Carson’s Commentary: Georgia Republicans are having an identity crisis

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Joe Biden swears in as the 46th U.S President. Biden flipped Georgia, which had not voted blue at the presidential level since 1992. Courtesy of Wikimedia

It started that November, as Joe Biden flipped a state that had not voted blue at the presidential level since 1992. Biden’s ability to mobilize minority voters in the Atlanta area boosted Democratic turnout — as did some questionable election administration in Cobb and Fulton Counties, depending on who you ask. When said election administration could not determine the winner of either Georgia Senate race, the state scheduled an unprecedented double runoff on Jan. 5, 2021.

Sure enough, Georgia Democrats continued Biden’s hot streak in the runoff. Candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock respectively defeated incumbent GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to cement Democratic control of both Congress and the White House for the first time since 2009. 

You would think this is the extent of Republicans’ problems in the Peach State, but unfortunately it is just the tip of the iceberg. The 2020 shockwave has paralyzed the party, and its increasingly bizarre list of 2022 candidates seems to have no end in sight. Furthermore, flirting with the extreme could threaten Republicans’ ability to transform anti-Biden Independents into reliable future voters.

While the seemingly imminent GOP showdown between former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis has attracted plenty of attention in Florida, I must contend the situation is actually far messier north of the St. Marys River. If Georgia’s conservatives want to restore their former glory, they must begin with determining the gubernatorial nominee.

Stacey Abrams campaigning in 2018. Abrams’ effort to mobilize Black voters was critical to Biden’s Georgia victory. Courtesy of Wikimedia

On the Democratic side, this answer is easy: former state representative and self-described “voting rights activist” Stacey Abrams. Abrams’ effort to mobilize Black voters was critical to Biden’s Georgia victory, but she is a much better political organizer than candidate. Despite losing to current Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in 2018, Abrams has still not conceded that race — conservative pundits often point this out when she criticizes 2020 election doubters. And just earlier this week, Abrams came under fire for her apparent hypocrisy of taking maskless photos with schoolchildren while supporting stricter mask mandates in schools. 

But enough about Abrams. Republicans have a primary waiting, and it’s going to be painful if they can’t get their act together. Kemp was briefly a conservative superstar (“Jake” ad, anyone?), but fell out of favor with his base rather quickly after his administration refused to overturn the 2020 election results in Trump’s favor. This — along with some of the more progressive initiatives Kemp signed, such as the Ahmaud Arbery-driven hate crime legislation — has left core conservatives looking elsewhere in the 2022 primary. 

In Perdue, the hardliners think they have found their man. Following his involvement in the February 2020 insider trading scandal doomed the senator’s re-election chances, Perdue has come back with a vengeance by garnering Trump’s endorsement and financial support. In his quest to woo over votes from the Kemp camp, Perdue has vowed to establish an “Election Law Enforcement Division” to crack down on voter fraud. Though such an approach could alienate moderate voters ahead of the general election, a Jan. 26 Quinnipiac primary poll showed Perdue trailing Kemp by just 7 percentage points (43% to 36%). 

Of course, these figures do not add up to 100%; this is because of the other man in that poll: Vernon Jones. A former Democratic state representative-turned Trump ally, Jones received just 10% support from likely primary voters. This is hardly surprising, as Jones has sat well behind Kemp (and later Perdue) since launching his campaign in April 2021. What was surprising, however, was his campaign’s announcement on Monday, Feb. 7: Jones would drop out of the primary race and endorse Perdue.

Without Jones, the Kemp-Perdue race should tighten considerably. If all of Jones’ supporters defect to Perdue, the senator has an easy path to the nomination. In such a scenario, the ball is in Kemp’s court. The incumbent would have to position himself as the man for moderates conflicted between Abrams and Perdue — a stark contrast to how Kemp portrayed himself four years ago. Ultimately, Republicans must hope these candidates refrain from sabotaging each other in the coming months, and that the primary’s loser will concede and quickly endorse the winner. Given that Trump and friends are currently backing the trailing candidate, this is anything but a given.

Herschel Walker during a visit in Washington. Walker is running for Georgia’s U.S. senate seat. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Such a contentious primary would be enough to divide Republicans in any state, but things in Georgia get messier when you consider there’s also a Senate election this year. In the January 2021 runoff, Warnock was only elected to finish the term of the late Sen. Johnny Isakson (R), who resigned for health reasons in 2019 and was replaced by Loeffler. Now, the incumbent hopes to lock up his seat through 2028 by fending off a challenge from … Herschel Walker?

Yes, the legendary University of Georgia running back has thrown his hat in the ring and seems to be picking up speed. Walker has the secured endorsements of Trump (a longtime friend), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley. While Walker is the most recognizable candidate Georgia Republicans have in this race, they must decide if they’re willing to shoulder his baggage. 

For one, there are legitimate concerns about Walker’s psychological history; a July 2021 Associated Press article covers these concerns in more detail than I ever could. Second, Democrats or even GOP primary opponents could easily challenge Walker’s residency status, as his wife is under investigation for allegedly voting in Georgia while living in Texas. 

For a candidate so vocal about preventing voter fraud, this hypocrisy is impressive. But none of it matters when you’re Herschel Walker in Georgia — or Texas, supposedly. The 1982 Heisman Trophy winner is dominating his GOP primary opponents in the polls, and he’s essentially tied with Warnock nine months before the general election. 

Somehow, Walker isn’t the most controversial Georgia (if he even lives there) Republican on the congressional ballot this year. That honor goes to 14th district Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. 

How should state Republicans handle her? This is a question for which the House GOP caucus has had no clear answer. Greene — who often makes false and violent statements that would make MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell blush — was removed from her committee assignments in February 2021 after 11 Republicans joined all House Democrats in voting to do so. Since that time, Greene has continued to threaten her colleagues and received a permanent ban from Twitter. 

Whether or not you think Greene’s Twitter ban was justified, she clearly brings nothing but bad optics to Congress. This is a fact that healthcare executive Jennifer Strahan, the Republican with the best chance of successfully primarying Greene, seems keen on exploiting. A Jan. 13-17 poll showed Greene and Strahan tied for first among Republicans in their district. If the Georgia GOP is committed to courting Independents and moderates to expand its base in the near future, it should endorse Strahan as soon as possible. 

After writing this, I’m glad to not be faced with the same dilemma of my Georgia counterparts later this year. While the national landscape is trending in the right direction for Republicans, the Peach State’s GOP must recognize the extent of its delicate balance, as there could be national implications if it can’t right the ship.

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