ATLANTA (AP) — In a highly anticipated gathering, the Georgia state Republican convention kickstarts on Friday, with former President Donald Trump scheduled to make an appearance on Saturday. However, the convention is marred by internal divisions within the party, as a right-wing faction seeks to impose penalties on GOP officials they perceive as ideological traitors by banning them from future primary election ballots.
Trump’s recent announcement of being indicted on charges of mishandling classified documents casts a cloud of vengeance over the proceedings, diverting attention from party business and overshadowing the speeches of notable figures like Republican presidential candidates Asa Hutchinson and Vivek Ramaswamy.
The proposal to ban candidates is seen as a tool to punish elected Republican leaders who defied Trump’s demands to overturn his loss in the 2020 election, including Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. It could also be used against candidates deemed insufficiently aligned with conservative views on issues such as abortion or taxes.
Governor Kemp, Secretary of State Raffensperger, and several other officials have opted to skip the two-day convention in Columbus, signaling their opposition to the proposed measures.
Critics argue that primary election voters should determine the suitability of Republican candidates, emphasizing the need for a more inclusive approach. While some advocate for pushing the party further to the right ideologically, pragmatists warn that such a strategy could lead to defeat in crucial general elections in Georgia, a battleground state.
Former Georgia congressman Jack Kingston, who unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2014, dismissed the notion of imposing rigid boundaries on the party, labeling it as “bull.” He expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of purity tests within the party, asserting that embracing some moderate views is necessary for its growth.
Saturday will mark Trump’s first visit to Georgia since March 2022 when he endorsed candidates challenging Governor Kemp and other Republicans, most of whom failed to secure victory in their primaries. Herschel Walker, a Senate candidate backed by Trump, faced scandal and lost in a runoff election to Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock.
Trump’s impending court appearance in Florida regarding the documents case, along with ongoing investigations in Georgia, including Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ probe into potential illegal interference in the 2020 election, further adds to his legal troubles. However, the animosity between Trump and Kemp remains a significant part of Georgia’s political landscape. Despite endorsing Kemp during his successful gubernatorial campaign in 2018, their relationship deteriorated when Kemp refused to overturn President Joe Biden’s narrow victory, fueling division within the state party. Kemp, along with Republican Attorney General Chris Carr and others, hold outgoing state party Chairman David Shafer accountable for siding with Trump and undermining Republican incumbents in the 2022 elections, leading them to boycott the convention.
Governor Kemp, who seeks to steer the Republican Party away from Trump, has become increasingly direct in his criticism of the former president. However, recent polls indicate that Trump still leads the race for the 2024 nomination.
Amidst the ideological clashes, candidates vying to succeed Chairman Shafer are attempting to bridge the divisions in Georgia’s Republican Party, believing that the shared goal of defeating President Biden in 2024 can serve as a unifying force.
Josh McKoon, a former state senator running for chairman, emphasizes the importance of focusing on electing Republicans rather than engaging in personal attacks. However, those advocating for strict adherence to Republican ideals argue that the party must go beyond mere cheerleading.
Alex Johnson, president of the right-wing Georgia Republican Assembly, questioned why the party allows individuals who betray their principles to run as Republicans. Johnson proposes empowering the state convention to vote on banning such individuals from future Republican primary ballots, with adherence to the party platform being a determining factor. He believes that fear of removal from the ballot will incentivize better behavior from elected officials.
Legal challenges are expected if such a rule were to be implemented, as Georgia law stipulates that parties cannot block primary candidates who meet procedural rules and sign a party loyalty oath. Supporters of the ban argue that the freedom of political association, as guaranteed by U.S. Supreme Court decisions, supersedes any legal obstacles.
Activist Debbie Dooley, who has clashed with Governor Kemp, asserts that it is unfair for a small group of people to dictate who can run as a Republican. She contends that Republican voters in the primary should have the authority to determine the party’s nominees.
If successful, this rule could undermine Kemp’s and other officials’ ability to circumvent the party’s decisions. A recently enacted state law grants Kemp and select officials the ability to raise unlimited funds and coordinate with campaigns, functions that were traditionally handled by the party. Kemp has retained his political operation after his reelection and formed a federal political action committee to influence congressional and presidential races.
Kingston reflects on the history of intraparty conflicts, pointing out that such divisions are intrinsic to the Republican Party’s core identity of small-government conservatism and resistance to centralized authority. Examples include Ronald Reagan’s challenge against President Gerald Ford in the 1976 primary and the dissolution of Georgia’s 1988 state convention due to infighting between supporters of Pat Robertson and George H.W. Bush. The Tea Party era in 2011 also saw delegates booing Governor Nathan Deal and rejecting his choice for party leader, mirroring the backlash Governor Kemp faced at the 2021 convention regarding the 2020 election.
Trump’s emergence as the ultimate outsider to Washington further amplified the anti-establishment sentiment within the party, but Kingston highlights that this aspect has long been present among Republicans.
While some wounds have healed with time, Kingston’s personal experience in his failed Senate bid reveals the intractability of the divide. Despite maintaining a flawless conservative record, he lost the primary to businessman David Perdue, who capitalized on Kingston’s association with Washington.
Kingston concludes, “There’s just no compromise with some of these people.”