Charlie Harper: GOP sets course, with warning

May 21, 2013 

Sure, the official overriding reason was to elect a new Georgia GOP chairman and a slate of other officers. John Padgett of Athens came out on top of the four way contest to succeed Cobb County's Sue Everhart, a three-term chairman who was term limited. Michael McNeely, chairman of Georgia's Black Republican Council, was elected to the position of First Vice Chairman.

Gone are the days when the forces from the "Pat Robertson" crowd battled those of "the establishment." These days, everyone seems to be battling the establishment without any sense of irony that the 2,000+ delegates who traveled to Athens and donned stickers proclaiming to be "RINO hunting" were, by definition, the establishment themselves.

And yet, while coalitions of social conservatives, Tea Partiers, Ron Paul-inspired liberty caucus revolutionaries, and members of various affiliated groups attempted to gain enough votes to elect their members to positions of authority, it was not lost on at least one highly influential member of the party where the real battle remains.

Governor Nathan Deal addressed the delegates during a break of self-congratulation as the outgoing officers had spent much of the morning awarding each other gifts for meritorious service. They had, after all, presided over a time when Georgia's transformation to a Republican state had become complete. All statewide elected officials are now under the GOP banner. Control of the Senate and House hover at super-majority numbers. It seems the only elusive trophy left for Republicans to gain is that of Georgia's 12th district, which John Barrow stubbornly refuses to cede.

The Governor acknowledged the accomplishments, but also urged Republicans to look at the 2012 election as they consider their future. Georgia was, after all, one of the states where Mitt Romney won by one of the thinnest margins of victory he enjoyed. This, despite virtually no effort from President Obama's campaign team or national Democrats.

Georgia will not go unchallenged for much longer. The Governor was keenly aware that the morning after this convention, Air Force One would be arriving at Hartsfield Jackson Airport, bringing a president not only to speak to graduates at Morehouse College, but also to stop by a fundraiser hosted by Arthur Blank for the 100 or so who could afford $10,000 or more per couple to attend.

Deal urged the delegates not to focus their anger and fight on other Republicans, but to remain vigilant. He admonished the crowd "not to tackle our own player" when he has the ball and is about to score. Instead, he encouraged those listening to look at the warning signs, noting Georgia's changing demographics. Despite the convention's election having an inward focus, he urged the crowd to remember that it is independent voters who are the most need for attention.

A cynic could note that the Governor could be talking about his own re-election in 2014. After all, Dalton Mayor David Pennington hasn't been shy about his flirtation for a run. But the reality is that the Governor has to know he is likely among the safest of Georgia's incumbents. The words were not likely about his own campaign or even the others in 2014, but those coming immediately after it. 2016 will be another presidential election year, which tends to have a higher Democratic turnout. In 2018, the Governor's office will be open and will likely create a lot of open statewide seats as currently office holders look to move up a position or three.

As the Democrats begin a long-term process of organizing Georgia using many more channels than their formal party structure, Georgia Republicans are threatening to further turn their focus inward. One of the key issues debated in the Chairman's race was to consider ending primaries and nominate candidates from the convention, as Virginia did this weekend at theirs. The result would be to empower the insider activists, but leave many Georgians -- and those independent voters the Governor warned about -- outside the process looking in.

The Georgia Republican Party currently has virtually everything it can hope for in this state. It remains to be seen if new leadership is content to allow this to be a high water mark, or if it can lead the activist grass roots toward outreach and policy positions that ensure majorities in general elections as the demographics of this state continue to change.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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