‘This Is Donald Trump’s Party’: How Will Georgia Republicans Chart Their 2022 Path?

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., left, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., raise their arms after addressing attendees of a rally, Friday, May 7, 2021, in The Villages, Fla
Credit Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

The Georgia Republican Party’s convention is underway this weekend, featuring an energized pro-Trump Republican base. 

Yet some Georgia Republicans are concerned about the implications of a Trump-centric message on the party’s ability to win in a now-very-competitive state where the former president narrowly lost in November.

That tension is already at play in the state’s 2022 races, where incumbent Republicans Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger both face pro-Trump challengers. 

To Georgia GOP Chairman David Shafer, Trump’s ongoing influence is undeniable.

“One of my greatest worries after the runoff elections was that conservatives would become discouraged and give up,” Shafer said. “And we’ve seen the opposite in this convention cycle. More than half of the delegates to the state convention are participating for the very first time.”

“They got up off the couch, they found their way to the Republican Party, and they want to get involved in saving the country,” Shafer said. “And many of those newcomers are strong supporters of President Trump.”

Shafer was endorsed by Trump for his re-election bid as state party chair.

Kesha Kennings is one of these newly-energized conservatives who showed up to an “America First” rally in Dalton, Georgia in late May headlined by Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

“I actually want to get more politically involved this year,” Kennings said. “I keep saying it, but I’m tired of being a keyboard warrior. It’s time to make my face known.”

Trump’s influence at the rally of several hundred people was on full display.

“We are the Republican Party,” declared Gaetz at the event. “This is Donald Trump’s party, and I’m a Donald Trump Republican.”

“Let me ask you guys a very important question. We’ve got to clear something up,” Greene said to the crowd. “Who won the presidential race on November 3 for Georgia?”

“Trump, Trump,” was the crowd’s reply.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., wears a "Trump Won" face mask as she arrives on the floor of the House to take her oath of office as a newly elected member of the House of Representatives on Jan. 3.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., wears a “Trump Won” face mask as she arrives on the floor of the House to take her oath of office as a newly elected member of the House of Representatives on Jan. 3. (Erin Scott/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

‘The Battle, But Not The War’

But this Trump-centric message isn’t the path to future statewide victories for Republicans in Georgia, or nationwide, said Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan.

“There’s this focus on trying to win the battle, but not the war,” he said. “It doesn’t do anybody any good to win a primary and not be able to win in general.”

Duncan is giving up a re-election bid to create a national organization called “GOP 2.0” to chart a different path forward for Republicans.

“At the end of the day, if I’m walking into a room with all those folks, if they believe in conspiracy theories, that Donald Trump is the only person that can lead the free world, you know, my point to them is that that isn’t a winning strategy,” Duncan said. “So would you rather support that and lose and have no say?”

Americans are looking for the “adult in the room,” Duncan said, “who tells them the truth.”

“You can’t captivate the middle, you can’t captivate enough people to win a national election, calling people names,” he said.

“President Trump’s policies worked, that’s what Americans appreciated. And so I think we can do both,” said former U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler, who has founded a new group to register and engage conservative voters.

“We can grow the party,” she said. “We can have more voices, but also understand that the vast majority of our party stands with President Trump and the policies that he promoted to put our country first.”

‘That Strategy Didn’t Work’

Party Chairman Shafer said elections have become about focusing on the base, for both parties, and that one of his challenges is continuing to motivate Trump’s fervent supporters when he’s not on the ballot. 

 “Sadly, the middle has disappeared in American politics,” he said. “And the last couple of elections have been turnout elections, where each party has concentrated in turning out its base.”

Jason Shepherd, a former chairman of the Cobb County Republican Party, is challenging Shafer for state party chair. He agreed the importance of Trump is undeniable but maintains the party also has to be able to speak to swing voters.

“It was a one size fits all strategy,” he said of the past election. “We were going to run the same campaign in rural Georgia as we did in the suburbs. And that strategy didn’t work.”

Shepherd also worries about the Republican Party’s ability to match the organizing infrastructure that Georgia Democrats have built.

“If you also look at what the Democrats have put out, their claim is they trained four times more volunteers than we did,” Shepherd said. “Their claim is that they made double the phone calls and triple the door knocks. The Democrats had a very well-put-together and very technologically advanced ground game to cure ballots, both provisional and absentee. We didn’t have it at all.”

Loeffler’s new group, Greater Georgia, is seeking to build a voter mobilization infrastructure she said wasn’t available during her 2020 campaign.

“I ran the largest statewide election that has ever been held in our state,” Loeffler said. “I have a vast network and knowledge of this state and where our shortcomings are. I think we have to be very honest and candid about that.”

David Shafer, the incumbent party chair defended the Georgia GOP’s “unprecedented grassroots effort.”

“In 2016, the Georgia Republican Party raised $3.5 million,” he said. “In this last election cycle, we raised $48 million. We were asked to recruit and train 6,000 volunteers by the Republican National Committee and the President’s reelection campaign. We recruited and trained 13,970 volunteers who together knocked on 2.8 million doors and made 7 million phone calls.”

“The Republican Party has never been stronger,” Shafer said. “There’s never been more enthusiasm at our meetings that I’ve seen in the 30 years that I’ve been involved in Republican party politics.”

FILE – In this Nov. 11, 2020, file photo Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Sen. Kelly Loeffler gestures to supporters after speaking at a campaign rally in Marietta, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)

‘It’s Not An Option’

Rusty Paul, a former chairman of the state party, said in order to win, Republicans don’t have any option but to focus on what they agree on.

“If you focus on the 10 percent that you disagree on, you’re going to lose elections every time,” Paul said. “You’ve got to find that 80 to 90 percent that everybody agrees on and focus on that.”

“I don’t happen to believe the election was stolen, but that doesn’t keep me from finding common ground with people who thought the election was stolen,” he said. “Particularly if we start talking about what we want to accomplish.”

Paul also said that this latest division in the Republican Party is par for the course in a two-party political system.

“They will find that common ground,” Paul said. “And we’ll get the party righted and moving forward. We’ve got no option.”

Kesha Kennings, at the Dalton rally, has a similar message for Republican politicians.

“We have a lot of, I guess they call them ‘RINOs,’ that are always quick to jump to the liberal media to talk about Republicans,” she said. “They need to stop doing that. If we have infighting, keep it in the house.”

“You have to learn to work together if you want to win.”