Georgia Republicans say they know a winning message for 2024: Under President Joe Biden, voters are struggling with inflation, gas prices are on the rise, and migrants without legal permission to live in the country are streaming across the southern border.
But they fear Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, won’t be able to stay on message.
Trump’s obsession with the 2020 election, now heightened by two criminal cases over his efforts to steal it, threatens to reopen wounds in the state’s GOP that have bedeviled it in the 2 1/2 years since he pushed to overturn Biden’s narrow victory there. If Trump is the nominee, it’s unlikely he would contain his vitriol toward the officials who defied him to certify the 2020 election results, including the state’s popular governor — making for potential competing visions.
“I don’t think he’ll let us” unite, said Jack Kingston, a former House Republican from Georgia and a Trump ally. “His nature isn’t to sit down and say nice things, even about Brian Kemp, one of the most successful governors in the country.”
Like many Republicans, Kingston believes that Trump’s false claims that the election in Georgia was rigged cost the GOP two Senate seats in runoffs in January 2021. Democrats flocked to the polls to secure victories for Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, while many Republican voters appeared to heed the former president’s warnings that the state’s election system was “rigged” and stayed home.
Trump’s false claims will now most likely be on trial in the state — and in its most populous county, Fulton — as the presidential election heats up. The 41-count indictment is the most sweeping of the four criminal cases that Trump faces, stretching from the Oval Office to the Georgia secretary of state’s office to the elections office in tiny Coffee County, where Trump allies successfully copied sensitive software.
Republicans in Georgia “have always had fissures,” said Rusty Paul, the Republican mayor of Sandy Springs, a rapidly growing Fulton County suburb abutting the capital city, Atlanta, to the north. Voters in North Georgia and other rural stretches tend to be staunchly conservative. Voters in the populous suburbs of Atlanta were once reliably Republican but more moderate. Low-country Republicans in Savannah are still another breed.
But the most difficult disconnect at the moment is the pro-Trump leadership of the Georgia Republican Party, versus the voters who soundly rejected the primary candidates hand-picked by Trump in 2022. Those Trump-backed candidates challenged state officials, including Kemp and the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, who refused to go along with Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. In a runoff election, a small but critical slice of Georgia Republicans cast ballots for Warnock or stayed home altogether, helping the Democrat win a full six-year term against Trump’s chosen U.S. Senate candidate, retired football star Herschel Walker.
Senior Republicans in the state believe the eventual presidential nominee will secure the support of the hard-core Republican base. They’re more concerned about the Republican voters who backed both Kemp and Warnock — and who recoil at the party leadership’s ardently pro-Trump stance.
“That disconnect between the Republican leadership and the rank-and-file voters creates organizational problems,” Paul said, adding, “How do you get voters fired up and ready to go when they disagree with you?”
The initial response of Georgia’s Republican base to Monday’s indictment, Trump’s fourth, is likely to mirror the national Republican response: rally around the candidate. But over time, Paul predicted, that could change, suggesting that “there’s beginning to be some fatigue with President Trump.”
Kemp refuted stolen election claims that Trump made on Truth Social on Tuesday, saying that elections in Georgia are “secure, accessible and fair.”
“The future of our country is at stake in 2024 and that must be our focus,” he wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.
Raffensperger also weighed in: “The most basic principles of a strong democracy are accountability and respect for the Constitution,” he said in a statement. “You either have it or you don’t.”
Kemp has committed to supporting the Republican presidential nominee in 2024 regardless of who it is. But he has kept his distance from the party’s far-right factions. Neither he nor Raffensperger attended the state party convention in June — an event that once served as a conservative confab peppered with unflashy business meetings but has now become beholden, in the eyes of some state conservatives, to culture wars and election denialism.
Georgia, with its 16 Electoral College votes and genial suburban Republicans, has never been terribly friendly to Trump’s brand of pugilistic politics. Trump’s 50.8% in 2016 was down from Mitt Romney’s 53.3% in 2012 and George W. Bush’s 58% in 2004. The trend continued in 2020 when Trump slipped below 50% and lost to Biden by 11,779 votes.
Geoff Duncan, Georgia’s Republican former lieutenant governor and a fierce Trump critic, emerged from grand jury testimony Monday and said, “We’re either as Republicans going to take our medicine and realize the election wasn’t rigged” or lose again.
“Donald Trump was the worst candidate ever in the history of the party, even worse than Herschel Walker, and now we’re going to have to pivot,” he said. “We want to win an election in 2024. It’s going to have to be someone other than Donald Trump.”
That entreaty contrasted with the conclusion of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Republican and Trump ally who represents northwest Georgia. “Corrupt Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis’ ‘investigation’ (WITCH HUNT) of President Trump dragged on for over two and a half years, just in time to interfere with the 2024 Presidential Election,” she wrote on X. “That’s not a coincidence. That’s election interference.”
Biden’s allies suggest that Trump’s ongoing crusade against Georgia Republicans could help Democrats keep the state in 2024.
“Donald Trump is the one candidate around which Democrats can rally and will turn out to vote against him,” said Fred Hicks, an Atlanta-based Democratic political strategist. “This is a real crisis moment for Republicans who care about electability.”
Joshua McKoon, chair of the Georgia Republican Party, said he thought the indictment would drive Republican voters in the state to unite around what they see as the politically motivated targeting of not only the former president but several state figures, including a sitting state senator and the former chair of the state party. But, he added, that same development could have a chilling effect on efforts to recruit and organize state activists.
“I think the intent of this kind of activity is to discourage people from being involved,” McKoon said. “It’s sort of like sending a message: ‘You better be careful about how active you are in the party, or you may find yourself criminally indicted.’”
Trump, should he be the Republican nominee, would almost certainly maintain his conservative base of support through next year. But for any GOP candidate to succeed in 2024, he or she would need to woo Georgia’s moderate and swing voters — the same small group whose distaste for Trump in 2020 helped Biden to victory and who elected both Kemp and Warnock in 2022.
Cole Muzio, president of the Georgia-based conservative group Frontline Policy Council, called Trump’s standing in the state “very dubious at best,” should he win the Republican nomination. For the GOP to carry the state in the next presidential election, he added, “it can’t be about 2020.”
“Good grief, we can’t keep relitigating 2020, because if we do, we will lose the most consequential election in my life,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.