In less than two weeks the Georgia Republican Party will have a new chairman. Who that will be is a somewhat less pressing question than what a state party is anymore.
Republicans in Georgia remain at a high-water mark in terms of elected officials: all statewide elected offices, 9 of 13 congressmen (with one vacancy), a constitutional majority in the state Senate, and just shy of one in the House. Yet, the party apparatus itself is at low tide. Talk to any number of Republican office holders, voters and donors, and you hear a lack of confidence and trust in the party, which has come to be reflected in the party’s finances and operations.
The reasons for this are many, and most relate to the current chairman, John Padgett. Critics point to lawsuits filed against the party, most notably a racial discrimination suit by a former employee. I have also heard complaints about a lack of responsiveness from party headquarters, and that in 2014 it fell to outside conservative groups to supply much of the manpower for Republican get-out-the-vote efforts. The relationship between the party and elected officials sounds strained, to the extent it exists (though, to be fair, that problem predates Padgett).
Let’s assume for the sake of argument the critics are correct that Padgett is a particularly poor chairman. Even so, replacing him won’t magically resolve the party’s biggest problem, which is the existential question. What is a state party circa 2017 supposed to do?
In the era of super PACs, wealthy donors don’t have to work through a state party to support candidates. With so many issue-specific groups, activists need not gather underneath the big tent of a political party. Both developments allow candidates to jump into races without bothering to seek the blessing of party leaders, which is one reason recent elections have featured such large fields.
Consider the race in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Eleven Republicans ran, splintering the party’s vote while Democrats coalesced quickly behind Jon Ossoff. Millions were spent by, or on behalf of, Republicans leading up to the April 18 vote, much of it to ensure local Republicans voted and counter Democratic enthusiasm.
The Georgia GOP’s most recent campaign filing, for activity through April 30, showed about $140,000 in election-related expenditures.
The new chairman will be chosen at the state convention in Augusta on June 3. If I were a delegate, here’s what I’d want to hear from the candidates.
I’d want to hear how the party should define what it means to be a Republican. I’m not talking about purity tests or loyalty oaths, but “Republican” and “conservative” have become labels that Georgia’s politically ambitious adopt without a great deal of thought. What are the party’s principles? Why? How can the party educate Georgians, voters and candidates alike, about such things?
I’d want to hear how the party can take its message to more and different people. We have heard about Georgia’s demographic changes for years. The short-term interests of elected officials, namely pushing policies popular with the current base, can make it harder to persuade those outside that group that there’s a place for them, too. How might the party address both shortcomings?
I’d also want to hear what role they think the party ought to play in campaign finance. Two things are clear: The importance of money to campaigns isn’t diminishing, and the new avenues for bankrolling campaigns aren’t going away. Should the party try to restore itself as the main clearinghouse for Republicans’ election spending, or should it stake out a narrower, if still vital, role?
Someone who could answer those questions well might be onto something.