare. Stacy Abrams, a former State House Minority leader, raised vast amounts of money and partnered with corporate and Silicon Valley interests including Mark Zuckerberg himself to carry out an unprecedented voter registration campaign. Taking advantage of Georgia’s incredibly liberal early voting laws, Abrams used the money to run what was in effect a month-long election day. Republicans woke up late to what was happening. They were also poorly placed to respond, as Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who oversaw elections, was also Abrams’ opponent for governor. Efforts by Kemp to tighten loopholes to prevent Abrams from driving an army through them were met by charges that he was trying to “steal” the election for himself, charges which did not diminish when Kemp resigned early from his post as Secretary of State. On election day, Abrams came up short, 50.2% to 48.8%. But the 48.8% Abrams won was the highest any Democrat had received since 1998. Democrats also made extensive gains in the legislature, where they went from 59 seats in the State House prior to 2016 to 75 in 2018.
The close call was not enough for Abrams, who denounced Kemp for “interfering.” In other words, anything the Secretary of State’s office did to ensure her campaign was following the rules in effect “stole” the election from her. She launched an extended campaign of litigation, all while continuing her organizing efforts.
Abrams was one threat, and it was ultimately the one which occupied the minds of Republicans. A relentless self-promoter, Abrams had every interest in increasing her stature by claiming that her close loss in 2018 had everything to do with her own unique efforts and appeal, and that other Democrats in the state owed their gains solely to her. She therefore shared a common narrative with Republicans such as Brian Kemp and the newly elected Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, in pretending that Stacey Abrams was the reason Georgia was “turning blue.” If that were the case, any Republican losses in the state would have nothing to do with Republican officeholders’ own actions, or voters taking issue with them. It wasn’t the voters, it was Abrams. The myth of Stacey Abrams served the interest of establishment Republicans and Abrams. For Abrams, she might get to be Vice President. For Republicans, they could avoid any calls for accountability.
The result was that Raffensperger reached a legal settlement in early 2020 with Abrams, blessed by Kemp, which in effect involved the Secretary of State’s office surrendering its power to interfere with Abrams for the 2020 cycle in exchange for Abrams agreeing to drop accusations of political manipulation. It was a poor deal. Intended to allow Kemp and Raffensperger to avoid the sort of accusations of political interference and “rigging of the rules” which had occurred in 2018, it contributed directly to much more serious accusations in November 2020. Furthermore, it was designed to protect Kemp and Raffensperger at the cost of effectively neutralizing the Georgia GOP in the presidential race. Regardless of what happened after November 2020, the actual “betrayal” of Donald Trump occurred months earlier with Kemp and Raffensperger agreeing to remove themselves from the cycle.
More seriously, the Georgia GOP elite were able to ignore what really happened in 2018 and escape accountability for their failures. Alarm bells should have already been sounding in Georgia long before the 2020 election.
The Rise and Fall of a Suburban Elite
Georgia’s Republican era began late. When the Republican Party was sweeping the South in the 1980s and early 1990s, Georgia resisted the advance. Democrats maintained control of the legislature until 2004, and no Republican was elected governor between reconstruction and 2002. Bill Clinton won the state as late as 1992. When Sonny Perdue won the governorship in 2002, it was almost an accident. Democrats, overconfident coming out of 2000, had gerrymandered the state legislature and congressional districts, and Perdue, formerly a senior Democrat State Senator by then turned Republican, challenged Democratic Governor Roy Barnes, who was considered a future presidential prospect. In a major upset, Perdue won, as did congressman Saxby Chambliss in the Senate race. Democrats had tried to redraw Chambliss’s district so as to gerrymander him out of office.
While the Republican party in Georgia had been somewhat successful prior to 2002, specifically thanks to Newt Gingrich, who rose to become Speaker of the House, that coalition had struggled to win statewide against a coalition of rural whites who dominated the state government with the tacit backing of urban African American voters. When the Democratic coalition ran into trouble, it was largely because the infusion of white liberals upset the apple cart, with the result that many of the old-line white Democrats defected.
The Georgia Republican party during its age of hegemony has therefore been defined to a shocking degree by being an extension of the Democratic party which preceded it. Perdue was a former Democrat, and so was his successor Nathan Deal, who had been President of the State Senate and elected to the U.S. Congress as a Democrat. In effect, Georgia was governed from 2003 to 2019 by Republican Governors who had supported Bill Clinton.
