Before former President Donald J. Trump’s election, the Republican Party’s identity was fairly simple and their actions generally predictable.
Republicans claimed to support limited government, free market economics and fiscal responsibility. They also embraced social conservatism and promoted pro-life policies and—of course—the Second Amendment.
But Trump changed much within the GOP, shuffling the political landscape and downgrading many policy positions once considered central to the Republican ethos. The long-term impact of his actions is still to be seen, but it could fundamentally alter the GOP and its future in Georgia.
“[Trump] turned Republicans away from four decades of Reagan-style, national-greatness conservatism to a new gospel of populism and nationalism,” the Wall Street Journal remarked. While Trump largely espoused Republicans’ long-held social positions, he often eschewed their high-minded economics and many limited-government philosophies.
He ran massive deficits, sparked failed trade wars, and pursued business-killing reforms and lawsuits against private companies that personally offended him. Despite seeming antithetical to orthodox Republican principles, large swathes of the GOP cheered on such endeavors.
Some Republicans never warmed to his policies, but even with Trump out of power, the GOP hasn’t returned to its old ways. Rather, there appears to be a smoldering schism within a Republican Party that is struggling with an identity crisis.
I’ve observed many GOP grassroots activists and grasstops leaders laboring to define what should be paramount to Republicans, and the crux of the impassioned debate generally boils down to one question: should the party be more concerned with adhering to traditional Republican principles or swearing fealty first and foremost to the former president?
The debate is nowhere near resolved, which has resulted in internecine disputes that can be plainly observed here in Georgia, and they threaten to spill over into the coming elections. In fact, I’ve seen some Trump adherents exclaiming that they will not support any Republican who didn’t go to extraordinary lengths back to Trump—whatever that means.
Given this strange turn of events, it isn’t too surprising that Republicans are challenging incumbent Republicans, and loyalty to Trump looms large in several statewide Republican primaries—potentially throwing the GOP power structure into chaos.
Last year, Governor Brian Kemp came under fire for refusing to overturn the past presidential election—an act that would have been illegal. Even at the recent state GOP convention, he endured a wave of loud boos and jeers from some conference attendees, but he has to grapple with more than just heckling.
Long-time Democrat and former State Representative Vernon Jones decided to switch parties and is challenging incumbent Governor Brian Kemp for the Republican nomination. When Jones announced his candidacy, the New York Times wrote, “[Jones] criticized Mr. Kemp for rejecting Mr. Trump’s demand to convene special session of the state legislature to examine Georgia’s election results.” Governor Kemp isn’t the only high-profile incumbent facing such Trump-related adversity.
In 2020, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger received a flurry of criticism for refusing to help overturn the election, and days ago, the Georgia GOP recently passed a resolution censuring him. Like Kemp, Raffensperger must also compete in a contested primary. He quickly garnered two primary challengers—David Belle Isle and Congressman Jody Hice (R-10)—whose candidacies seem directly related to the fallout from Trump’s failed election, and not long ago, T.J. Hudson also threw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination for Secretary of State.
The state’s number two spot is also up for grabs. Incumbent Republican Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan surprisingly announced that—despite not garnering any Republican opposition—he will not run for reelection. Rather, he will focus on what he called “GOP 2.0,” which appears designed to move the Republican Party away from Trump.
It’s difficult to predict the future of the Georgia GOP. Republicans are challenging Republicans, and there’s no shortage of in-fighting. In fact, the only similarities that bind much of the fractured GOP is that Republicans aren’t happy with their recent electoral losses, and many Republicans seem to hate each other more than they loathe Democrats. These squabbles will only make it easier for the political left to win.
If the GOP wants to remain relevant, then party leaders and activists will have to focus on the shared Republican principles that first brought them to the party, and rather than seeing enemies everywhere within the GOP, perhaps activists should take President Ronald Reagans’ sage advice: “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally—not a 20 percent traitor.”
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at a free market think tank, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.