Top Perdue ally runs for Georgia GOP chair as ‘nightmare’ for Democrats

Veteran GOP strategist and lobbyist John Watson said Thursday he will run for Georgia GOP chair, positioning himself as an able fundraiser and recruiter of candidates who can help Republicans maintain their control of statewide politics in 2018.

Watson, a former chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue and adviser to Sen. David Perdue, said he’s the best candidate in what’s likely to be a crowded field to help the struggling organization regain its financial footing and navigate another testy election cycle.

“I’m in the race. The role of the state party chair is to raise resources and partner with grassroots volunteers to win elections. I’ve got the history and track record that proves I can do that as chairman,” said Watson. “We’re in this to win.”

He is among a trio of Georgia Republicans already in the race to succeed John Padgett, who will not run for a third two-year term. Several other potential challengers are also eyeing the race.

Georgia Republicans have had a string of successes, sweeping every statewide office in 2014, cementing U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s victory and delivering Donald Trump a 5-point win in November. But the state party is awash in debt, and the fight for the organization’s future could hinge on who can help it get on solid footing.

John Watson. File.

John Watson. File.

Federal financial disclosure data filed after the election show the party had about $126,000 in cash on hand and roughly $227,000 in debt — a far cry from the millions of dollars the state’s dominant political party once commanded.

“Obviously we have to redouble our fundraising efforts in advance of the critical 2018 elections. That’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Watson. “And that’s the type of perspective that I’ll bring to the table.”

The other major factor is an unpredictable election looming next year. The party out of power tends to fare better in off-cycle election years, and Democrats hope to put forward a strong slate of candidates for the 2018 elections. Depending on how it shakes out, nearly every statewide office could be up for grabs.

Watson has plenty of competition. Michael McNeely, who is now the party’s vice-chair, has already announced a bid. So has DeKalb attorney Alex Johnson, a tea party favorite who has sharply criticized the party’s fundraising efforts. Other possible contenders include former Cobb GOP chair Scott Johnson and grassroots organizer Mike Welsh, who chairs the 12th District GOP.

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. His challenge ahead is to lock up some in the Georgia GOP’s grassroots base, including newly-involved Trump supporters, who have rebuked Gov. Nathan Deal for his veto of the “religious liberty” legislation.

His supporters point to the popularity of Perdue – who was welcomed as a hero at last year’s Georgia GOP conclave – and his experience in recruiting and running candidates for office. Dan McLagan, a GOP operative and close Watson friend, once 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 said in a recent interview. “John is the last person the Democrats want at the helm of the state GOP. He is their nightmare.”

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