'A little bit of healing to do': Georgia Republicans look to mend after months of division

Phillip M. Bailey, USA TODAY
·11 min read
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has stood firm against Major League Baseball's decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over objections to a new state voting law.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has stood firm against Major League Baseball's decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over objections to a new state voting law.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger doesn’t regret standing up to former President Donald Trump’s challenges to the 2020 election.

But don’t ask the bespectacled 65-year-old former civil engineer to give out a list of state Republicans he counts as friends as he gears up for reelection next year against a Trump-endorsed primary opponent.

“I wouldn’t ‘out them’ right now," Raffensperger told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview, "but we have lots of friends who are reasonable and rationale Ronald Reagan-type Republicans."

Raffensperger's hesitancy to name his closest allies shouldn't be surprising; he knows better than most about what getting on Trump's bad side can bring.

As recently as last week, the former president targeted Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp as "RINOs" – Republicans in Name Only. Around the same time as Trump's latest missive, Raffensperger noted his wife received a new round of death threats via text message.

For Republicans trying to unite the state party after a round of Democratic victories in the presidential election and two pivotal Senate runoffs , a civil war against top state GOP leaders, led by Trump and his supporters, is seen as an unnecessary distraction. Many party officials would rather spend time rallying against Democratic opponents of a new election law, which has again thrust Georgia into an unflattering national spotlight.

But among conservatives brought to politics and activism by Trump’s fiery populism, the belief is that a party purge is needed.

Tyler Johnson, a utility line worker who voted for Trump in 2020, said the former president’s dispatches are a welcomed push to the right.

"He's still involved and he's still fighting," said Johnson, chairman of the Lee County Republican Party. "And that's something I believe has been missing from the Republican Party."

Whether it's banning transgender students from participating in high school sports or establishing a "religious liberty" law, current Republican officeholders make promises that are rarely kept, Johnson said. And in the wake of a backlash against the election law – which Trumped branded "too weak" but critics have called "Jim Crow 2.0" – grassroots conservatives feel they’ve compromised enough.

"A lot of times when (controversial)things happen, it just always seems like Republicans backed away," Johnson said.

As Georgia Republicans look to mend their fractures after Trump's election loss and his assault on the state's elected officials, the intraparty power struggle will serve as a roadmap for how the national party navigates Trump's magnetic persona.

"As a Georgia Republican, I do feel we have many strengths that we're bringing to the table, but we have a little bit of healing to do and we have to take a look at our party and where we're going in the future," said Marci McCarthy, a Georgia businesswoman and Republican activist.

'Instead of him being Moses, some people turned him into God'

Raffensperger's race is one of the earliest tests for how Republican candidates and voters will maneuver a post-Trump world as the former president continues to use his Florida-based Mar-a-Lago resort for fundraising and settling personal scores against Republican leaders.

Some state Republicans are nervous, pointing to Southern states that were once long-held GOP strongholds and are now considered more competitive because of Trump’s drag on the party. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed 50% of Americans have a less favorable opinion of the Republican Party compared with a year ago.

Republican John Cowan, a self-described “constitutional Christian conservative” neurosurgeon who lives in northern Georgia, said the continued obsession some voters have with the former president has gone too far.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a news conference on, Nov. 11, 2020, in Atlanta.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks during a news conference on, Nov. 11, 2020, in Atlanta.

“Until we had President Trump, I never really saw the conservative movement making an idol out of the party leader where it was a fealty more than a loyalty,” he said.

Cowan, who lost a primary race against now-Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., said Republicans such as Raffensperger should be praised, rather than run out of the party, for sticking to the rule of law.

Republicans like himself still have great respect for Trump, but Cowan added conservatives like him have to be a keel for the ship in 2022 to keep the GOP from tipping over and further alienating moderate voters in Georgia's suburbs – a crucial constituency in Democrats' recent statewide victories.

“Trump was a dynamic leader, and after eight years of (Barack) Obama the party was looking for someone to bring us out of the wilderness,” Cowan said. “And instead of him being Moses, some people turned him into God, and I think we lost our way a little.”

But University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said Republicans who don't hold Trump's worldview will have a difficult time. The university's statewide polling in January showed about three-fourths of Republicans believed the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, Bullock said, while noting a number of primary contenders more closely aligned with Trump's brand of politics have emerged and will be vying for multiple state government offices.

"Right now it looks like come summer of 2022 we'll have a range of candidates pledged to Trump running, and that can create a huge rift in the Republican Party," Bullock said. "That could ultimately unfold in November to benefit the Democrats. For instance, we see white college-educated voters going for Republicans, but at a much lower rate in each election since 2016."

Charles Bullock, University of Georgia professor
Charles Bullock, University of Georgia professor

Republicans therefore will face tougher choices in primary battles – often along the fault line of whether to dig deeper into right-wing populism that excites a largely white, working-class base or choose policies that appeal to the state’s changing demographics.

“So far they’ve doubled down on the populism,” Bullock said.

National observers have repeatedly called attention to the increased diversification of the South’s population, which makes statewide races in Georgia more competitive .

Trump allies don't think that automatically puts them at a disadvantage, however, and they say Trump’s populist appeal broke through four years of him being branded as a racist. Voting data showed Trump improved his support in 78 of the country’s top 100 majority-Hispanic counties from 2016 to 2020.

