On Jan. 6 anniversary, Cobb County Republicans wrestle with GOP’s future

Insurrections loyal to President Donald Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. Whatever decision the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reaches on whether Congress should receive former President Donald Trump’s call logs, drafts of speeches and other documents related to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the battle over executive privilege will likely end up with the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

A year ago today, a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, trying to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory.

In Georgia, the Cobb County GOP was planning to mark the one-year anniversary with a candlelight vigil, honoring who they called the “J6 patriots” now facing trial. That event was canceled amid backlash.

But what’s happening at the Cobb County GOP still says a lot about how the Republican Party is wrestling with its identity. 

Decades ago, the late U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson helped build the Republican Party in Cobb County. Isakson was a Republican who embraced bipartisanship and practiced a more moderate brand of GOP politics. But on the day he’s being laid to rest in Georgia, the party that Isakson shaped looks very different. 

“For the Cobb GOP to not honor his legacy on the day we’re saying goodbye to him, but instead hold a candlelight vigil to honor accused criminals, is unconscionable,” says Jason Shepard, who chaired the Cobb County GOP until he quit last year.

He says Cobb County always had a mix of moderate and more activist, conservative Republicans. But something changed recently.

“The difference is, in 2020, we’ve seen a surge of new members who were coming in on the basis of the belief that the election was stolen,” he says. 

So tonight, the Cobb County GOP and its new leadership had planned a vigil and prayer session for those facing trial for acts committed on Jan. 6, including 17 Georgians. Charges include assaulting police officers and conspiring to stop the counting of electoral votes.

“The patriots are awake, willing and eager to protect their freedom and liberties,” the group’s event invitation read. 

The county party had also planned to stream remarks from former President Trump, who has continued to spread debunked claims about election integrity. That speech was later canceled.

The Cobb County GOP issued a statement on Wednesday canceling the event, saying its purpose had been mischaracterized. 

Sam Olens, a Republican former Georgia attorney general who also chaired the Cobb County Commission, doesn’t think that’s the case.

“When I look at what was planned, it’s an outright outrage,” he says. “People that sought to destroy our democracy should not be prayed for, they should be given a speedy trial, and if found guilty, put in jail a long time.”

Among Republicans, Olens thinks his position is a lonely one. Several recent polls show a majority of Republicans still believe the 2020 election was rigged. 

Multiple Republicans are running for statewide office in 2022 on that platform, including former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who’s now running for governor.

Olens worries many are rewriting the history of what happened a year ago.

“People didn’t show up at the protest on Jan. 6 to wave a flag,” he says. “They showed up on Jan. 6 to take our country down. If anyone doesn’t think our country’s democracy is not in a perilous state, I suggest they need to look around.”

Shepard, the former Cobb GOP chair, doesn’t see it that way. He thinks the Republican Party can still turn away from Trump’s rhetoric and focus on issues that used to define the GOP. But he still laments what’s happened to his local party.

“The thousands of hours I’ve given over the years to advance conservative principles, to see that all of a sudden be thrown away for one individual is depressing,” he says.

This week, Shepard got the renewal notice for his membership in the Cobb County GOP. And right now, he’s not sure he’s going to renew it.