This Republican ascendancy was always built on a bed of sand. Rather than the consequence of a voter revolt, it was a coup within a coup. Former Democrats, and not dissidents but leading figures such as leaders of legislative chambers, took over the Republican party, and then used it to maintain control of the state government, not change it.
This was a double betrayal. Deal, Perdue, and others left their political home and became Republicans to escape the wrath of those like Abrams who had displaced them within the Democratic party. At the same time, genuine conservatives, those who had labored for years, found themselves out in the cold with former Democrats running their party. Republicans might nominally be in office, but many longtime Republicans found themselves excluded.
Finally, the former Democrat-turned-Republican elite had a shrinking base of support. One of the major shifts nationally, highlighted in California, has been the movement of whites with college degrees out of the Republican party. In the Atlanta suburbs, young professionals came to see the Kemp/Raffensberger/Perdue elite as representing a “good old boys” establishment which kept them out of power.
For all the attention Stacy Abrams received, the largest swings in Georgia between 2012 and 2020 were not among the poor, majority Black parts of metro Atlanta. Outside of Atlanta, African American areas actually swung to Donald Trump. Where the erosion happened was in the wealthier suburbs. Gwinnett county, the old stomping grounds of Newt Gingrich, and still 54% white in 2010, voted 66% for George W. Bush in 2004, 55% for John McCain in 2008, and 54% for Mitt Romney in 2012, before voting 44% for Donald Trump in 2016 and 40% Donald Trump in 2020. Forsyth County, one of the nation’s most upscale conservative areas, went from 80.5% Romney, to 70.6% Trump in 2016, to 65.8% Trump in 2020. The county was estimated at 75% white and 14% Asian in 2019.
The Georgia GOP could try and blame Donald Trump, but statewide elections showed the same trend. It is one of the few states where the GOP has done worse in every gubernatorial race since 2006. From 57.9% in 2006, to 53% in 2010, to 52.7% in 2014, to 50.2% in 2018. Both Republican Senators ran behind Donald Trump in 2020.
Georgia will vote again in November 2022 for Governor, other statewide offices, and one Senate seat. The Georgia GOP seems to have settled on an explanation for its troubles: Donald Trump. They blame the former President for criticizing their handling of the election, and for criticizing them for losing elections. Their entire strategy seems to be preparing to wage war in primaries against the former President, again assuming that Stacy Abrams poses no threat in the general election.
Donald Trump appears to have a different vision. He will be traveling to Georgia to endorse an unusual candidate, Herschel Walker, who is vying to replace incumbent Democrat Senator Raphael Warnock. Walker is a football legend who towers even taller in Georgia, where he was born and played in college. He also happens to be African American, and a longtime friend and supporter of Donald Trump.
Also at the rally will be candidate for Georgia Governor, Vernon Jones, who Trump has not formally endorsed but who has been one of the former president’s high profile supporters. Jones is a former Democratic State Rep who is challenging Brian Kemp in the Republican primary. Jones crossed party lines to endorse Donald Trump. The first African American CEO of DeKalb County in Atlanta, Jones has a history as a foe of both establishment Republicans, a.k.a. the former Atlanta Democratic elite such as Deal, and the new Democratic boss, Abrams.
Donald Trump’s endorsement of Walker appears to be an effort to move the Georgia GOP away from the insular corridors into which it has retreated, waiting for the inevitable knock on the door from Mrs. Abrams, and toward a different future. Walker, while wildly mocked by the Republican establishment, sometimes on substance, sometimes in elitist manners which could be seen as borderline racist, represents an effort to reconnect the Republican Party with the people–not just in Georgia, but nationally. Polls show Walker leading the primary by landslide margins.
It is possible neither Jones nor Walker will win. But the Georgia GOP establishment seems to have no other idea for how to take down Warnock than to recruit one of the candidates who lost last time to try again. Donald Trump is proving he is aware of the problems Republicans face in Georgia and trying to do something about it. All the Republican elite seem to believe is that there are no problems except Donald Trump, and he is a problem because he points out that the problems are real. If Trump doesn’t succeed in waking up the Georgia GOP, they are at serious risk of getting a rude awakening from Stacy Abrams. And this time, trend-lines indicate, it may be too late for them.
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