“There’s a potential, if the Republican Party changes its attitude about immigrants, (it) can make some headway with that group,” Bullock said. “If so that would rebalance the power towards their direction.”

Political activist McCarthy, believed by many to be in line to take over the DeKalb County Republican Party, told USA TODAY that Georgia’s conservative movement has to reevaluate itself.

"I really want to say Republicans are not white supremacists, and that notion is a really horrible stereotype," she said.

McCarthy, president and CEO of T.E.N., an Atlanta-based cybersecurity firm, said that includes being a more inclusive party that can bring forth new voters across racial lines. But whatever differences state party leaders and activists have, one thing that won't change is how Trump, who is still the subject of investigation into allegations of improper election interference by Fulton County prosecutors, remains an important figure.

Kemp leading GOP election law rally

McCarthy said reconciliation within the state GOP should begin with sticking up for the new election law, which she and others organized to get passed, rather than where voters, officials or candidates stand on Trump.

"We turned anger into action and advocacy, and we made a difference with the passing of the election integrity bill, which is 100% being misunderstood," she said.

McCarthy noted that fact-checkers dinged President Joe Biden for falsely stating Georgia's Republican-controlled legislature ended "voting hours early so working people can’t cast their vote after their shift is over."

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp holds a news conference in Atlanta after Major League Baseball's pulled the 2021 All-Star Game from the city over objections to a new state voting law.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp holds a news conference in Atlanta after Major League Baseball's pulled the 2021 All-Star Game from the city over objections to a new state voting law.

Under the new law, Peach State counties are now allowed to extend voting hours as early as 7 a.m. and as late as 7 p.m.

"The misinformation being spread about the law is astounding," she said.

Kemp, also a frequent target of Trump, has been heeding McCarthy's advice by defending the law in national media interviews but also to rural voters in stops across southern Georgia, according to GOP activists.

"The state is really rallying behind Brian as far as his stance on the law," said Republican Tracy Taylor, a Dougherty County firefighter, who considers the governor a mentor.

Several Georgia Republicans acknowledge that the election law represents Kemp's last hope to mend fences with a base fiercely loyal to Trump.

“I want to be clear: I will not be backing down from this fight,” Kemp said in a news conference April 3. "We will not be intimidated, and we will also not be silenced."

Taylor noted the governor is taking his message directly to voters that boycotts against the state, including Major League Baseball's decision to move its All-Star Game,will hurt minority-owned businesses most. He said the attacks from Trump may have made many leery of Kemp, but the election law fallout has awakened conservatives to the threat of Democrat Stacey Abrams running for governor again in 2022.

"I've never seen a governor down here in rural Georgie as active as Brian making the case this way," Taylor said. "It's very much what we need. He's not easy to rattle, so you don't see him bickering with every Trump comment, and those voters are really warming back up to the governor."

Raffensperger has also praised parts of the election law, such as expanding the number of early voting days and requiring a voter ID to obtain an absentee ballot, an idea he supported during the 2018 campaign.

In a recent op-ed, Gabriel Sterling, chief financial officer in the secretary of state's office, joined the chorus of Georgia Republicans by calling out Biden. He said the president's comments about the law are "dangerous hyperbole" no different from Trump's rhetoric.

"While this isn’t necessarily how Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, or I, would have written this law, it is not what President Biden claims," Sterling wrote. "We saw just three months ago how election disinformation such as this can lead to violence. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now."

Ann White demonstrates at the Georgia State Capitol building after lawmakers passed an overhaul of state election laws.
Ann White demonstrates at the Georgia State Capitol building after lawmakers passed an overhaul of state election laws.

Republican activists, however, noted Raffensperger has sharply criticized other parts of the law in contrast to Kemp's full-throated defense.

He chastised Georgia lawmakers for stripping the secretary of state of his role overseeing state election boards; forbidding food and water to be given to voters a certain distance from the polls; and an effort to block Sunday voting that eventually was taken out of the final version of the bill.

"You don't get any credit when you're going to do something bad and then all of a sudden you go back to where it was," Raffensperger told USA TODAY. "From that standpoint, it was just not politically wise what they did there."

Raffensperger also broke with the party line on the boycotts against the state, and he took Georgia legislators to task when asked about the MLB yanking its 2021 All-Star Game out of the state, saying they should have done a better job smoothing things over with corporate leaders and sports leagues before the bill passed.

"I would have thought the General Assembly, particularly (Speaker of the House David Ralston), would have had more conversations with these corporations to really hear them and explain what you're doing and what you're not doing," he said.

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Johnson, the Lee County GOP chairman, said conservative activists in his part of the state, along the southern border close to the Florida Panhandle, notice the difference. He said that while many still resent Kemp for failing to back Trump on his election challenges last fall, those south Georgian voters appreciate how the governor is using his time to stand up to national brands and media outlets over the election law.

"There is kind of a renewed rally going on at the state party level and down here at the grassroots level," Johnson said. "There's a lot of support for Kemp, and that's because we believe Stacey Abrams is going to run for governor again, and we've got to pretty much bet on the horse we have in the race already and the guy we've been behind for the last four years."

Raffensperger, however, has no chance at redemption – or winning, he said.

"I can't find you 100 people who would vote for him at this point," Johnson said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Georgia Republicans look to mend from Trump attacks, Democratic wins