The Clandestine Efforts to Keep Georgia's Old-School Conservatives in the Fold
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Georgia Republicans aren't just fighting for Senate control, but for their ability to claim a type of conservatism different from their Southern neighbors.
By Nick Fouriezos
- Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are going hard to drive turnout from the Donald Trump base of the party ahead of Georgia’s pivotal Jan. 5 runoffs.
- While they reject the ways of the state’s old-school GOP, key behind-the-scenes leaders are still luring this critical group to the polls.
Bryan Hughes is a long way from home. Days before the U.S. Senate runoff elections in Georgia, the Texas state senator is knocking on hundreds of doors in the Atlanta suburbs each day. He drove 11 hours for an election that could mean the difference between Democrats seizing complete control in Washington and having a Republican check against a Joe Biden presidency.
The importance of these races is also felt by the suburban voters Hughes is reaching out to, many of whom live in homes valued at just under half a million dollars.
“There is a tremendous amount at stake,” one burly man in a Falcons T-shirt says from his doorway, carefully keeping his distance due to COVID-19 concerns. “I’ll be making sure to vote, to make sure there is balance. At least for the next couple years.” Hughes agrees enthusiastically: “We can’t have one side running away with it.”
Such suburban Atlanta conservatives have long powered the state’s Republican Party, often boasting a college education, a higher tax bracket and a desire to avoid burning bridges in this international metropolis once known as the City Too Busy to Hate. Yet there has been little public outreach to these more moderate fiscal conservatives from the GOP’s two Senate candidates themselves.
Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue have both backed President Donald Trump, who has sharply divided Georgia’s Republicans by torching Gov. Brian Kemp and other state GOP leaders for not supporting his efforts to overturn the election over baseless fraud allegations. Loeffler and Perdue have called for the Republican secretary of state to resign, maintaining that Trump won despite a series of recounts showing otherwise. Trump is returning the favor by campaigning in the northwest part of the state on Monday to stoke rural turnout, following an earlier rally in South Georgia.
That scorched-earth strategy has left traditional Georgia Republicans out in the cold. But many in the old guard are working to help Perdue and Loeffler win, driven by a shared goal of keeping the state — and the U.S. Senate — red. Trump’s insistence on discrediting the presidential vote makes their task harder. A recent SurveyUSA poll showed that just 18 percent of Loeffler/Perdue voters have “full confidence” their vote will be counted accurately, compared to 67 percent for backers of the Democratic candidates, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.
Perdue and Loeffler have to thread the needle: How do you not alienate Trump supporters who are upset, and also send the message that we are the only check on a President Joe Biden that exists?
Buzz Brockway, former Republican Georgia state representative
Some of the mainstream GOP’s outreach efforts are more visible. The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently sent Ivanka Trump to Milton, one of Georgia’s richest cities, where she sang paeans to up-by-the-bootstraps conservatism, addressing a crowd of Ugg boots and Patagonia jackets next to Aviator glasses and upper-class guts. TV ads from a group called Peachtree PAC declare that Loeffler and Perdue will be a check on Biden — but the people behind the shadowy group’s $40 million in ad spending aren’t legally required to become public until after the runoffs.
For the most part, their initiatives are flying under the radar, driven by an intricate grassroots door-knocking network with a nuanced message. The National Rifle Association has held canvassing efforts at gun clubs across the state, including one in the famous golf-cart affluent hub of Peachtree City. Americans for Prosperity, backed by the billionaire Koch family, has 200 paid staffers and hundreds more activists from its Georgia chapter knocking on doors. They expect to reach a million doors by Election Day, on top of 3.2 million phone calls and 850,000 text messages with targeted digital and streaming ads. The Faith & Freedom Coalition — which is headquartered in Duluth and whose chairman, Ralph Reed, is from Georgia — will hit 650,000 doors and send 900,000 voter guides, in addition to the just over 1 million guides passed out by 5,400 churches throughout the state.
