‘Dangerous?’ Why most Georgia Republicans aren’t picking 2024 candidates yet

ATLANTA — Donald Trump has an enormous lead over his rivals in every poll of GOP voters in Georgia. He has soaked up attention and fundraising dollars. And some Republicans say the sweeping charges leveled against the former president have only reinforced their support for him.

Yet, in a clear sign of deep squeamishness over Trump, most of the state’s top Republican elected officials have yet to back his comeback bid or — in rare cases — are siding with other GOP hopefuls they see as more formidable challengers to President Joe Biden.

The skepticism over Trump extends far beyond Gov. Brian Kemp and other statewide officials who spurned his demands to overturn his election defeat — and then walloped Trump-backed challengers that the former president promoted to exact revenge.

Only a handful of Republican elected officials have backed the former president so far this election cycle, as even key Trump loyalists have avoided endorsing him amid an unpredictable race shaped by unprecedented criminal indictments.

“Endorsing now is dangerous. It’s like asking a girl out right in front of your ex,” said Dan McLagan, a veteran Republican strategist. “The new girl may be flattered, but the ex might punch you in the nose with all your friends watching.”

Georgia contrasts with other states where Trump has locked up early institutional support. In neighboring South Carolina, for instance, he’s earned the backing of the governor, the senior U.S. senator and three congressmen — even though two home-grown candidates are competing against him.

“This state picks presidents,” former South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who has also endorsed Trump, said from the stage of one of the former president’s recent rallies. “When we come together and show this kind of support for an individual, it speaks volumes about the eventual nominee.”

‘Because of you’

The chief player on Georgia’s sidelines is Kemp, the second-term governor who is polling as the state’s most popular Republican. He’s also one of the least likely Georgia officials to formally back Trump ahead of the state’s March 12 primary.

Since winning his reelection bid last year, Kemp has unloaded on Trump, rejecting his lies about a “rigged” 2020 election and dubbing him a “loser” for skipping the first GOP debate.

Kemp allies suggest one reason for the slow pace of endorsements is because some Republican officials plan to follow the governor’s lead — and his call for candidates to embrace a forward-looking vision.

“Not a single swing voter in a single swing state will vote for our nominee if they choose to talk about the 2020 election being stolen,” Kemp told Republican donors earlier this year, part of a wave of pleas to GOP hopefuls to center their platforms on the future.

While Kemp’s stance is not surprising, the cautious approach from Trump-aligned politicians is. Many of the most ardent Trump supporters have yet to endorse him — including Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who won an open race last year with the former president’s support.

At the Georgia GOP convention earlier this year, Jones pointedly praised Trump but stopped short of formally backing him. Instead, he rejected the narrative that Trump’s quest for the White House has deepened a rift among conservatives.

“If you want to see how energized we are, look at the 2022 election, where we won every constitutional statewide race in the state of Georgia,” Jones told thousands of activists assembled in Columbus. “And that’s because of you in this room in the state of Georgia.”

‘They’ll come around’

The dearth of endorsements means the few politicians who have openly taken sides draw outsized attention.

Former U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly, for instance, sparked buzz in political circles last month when he backed South Carolina U.S. Sen. Tim Scott. State Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, quickly became one of Scott’s most prominent backers in the South after he lent support to his campaign.

“He has a positive, optimistic vision for America’s future,” Anavitarte said. “He’s a serious leader and you don’t have to guess what he stands for.”

And when former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley heads to Atlanta on Tuesday for a fundraiser, she’ll be greeted by former Republican statewide candidate Guy Millner, strategist Eric Tanenblatt, executive Jay Davis and real estate mogul Steve Selig.

Few Georgia politicians stand to reap the benefits — or risk the backlash — for an early endorsement as much as U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick. After defeating a Trump-backed rival in last year’s GOP primary, he became the highest-profile Georgia official to support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“Some people are disappointed. They love Trump. I get that — it’s OK. But we’re determining our own future,” he said in a recent interview. “And one thing we realize about the Republican Party is we’re fiercely independent. We’re one body of many parts. And it’s OK to disagree. It doesn’t have to be an argument.”

McCormick acknowledged he could face retribution from Trump, who hasn’t shied away from attacking Republicans he considers disloyal. But he was optimistic his decision wouldn’t come back to haunt him.

“The people who are loving Trump — I get it,” McCormick said. “But I think they’ll come around.”

Trump’s top allies in Georgia say they’re confused why more high-profile Republicans haven’t formally endorsed him yet, particularly those who backed him in 2016 and 2020.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who hasn’t stopped campaigning for Trump since his 2020 defeat, chuckled when asked whether the reluctance to rally behind Trump has surprised her.

“One of a lot of things,” she said, pointing to polls that showed Trump’s soaring GOP support. The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll showed Trump with 57% of support among likely Republican voters — and DeSantis at a distant second with 15%.

“I’ve been saying since literally after the 2020 election — even after Jan. 6 — that it doesn’t matter,” Greene said. “President Trump is still the leader of the Republican Party, and he will be our presidential nominee. I’ve been saying it all along, and people are finally seeing I’m right.”

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This story was originally published September 9, 2023, 1:00 AM.