Georgia Republicans are weighing an election shift that could reshape the state’s political landscape by giving grass-roots activists tremendous new clout in picking the party’s nominee.
State GOP leaders plan to vote Saturday whether to take a first step away from the summer primaries that elect the party’s nominee and toward allowing a convention of party insiders to choose the candidate for statewide and national office. Consider it an audition for a more sweeping electoral change.
Not surprisingly, some elected Republican leaders and assorted power brokers are wary of an overhaul they fear could disenfranchise the roughly 700,000 people who vote in party primaries and cede power to a smaller group of activists.
But supporters say the change is needed to offset what the resolution calls the “power of Big Money and Big Media” and give more say to the activists who feel they’ve been ignored during the GOP’s ascendancy.
“This is an effort to try to remove money from the nominating contest, and some who aren’t in support of it are the ones who enjoy the privilege to dictate who will be our nominee through their money,” said Dale Jackson, a LaGrange businessman who chairs the state GOP’s 3rd district.
“Right now there are a very few people who are participating, and those are the people who can afford to spend hundreds if not millions of dollars to influence who wins the nomination.”
The pitch comes at a pivotal moment for Georgia Republicans. Gov. Nathan Deal and other leaders routinely acknowledge the party needs to broaden its message or risk facing a resurgent Democratic Party emboldened by a growing minority population. And the heated competition for an open U.S. Senate spot triggered a race to the right that some fear could give Democrats a better chance at seizing the seat.
The resolution before Georgia Republican Party’s state committee doesn’t call for immediate changes, but rather an intense study of a possible switch. Any changes would require revisions to Georgia’s election code that would likely have to pass federal muster under the Voting Rights Act.
The Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections, also predicted that a move toward nominating conventions could also open the state to First Amendment lawsuits from smaller parties that have challenged electoral procedure in past cycles.
Most states use primaries to tap candidates for statewide office, but a few buck that system. The method the resolution’s supporters hail is the so-called Virginia Plan, which allows the state GOP to decide whether its candidates are nominated by primaries or conventions. This year, the Virginia party selected a convention.
The party’s establishment wing hasn’t been keen on the idea, and some point to Virginia as a prime example why. Virginia’s Republicans selected E.W. Jackson, a little-known minister and attorney, as their candidate for lieutenant governor despite controversial comments about gays and abortion that could haunt him during the general election.
“I’m not sure less democracy is the solution, at this point in our history, to whatever ills or frustrations are out there,” House Speaker David Ralston said this week. “I can’t support that and I don’t support it. I re-read the resolution this morning and I’m not sure what the rationale for it might be.”
Brant Frost V, the Coweta County GOP chairman who brought the resolution, said his reasoning is simple: The grass-roots base that powered the GOP for generations during its political exile has been “discriminated against” as the party came to power in the past decade. Enough members of the party’s 16-member resolution committee agreed, setting up Saturday’s vote.
“We’ve seen the cost of a primary spiral out of control, and that means you’re excluding candidates who can’t raise the money,” said the 23-year-old, whose family has been influential in GOP politics. “Politics is like a stew. You’ve got to have money, support, the ground game. But we’ve so spiced it up with the money angle that we’ve completely deadened the effect of all the other essential ingredients.”
It’s not an all-or-nothing gambit for Frost and his supporters. They are willing to back a compromise that allows the state GOP convention to endorse candidates before a primary vote, a practice that’s not followed now. That’s similar to formats used in Minnesota and a handful of other states.
Top Republicans, though, are wary of any changes. Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, said the voters in his North Georgia district spend their nights going to Little League games and weekends hunting and fishing — not at party meetings and insider conventions.
“Are we going to tell them that if they don’t have time to be an activist then we are going to disenfranchise them?” he asked. “I’m not going there.”