Amid red-state success, the Georgia GOP struggles with its checkbook

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Republican voters celebrate Donald Trump’s victory in Georgia last November. Curtis Compton, ccompton@ajc.com

In 2015, as Republicans gathered to decide whether to re-elect state party chairman John Padgett, the Georgia GOP’s treasurer of 20 years announced he was quitting his post – and that he would support Padgett’s challenger.

In a note addressed to delegates, Bob Mayzes spoke of favored consultants who had been overcompensated, and “legal fees paid by (Georgia GOP) to address a legal matter unique to the Padgett administration.”

DeKalb County attorney Alex Johnson, whom Mayzes had endorsed, lost. Two years later, Padgett is about to finish his second two-year term, and isn’t running for another.

But Johnson is running for chairman again – as are three others. And as a topic for debate, the precarious financial struggles of a Republican party operating in a thoroughly red state have only increased.

Last week, another state party treasurer weighed in. “We, as a party, have lost the confidence of all of our donor bases from grassroots to the mid-level donors to the big donors,” Mansell McCord, a Brookhaven attorney who succeeded Mayzes, told the Forsyth County GOP.

McCord has been even more specific elsewhere. In December, speaking to Republicans in the metro Atlanta congressional district of U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, McCord said the state GOP was taking in $55,000 a month, but spending $64,000.

That “unique” legal matter cited two years earlier by Bob Mayzes was a discrimination suit filed by an African-American staffer who had been sacked. Unpaid legal fees amounted to $225,000, Mansell said. Moreover, the state party would be liable for any judgment – the case has yet to be settled — because the Georgia GOP failed to take out liability insurance on its employees.

“We do not have enough money to make it to March,” McCord said, according to the report that GOP activist Nathaniel Darnell posted on his Facebook page. (Others have corroborated his account. Efforts to reach McCord were unsuccessful.)

Actually, the party did have enough money. But it was close. At the end of January, the Georgia GOP reported $38,290.75 in cash on hand. And $317,000 in debt.

Georgia Democrats recorded $267,000 in the bank.

This is not a tale of Georgia Republicans running out of money. Individual campaigns are flush with cash. GOP-oriented super PACs and other creations of Citizens United spring up here like mushrooms after a summer rain.

 



 

What we have here is a state GOP that, 15 years after coming to power, is still struggling to find its role in the new Republican order, where grassroots forces push up from the bottom — often against elected officials faced with the harsh reality of governance.

A lack of cash flow is merely the most obvious symptom.

“There’s competition for money, and there hasn’t been a vision for how the party should be acting to justify donations,” said Johnson, who ran against Padgett in 2015. This is actually Johnson’s third bid for chairmanship. He took 40 percent of the vote at the 2013 convention, and 45 percent in 2015.

Johnson’s point is that the state GOP should be providing the nuts-and-bolts infrastructure – training and data, specifically – that can be used at the county and precinct levels to make the real gains.

One of his rivals is Michael McNeely, currently the first vice-chairman of the party, who would be the first African-American ever to hold the post of chairman. He’s also a state employee – an assistant deputy commissioner at the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

A former police officer, McNeely may be a favorite of social conservatives in the contest. He also understands that, in this race, he could be considered a member of the current leadership team.

“I did my part to help. I’ve made a lot of calls to donors, in addition to writing a check to the party,” McNeely said. “Obviously, the party has not followed that fundamental principle of being fiscal stewards, and so the donors hear about that. They hear about the racial discrimination lawsuit that still hasn’t been settled. These things add up.”

But the party’s fiscal problems aren’t insurmountable, and can be fixed. “Until recently, the party website didn’t have a donor option online. You’d either have to print out a form, fill it out and fax it or PDF it,” McNeely said. “And this is 2017.”

Then we have Mike Welsh, chairman of the 12th District GOP, who by happenstance has degrees in both finance and accounting. He’s the only candidate who lives outside metro Atlanta. In fact, he lives near Augusta, where the state GOP convention will be held in June.

Welsh sits on the party’s executive committee. But he’s not sure that he has a full picture of a financial situation that’s been condemned by two state treasurers in a row.

“Even as a member of the executive committee, do you really know where the money is going? Not really. You have to dig in and have a review. And that takes time and an understanding of the financial statement. And that’s what I will do,” he said.

When it comes to the party’s finances, John Watson may be the most forceful candidate for chairman. He’s been endorsed by Mansell McCord, the current party treasurer.

“We have a deficit. We are spending more than we are taking in. Those are the fundamental elements of bankruptcy,” Watson said. “The Georgia Republican Party will cease winning elections if we continue with these behaviors. The Democratic Party of Georgia is getting hungrier, faster, stronger, more aggressive, and today has more money than our party does.”

Watson is a former chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue, and a lobbyist representing a host of clients, including some with casino interests. It’s not something he can run away from, nor does he try.

The state party could use a chairman who actually knows his way around the state Capitol, Watson said. The remark was his way of drawing a bead on the heart of his party’s money problem.

The Georgia GOP has three components, Watson argued – donors, grassroots activists, and elected officials. “Right now, many of those components don’t communicate with each other, don’t understand the motivations of each other, and many times don’t even like each other,” he said. “We’ve got to heal those components if we’re going to move forward.”

Fix that, and cash once again will flow to the Georgia GOP, Watson said.

We reached out to Padgett, the state GOP chairman, who pointed to gains made by the party during his tenure — not to mention a successful fundraiser on Monday.

“Our success over these last four years will be in vain if candidates for party leadership — and their supporters — spend more time speaking ill of fellow Republicans than they do of those on the left,” Padgett said in an emailed statement. “Attacks against each other simply move the Democrats one step closer to power.”


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