Georgia Republicans chose electoral pragmatism over ideological purity when they elected their state chairman last weekend, but it was a close call.
At their state convention in Athens, GOP activists voted to keep John Padgett as party chairman for another two years, putting down a challenge by DeKalb County lawyer Alex Johnson for the party’s top job.
Padgett was the choice of elected leaders and the party establishment. He was also coming off an election cycle in which the GOP swept every statewide office, held on to a U.S. Senate seat, picked up an extra seat in the U.S. House and maintained a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly.
In a state where roughly 45 percent of the voters support Democrats, it’s difficult to see how Padgett and the party he leads could have done much better.
And yet, his margin of victory was only 807-612. Johnson picked up 40 percent of the vote among party regulars when he ran against Padgett two years ago and upped that to 43 percent this time.
There is a lot of dissatisfaction among party activists that results from the competing interests of winning elections versus maintaining a philosophical stance on fundamental issues.
Johnson’s supporters don’t think the current party leadership is conservative enough. They are especially unhappy about Republican votes for a huge highway tax increase in this year’s session and the inability to get a “religious freedom” bill passed.
Johnson told convention delegates that his wing of the party feels “betrayed” by elected Republicans who “vote against bills supporting our platform.”
“Enough is enough, time for a change,” Johnson said. “It is time for new leadership that will stand up for you and your principles.”
This argument is one that every political party faces at various points in its existence. People are attracted to this party or that because it stands for something important to them: cutting taxes, ending slavery, providing health care, spending more tax funds on the military, or whatever.
It remains a fact of life, however, that the primary function of a political party is to win elections. If you don’t hold an executive office like president or governor, or if you are the minority faction in Congress or a state legislature, you are not going to put your policy goals into action.
Your party leadership may not be carrying out its “principles” to your satisfaction, but your chances of achieving anything are roughly zero when you are the minority party.
“What is the job of the chairman and this party?” Padgett asked at one point during the convention.
An audience member yelled back the answer: “Win elections!”
Even while they voted to keep a chairman who was the choice of the party establishment, there were still some internal divisions and contradictions on display within the GOP ranks.
Convention delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution demanding the General Assembly pass, “without amendments,” the religious freedom bill that stalled during the most recent session. This is a measure similar to the religious freedom law that sparked a media firestorm in Indiana and did enormous political damage to Republican Gov. Mike Pence.
The convention, however, also elected an openly gay candidate, attorney Mansell McCord, as the new state treasurer.
There were several mentions by various speakers of the need to expand the party’s base by bringing in more blacks and Latinos. At least two of the candidates for minor party offices reinforced this message by speaking Spanish during their presentations to demonstrate their fluency with the language.
“We have to work each and every day to convince Latinos to vote Republican,” Attorney General Sam Olens said. “We have to work each and every day to persuade African-Americans to vote for Republicans.”
The convention delegates, however, adopted a resolution urging the state to deny drivers’ licenses to all undocumented immigrants. They cheered Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office has tried to shut down efforts to register minority voters.
It remains to be seen what impact, if any, these divisions might have on election results in 2016 and what sort of opening they might provide to the Democratic Party.
“Those who voted for me, God bless you,” Padgett told the delegates. “Those who voted against me, God bless you. We all need to pull together.”
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.