The Georgia Republican Party took a beating on Saturday from the men running to lead it.
Alex Johnson, Michael McNeely, John Watson and Mike Welsh — the four candidates aiming to be the party’s next chairman — debated the party’s failings and what it should do to overcome them before Hall County delegates and members of the public at the North Hall Community Center.
Delegates will travel to Augusta in early June to elect the next chairman during the party’s annual convention, which begins June 2.
With the Georgia GOP carrying twice the debt as it has cash on hand, its finances and the capability and integrity of party leadership were front and center as the candidates discussed the party’s past and future.
Beyond the introduction of the event by U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, national politics were mostly absent during the debate moderated by Georgia blogger Jessica Szilagyi. Collins talked about the potentially difficult electoral map facing the party in 2018.
“We have 24 people in Congress right now that are Republicans who are sitting in districts that (Democrat) Hillary Clinton won,” Collins said. “Think about that going into next year.”
Not absent: President Donald Trump, who was praised by Collins and the candidates at several points during the event. Trump was lauded as a Republican leader, and the candidates for the state chairmanship said the party needed to work to keep the 2 million people who voted for Trump — not all of whom were traditional Republicans — interested in the party’s message.
To retain Trump voters and to build an active volunteer base, the party will need cash and leadership.
McNeely, current vice chairman of the state party, called for background checks of party staff and said it needed to get past the continuing lawsuit from a former staffer, Qiana Keith of Hall County, who was fired in 2014 and subsequently filed a discrimination lawsuit against the party.
“We have to certainly raise money, and the problem with our current debt was around that lawsuit, which still hasn’t been settled,” McNeely said.
Watson, a former chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue and a longtime fundraiser and lobbyist in the state, had blistering words for the party.
“To restore the credibility of the Georgia Republican Party, we’ve got to be able to tell the truth,” Watson told the crowd of several dozen people. “We’ve got to say, ‘Look, the reality is that we are no longer a trusted adviser or a trusted place (in) which donors of this state will put their money. We are indeed mired in lawsuits. We have spent our money frivolously. We have no budget in writing. We have treated the Georgia Republican Party like a piggy bank in the manner in which Democrats would.’”
Johnson, a DeKalb County lawyer with a tea party background, criticized the party’s Atlanta-focused fundraising in the past and said it needed someone from outside of the party leadership to run it.
“We need to be thinking bigger statewide,” he said. “We have financial issues, sure, but when it comes down to it, the state-level GOP needs to be focused on not just the general elections.”
He noted that he lives in the 6th Congressional District, now up for grabs in the race between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel ,and has had four Ossoff volunteers knock on his door and none for Handel.
Welsh, a state businessman, offered a more optimistic view of the party’s future, largely focusing on his plan to grow the party should he be elected by party delegates. He said the GOP needed to put more effort into “digital infrastructure” and finding new voters.