Georgia Republicans pick former state Sen. Josh McKoon as chair at meeting marked by Trump speech

In this March 28, 2017, file photo, then-state Sen. Josh McKoon, R - Columbus, speaks at the state Capitol in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Georgia’s new Republican Party chairman is promising to “fight back” against Democrats, as the party wraps up a pugnacious convention that often painted the current national condition in dark tones.

Delegates at the convention in Columbus chose former state Sen. Josh McKoon, now a lawyer for the state technical college system, to lead the party for the next two years.

“Who do you want to lead the party? You need the guy who fights back,” McKoon said. “I’ll fight back by uniting our party. I’ll fight back by raising the millions of dollars we need to win. And I’ll fight back with America’s best election integrity unit to stop them from cheating in 2024.”

McKoon takes over a party that officials said hosted more delegates than ever at its two-day convention, keynoted by a headline-grabbing address where former President Donald Trump savaged his indictment for mishandling classified documents and called Atlanta-based Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis a “lunatic, Marxist district attorney,” as she considers charging Trump with illegally trying to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election.

Among others that Willis is investigating is David Shafer, the outgoing chairman who stepped down after two terms.

Delegates and those who spoke at the convention were largely supportive of Trump, saying his indictment is illegitimate and that Joe Biden would present an existential threat to the country if he is reelected in 2024.

But Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and others stayed away, with Kemp setting up a parallel organization that he controls and encouraging donors to give to it instead of the party. Kemp and other statewide elected Republicans blamed Shafer for siding with a slate of Trump-affiliated challengers to the incumbents in the 2022 state elections.

McKoon downplayed the split after his election, saying “we are united.”

Kemp is trying to project national influence to lead Republicans away from Trump, arguing grievance and a backward focus on the 2020 election will repel voters. But the belief someone stole the election from Trump in Georgia, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, has driven a new wave of activists now taking control of Georgia’s party. Four of the incumbent statewide party officers who ran for reelection or sought higher offices lost, despite the party’s nominating committee recommending them.

One potentially divisive item was derailed, at least for now. A committee that met Thursday directed a yearlong study of a proposal to let a state convention prohibit people from running on the Republican ballot.

Supporters of the plan, concentrated among a far-right group known as the Georgia Republican Assembly, argue that the party needs to hold elected officials accountable when they betray GOP principles. A broad group of party members opposed the proposal, arguing primary voters should be the ones to decide who’s fit to be a Republican.

“We want to make sure whatever we do with these very important issues been vetted by our lawyers and very, very carefully considered,” Shafer told delegates, urging them to give the panel time to work.