JEFFERSON — They are “the base, the bedrock and the foundation” of the region’s Republican Party.
And they are getting ready for November.
GOP faithful from the 9th Congressional District gathered in Jefferson this weekend, filling a convention hall to elect representatives to this summer’s national party convention and to reignite the fire in their bellies to rally around the Republican cause.
Of the nearly 500 people organizers said attended the weekend’s district convention, only six can represent the district this August in Tampa. One will be Hall County Republican Jim Pilgrim.
But U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, in a Saturday morning speech, called the rest “the base, the bedrock and the foundation of the Republican Party,” because of their role as party evangelists this fall.
While there are no U.S. Senate seats up for election in Georgia this year, Isakson urged 9th District Republicans to reach out to friends in other states and to work for the party’s cause there.
There are 33 Senate seats up for election in other states, most held by Democrats.
“If you don’t think November is important, then think again,” Isakson said.
And although they’ve not yet officially chosen a nominee for president, Isakson and others at the weekend’s convention urged unity for November, which may be a concern for the party with such a long primary season.
Though Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee, a number of cars in the parking lot at the Jefferson Civic Center Saturday bore Ron Paul stickers.
But most of the speakers focused on Republicans’ end goal: keeping President Barack Obama from winning a second term.
“We can only do it if we’re together,” said Isakson. “No matter what team we’re on in the preliminaries ... let’s go out in November. Let’s vote early, and if they’ll let you, let’s vote often.”
One of the decisions voters will make this year is who should represent them in the U.S. House. Last year’s redistricting process made all or parts of 20 counties in Northeast Georgia home to the state’s newest congressional district.
The open seat has five candidates, all Republicans, and all addressed the convention Saturday.
State Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Hall County, spoke about new tax rules he and other lawmakers passed this year that raise tax deductions for married couples, and a bill he co-sponsored that seeks to ban most abortions in Georgia 20 weeks after conception.
Collins received applause from conventiongoers when he called Roe v. Wade, the country’s landmark decision on abortion, “one of the worst decisions that ever came out of the Supreme Court.”
He said the bills were an example of his “consistent conservative action” as a person elected to represent his constituents.
“I believe it’s one person who goes to Washington to represent 700,000 people that can’t make it on that day,” Collins told the crowd.
Collins’ campaign staff earlier in the morning filled the seats in the convention hall with a flier comparing statements he had made with those his opponent, Martha Zoller, had made on issues. The flier sought to align Zoller with gay marriage, opposition to abortion bans and an affinity for Obama.
“He wouldn’t go negative this early if he wasn’t concerned about me,” Zoller said.
In her address to the convention, Zoller tried to convince attendees that though she does not have legislative experience, she has what it takes to represent the district.
Zoller promised to release a plan she called a “map to prosperity” soon, and gave out her cell phone number to attendees who wanted to ask her questions.
“Some people think that legislative experience is the only thing that matters,” said Zoller. “We don’t need to have a congressman whose turn it is. ... After raising four children, I can handle anything that Washington has to handle.”
Collins’ speech was followed by White County elementary school principal Roger Fitzpatrick, who told attendees that he was “probably the least known of the five candidates.”
Fitzpatrick started his campaign as an independent, a designation he thought might make him a “voice of reason” amongst a deeply-divided Congress. Though he changed to the Republican ticket, Fitzpatrick’s speech Saturday offered the original message of civility.
“Last time I checked, we’re Americans first, and we have got to get back to a place where that is first priority,” Fitzpatrick said.
It was the first statement of all the day’s speeches that addressed the country’s other major party as anything other than an opponent. Still, some in the room full of Republicans applauded.
Jackson County Commission Chairman Hunter Bicknell was the first of the candidates who spoke Saturday and sought to distinguish himself from the others.
“I am a businessman,” he said. “And I think that we need to send people (to Congress) who have had both feet on the ground in this economy for a long period of time to help resolve the issues that we are faced with.”
In a speech that focused on lowering tax rates and shrinking the size of the federal government, Bicknell said Washington, D.C., had become home to career politicians, but promised not to succumb to the pressures from special interests.
“Consider electing someone to Congress who simply wants to go and do a job rather than have a job,” Bicknell said.
Bicknell wasn’t the only to focus his campaign rhetoric on jobs. Clifton McDuffie, former head of the Gainesville-Hall County Chamber of Commerce who has worked in various economic development roles around the state, brought his resume to the convention rather than campaign fliers and push cards.
“I think the experience working in economic development can mean a great deal to ... the 9th District,” McDuffie said.
McDuffie promised that, if elected, he’d form a districtwide economic development council and a film commission meant to attract film production to the area.
On the other issues, McDuffie joked: “I agree with everything the other candidates have said.”