AUGUSTA, Ga. — For the first time since Republicans won total control of the state Capitol, an establishment-backed candidate was elected chairman of the Georgia GOP on Saturday.
John Watson, a Capitol lobbyist with deep ties to former Gov. Sonny Perdue and U.S. Sen. David Perdue, was elected on the third ballot in a drawn-out, three-hour process that left more than 1,500 delegates weary and more than a little frustrated.
Watson, a resident of west Cobb County, takes the helm of a state party that has been mired in an expensive race discrimination suit, and has struggled financially — to the point that the organization has been limited in the help that it has been able to offer Republican Karen Handel in her Sixth District effort to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Price in Congress.
Since the 2002 election of Sonny Perdue as the first Republican governor in modern Georgia history, a tug-of-war has existed between those who wanted the state GOP to remain in the hands of agenda-dedicated grassroots activists, and those who demanded that the party acknowledge the daily compromises that elected members of a governing party can be required to make.
Perdue avoided a direct confrontation, but his GOP successor, Gov. Nathan Deal, was rebuffed in his first term, when he backed his own candidate for the party’s top post. The division has been a source of significant tension between party rank-and-file and elected officials in the Capitol.
Deal, who spoke to delegates Friday night, was not present for Saturday’s vote — he was on his way to Asia, on a trade mission.
On Saturday, Watson was introduced to delegates by Rachel Little, chairman of the Fourth District GOP, and Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, himself a former state GOP chairman. Sonny Perdue, now U.S secretary of agriculture, also endorsed Watson — although David Perdue, who addressed delegates, remained publicly neutral.
“Our party is in debt, and Democrats are gunning for us,” argued Watson, who emphasized his ability to restore financial stability to the statewide organization. “I am not prepared to go quietly into the night.”
Mike Welsh, a former chairman of the 12th District GOP in east Georgia, was dropped after the first ballot. Michael McNeely of Douglas County, a state juvenile justice employee seeking to be the first African-American elected to lead the party, was dropped after the second round, despite his status as the favorite of social conservatives.
In the final round, Watson defeated DeKalb County attorney Alex Johnson, 741 votes to 679. Johnson, who had run twice before, had emphasized the need to separate professional political from the demands of grassroots Republicans.
“You are not here to serve the political industry, the political industry is here to serve you,” Johnson told delegates.
McNeely emphasized his support for “religious liberty” legislation, which Governor Deal has vetoed, that is — at least in party — intended to offer legal protections for business operators who refuse to do business with married same-sex couples.
In speeches to delegates, both Johnson and McNeely avoided personal attacks, but emphasized their opposition to casino gambling — an obvious dig at Watson, whose Capitol clients include casino interests seeking to get destination gambling legalized in Georgia.
In a morning breakfast speech to delegates, former presidential candidate and WSB Radio host Herman Cain joined in. “I’ll tell you a little secret — casino gambling doesn’t cover your problems. It increases your problems,” said Cain, who had endorsed McNeely in the chairmanship contest.
In past years, the casino issue alone would have disqualified Watson. But the party’s dire financial situation, and perhaps, too, the rise of Donald Trump — the owner of several casinos — erased concerns among many delegates.
In an appropriate coda for the day, a resolution condemning casino gambling failed to make it to the floor for a vote.