Hughes was knocking on doors with the Faith & Freedom Coalition, joining some 1,000 volunteers, many from out of state like himself. At times, the message from these groups has admitted the reality that Trump lost, even if the senators won’t say it. “Perdue and Loeffler have to thread the needle: How do you not alienate Trump supporters who are upset, and also send the message that we are the only check on a President Joe Biden that exists?” says Buzz Brockway, a former Republican state representative now working at the Georgia Center for Opportunity, a free market think tank. “It’s tough to walk that line.”
Grassroots groups need to speak thoughtfully, suggests Tim Head, executive director for the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “The social conservatives that work at Coca-Cola, at Bank of America’s regional office … in order for them to be willing to somewhat publicly associate with us, we have to be more nuanced and constructive,” Head says. “We want these cosmopolitan social conservatives to feel like they have a safe home, where they are not going to be ashamed or embarrassed by our public positions or speech.”
Americans for Prosperity, which emphasizes fiscal conservatism, has backed Perdue, running digital ads and sending informational mailers for the businessman. But it hasn’t batted for the more controversial Loeffler, the richest person in the U.S. Senate, who has boasted about being “more conservative than Attila the Hun” and having “stood by the president 100 percent of the time.” Both Perdue and Loeffler put any concerns about fiscal restraint aside to jump on board with Trump’s recent calls for $2,000 stimulus checks for millions of Americans, though that effort has been blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Since 2018, AFP has especially targeted suburban voters, particularly women, whose voting shifts led to Republican losses in states like Pennsylvania and Arizona. AFP has also promised not to run any attack ads, keeping the focus on issues like the economy and preserving private health care. “We’re trying to be happy warriors,” says Tony West, a Buford, Georgia-based senior adviser to AFP Action PAC. “Being nonpartisan, being issues-based, allows us to be a lot more positive, whether it be the swing voter or the more conservative-aligned universe.”
Still, most traditional political operatives are too skittish to say the obvious on record: that Republicans can’t just win with the most extreme members of their party. Brockway was originally confident he could put me in touch with some of the leaders of those quiet efforts. But eventually, he said nobody wanted to talk. “I guess it really is a secret network,” he says.
Neither Perdue nor Loeffler has solicited help, sources say, from former Sen. Johnny Isakson, a congenial conservative who helped build the modern Georgia GOP and applied a saying from his real estate days to politics: “There are friends and future friends.” Isakson, whose retirement because of poor health led to Loeffler’s appointment, won reelection by nearly 14 percentage points in 2016, when Trump won Georgia by 5.
“I think it’s unfortunate. It has more to do with the perception that this is how you win elections now — and there is, in some corners of the GOP, just a disgust with the Isakson approach to things,” Brockway says. “I think that type of politics is a victim of our current politics, which is all about revving up your base, getting it angry and energized, and marching to the polls.”
Stoking turnout is the name of the game for both parties in these runoffs, which typically have far lower turnout than presidential elections, though early vote numbers suggest the numbers in January might be close to November, given the big spending and high stakes. “We’re spending all our resources on GOTV,” an effort that includes both traditional and newer Trump-inspired Republicans, says Martha Zoller, a former conservative radio host who chairs Georgia United Victory (GUV), the pro-Loeffler PAC. “I’ll be honest: I think every Republican who can be reached has been at this point.”
Still, voting experts say that trust in election integrity is a major factor in whether these voters bother to show up at all. A swing of just a few thousand voters could make a big difference in close contests.
“People are fed up and tired of voting,” says David White, a Trump supporter who owns a concrete pumping company in exurban Canton, adding that he thinks many won’t show up at the polls. “The Democrats are still going to have suitcases full of votes.”
That sentiment was evident at Ivanka Trump’s Milton event, which White attended. When Loeffler talked about creating jobs and fighting new taxes, she was drowned out by voters chanting “Fight for Trump” and “Stop the Steal!” How the Georgia GOP juggles those passionate Trump voters with traditional supporters could make the Senate races a template for the future of the Republican Party itself.