Top Perdue ally eyes race for Georgia GOP chair

John Walker, right, talks with then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, then-House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Jay Walker in 2006. (BEN GRAY/AJC staff)

John Watson, right, talks with then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, then-House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Jay Walker in 2006. (BEN GRAY/AJC staff)

Veteran GOP strategist and lobbyist John Watson said he is considering a run to be the Georgia GOP’s next chair, suggesting he will join what will likely be a crowded field hoping to lead the party through the 2018 governor’s race.

Watson, a former chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue and adviser to Sen. David Perdue, said he is “taking a serious look at the race” to succeed John Padgett, who will not run for another term next year.

“I have had the opportunity to work alongside extraordinary people to help see Georgia go from blue to red,” said Watson. “And I don’t think that Republicans in the future can simply cross their fingers and hope for continued Republican dominance. That’s why I want to be involved in the future.”

Michael McNeely, who is now the party’s vice-chair, said earlier this month he was running for the top spot. Other possible contenders include former Cobb GOP chair Scott Johnson, state GOP treasurer Mansell McCord, ex-Congressional candidate Martha Zoller, tea party guru Julianne Thompson and DeKalb attorney Alex Johnson.

John Watson. Special.

John Watson. Handout.

Watson is firmly associated with the party’s establishment wing, with stints on the boards of the Georgia Lottery, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber. He was a staunch supporter of Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the presidential primary, though he said he was now backing Donald Trump’s campaign.

Those credentials could prove difficult to stomach for some in the Georgia GOP’s grassroots base. The party rebuked Deal for siding with business interests this year with his veto of the “religious liberty” legislation and relations between the Georgia GOP’s activists and top elected officials have been strained.

But Watson’s allies say he’s exactly what the party, beset with financial and legal troubles, needs to face a resurgent Democratic Party aiming to win back the governor’s office in two years. Dan McLagan, a GOP operative and close Watson friend, called him a “war-time consigliere” who would keep Democrats awake at night.

“There’s a fight looming on the horizon and John is the guy to take that fight to the Dems and get our GOP candidates elected,” said McLagan. “John is the last person the Democrats want at the helm of the state GOP. He is their nightmare.”

He also has the endorsement of Rusty Paul, the mayor of Sandy Springs and a former Georgia GOP chief, who said Watson was the right candidate who can unite the warring GOP factions in the state.

“We need the full conservative coalition working together to ensure the GOP keeps its competitive advantage into the foreseeable future,” said Paul. “And John has the connections and capability to knit the party organization, the grassroots and the policymakers into effective team going forward after the 2016 election.”


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