As former President Donald Trump steps up his comeback bid, some of the state’s most prominent Republicans are raising urgent concerns about whether he can retake the state — let alone the White House — in 2024.
Dozens of elected officials, conservative activists, current and former party leaders, and state GOP members surveyed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are reluctant to embrace Trump — and more enthusiastic about an alternative who could be a stronger rival to President Joe Biden.
Although some of the more than 60 Republican figures contacted by the AJC lauded Trump’s policies and stressed that he’s still the party’s front-runner, they expressed grave fears about his ability to win over swing voters in a state where they played a decisive role.
And several say that Trump is irrevocably tainted by the ongoing criminal and civil investigations into his actions during and after his presidency — particularly the Fulton County probe into whether he and his allies illegally sought to reverse his narrow 2020 defeat.
“He has done enough damage to our party and country, post-presidency,” said Colt Chambers, the former chair of the Georgia Young Republicans.
“There’s a good chance he could win the primary,” Chambers said. “But, quite frankly, there’s no way he could win the general. We know this from the many lost races in 2022 by candidates that President Trump endorsed.”
With the nominating contests a year away, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the top alternative state GOP leaders mentioned in texts, emails and phone interviews over the past two weeks. Others floated former Vice President Mike Pence and ex-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is set to formally enter the race later this month.
But most of all, those who responded to the AJC’s requests say they don’t want Trump presumptively crowned the GOP nominee without a tough nominating contest.
“Competitive primaries produce winners. It made Trump a better candidate in 2016, and the lack of it dulled his glow in 2020,” said Jay Morgan, the former executive director of the Georgia GOP. “Bring it on.”
Notably, no Republican constitutional officer in Georgia who responded to the AJC’s requests publicly endorsed Trump. That includes Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who was the only statewide GOP candidate who was backed by Trump before the May primary to win in November.
While Jones praised the “Trump/Pence agenda” for its economic policies, he told the AJC his attention is focused solely on his new job as Georgia’s No. 2 official.
And Gov. Brian Kemp, who Trump unsuccessfully tried to oust last year, further distanced himself from the former president by telling the AJC he expects a “wide-open primary that showcases the successes of Republican governors and the work of other conservative leaders.”
Even former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who staked her 2020 Senate bid on her loyalty to Trump, has declined to endorse him. She would only say that a primary battle is assured and that leaders should be “laying the groundwork to unite diverse coalitions” behind a conservative nominee.
Yet few are dismissing Trump — nor minimizing his advantages. He still wields the largest fundraising apparatus of any potential contender and enduring loyalty from a solid bloc of conservatives.
An AJC poll released last week showed nearly three-quarters of Georgia Republicans have a positive view of Trump — slightly higher than DeSantis and far surpassing Pence’s favorability rating.
“No one is counting him out,” former U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland said. “The enthusiasm he brings to a crowd is indescribable. And I have no problem with what he did while governing. But he has to decide if he really wants to be president.”
Kathy Hurley, the Oconee County GOP chair, has yet to make her 2024 pick but would happily support Trump’s return to the White House if he wins the party’s nomination.
“My personal belief is that he did this country a great service in many ways and did exactly what he promised he would do during his first campaign — which, candidly, is extremely refreshing,” Hurley said.
Still, even those who saw Trump as the party’s most likely nominee lamented his refusal to acknowledge the results of the election and his knack for stoking divisions within the GOP. Several questioned whether the 76-year-old can present an alternative to Biden.
“Trump’s biggest problem is Biden,” former U.S. Rep. John Linder said. “Many people on all sides are going to wonder if the nation can take another 78-year-old president as they watch Biden fade away.”
While national figures have also soured on Trump, state Republicans often note their worries about his comeback also stem from his obsession with overturning his 2020 defeat in Georgia — and the disastrous campaign he waged to exact revenge on local leaders who didn’t go along.
Trump’s war against Kemp ended in humiliation for his hand-picked challenger, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, and other GOP incumbents also quashed Trump-backed challenges in the primary before sweeping to November wins.
And some blame Trump for encouraging Herschel Walker’s ill-fated campaign against Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. Trump endorsed Walker long before he launched his bid, calling him an “unstoppable” force. Walker was the only statewide GOP candidate to lose in Georgia in 2022.
“When Trump and activists who are aligned with him want to put up massively flawed candidates who can’t fog a mirror in the general election, I hope sane conservatives have lost all patience,” said John Watson, a former chairman of the Georgia GOP.
Americans, Watson added, deserve a “White House that’s not a memory care home nor a three-ring circus” that’s under the constant threat of investigation.
Now buzzed about as a potential 2024 contender himself, Kemp has recently taken a sharper line against Trump. He indicated he prefers a nominee who can appeal to a broad coalition of voters.
“To save our country from the disasters of the Biden administration, we must have a Republican nominee in 2024 who can win the general election,” the governor said.
“Voters frustrated with the direction of our country want to hear what we are for — and what we’re going to do in the future to help them and their families get a good-paying job, live in a safe community and achieve the American dream,” Kemp said.
So far, Trump’s campaign is a throwback to his last two bids for president — with a twist. He’s trying to present himself as an anti-establishment insurgent candidate who also boasts support from powerful insider backers.
And while his advisers say he can broaden his coalition to attract more voters, he’s done little to demonstrate his strategy has changed after losing the 2020 election and backing fringe candidates who were defeated in Georgia and other battleground states in the midterm.
During an initial foray onto the campaign trail last week, Trump’s messaging hardly changed. He repeated lies to voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina that the 2020 election was stolen from him, attacked “fake news” and promoted his favorite recent polls.
He also tried to sharpen a contrast with DeSantis by claiming the Florida governor was “trying to rewrite history” by touting his handling of the pandemic, including the governor’s decision to impose restrictions during the opening months of the crisis.
That led to sharp criticism from Georgia Republicans who noted that Trump once panned Kemp for the opposite reason. In the first weeks of the pandemic, he slammed the governor for acting “too soon” to lift economic restrictions in Georgia.
“It’s just another reason why the scoreboard shows Brian Kemp and Ron DeSantis winning big,” said Stephen Lawson, a Georgia operative who has worked for the Florida governor.
Lawson’s critique was noteworthy for another reason.
Georgia Republican officials and leaders once grumbled privately about Trump but publicly held their tongue. Now, many are far more willing to say whether they believe Trump has worn out his welcome.
“I know this comment will make some mad, but I think Ron DeSantis would have a better shot at winning voters over nationwide,” said Mickey Tuck, a Georgia GOP state committee member who campaigned for Trump the past two elections.
“Much like Gov. Kemp did in Georgia, he would not only win the Republican vote but also independents and moderate Democrats,” Tuck said. “That’s what we need to win back the White House.”
For Tom Pounds, another member of the Georgia GOP state committee, it was Trump’s actions when a violent mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, that sealed his disdain for the former president.
“I believe he’s delusional about the election being ‘stolen’ from him,” said Pounds, a former Dade County GOP chair. “I hope and pray the Republican Party nominates a candidate that I can truly support.”