Charlie Harper: Lessons From A Georgia GOP Primary

Charlie Harper

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

A funny thing happened on the way to voting “them all out” last Tuesday.  After the votes were all counted, not a single Republican incumbent congressman or state legislator was voted out of office.  Only two were pushed into runoffs statewide, and even then by a handful of votes in each case.   

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  Those of us who write political opinion and news pieces were sure the “anti-establishment” furor was going to result in the defeat of a number of GOP incumbents.  We are the same people that failed to take Donald Trump seriously nor fully understand his takeover of the national GOP.  Many of us, still lacking the full understanding of what the heck is up with GOP voters, extrapolated the angry mood of the electorate that selected Trump into a certainty that these same voters would storm the gates of the GOP establishment and remove current elected officials en masse.  

And here we are, with those same angry voters and the same GOP incumbents.  The easy explanation from the political class is to say there was a “disconnect”.  That’s a nice rhetorical way of saying that those of us paying attention understand what’s going on better than the voters.  That is rarely the case.

It’s more likely that many of us who didn’t understand why voters were selecting Trump still don’t get it, at least at some level.  We could pretend that voters squelched their anger after the SEC primary, or that they’re mad at everyone but their own state representative, senator, or congressman.   It may be better to dig deeper and give the voter credit for not only being able to recognize causes of their frustration, but evaluate whether the solutions offered to the problems they seem to understand better than us were proper remedies.

Republican rhetoric has grown increasingly hostile toward government and “the establishment” for years.  Many Republicans, especially those that loudly proclaim themselves “the base” and the silent majority, have shown little tolerance for governing.  They have internalized the Ronald Reagan line “…government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” as if it is a complete truism.  Many conservatives have carried on with the belief that Ronald Regan wanted a complete shutdown of the federal government, and scoff at any reminders that the Great Communicator partnered with Speaker Tip O’Neill to become the Great Compromiser. 

This core of the GOP has grown accustom to shouting down anyone that dares defend government, tries to make it work more efficiently, or in any way utilizes the current system to improve the lives of everyday Americans.  They believe a total shutdown of the US Government was not only morally correct, but desired by the electorate.  They deem anyone who disagrees with this approach to be less than conservative, and casually throw around epithets such as “RINO” toward them.

This core, fueled by talk radio, Fox News, and right leaning internet publications, have reaffirmed that their brand of “just say no” conservatism was what GOP voters demanded.  Except, that’s not what Donald Trump has offered “the base”.

Trump’s positions – such as they can be nailed down – are far from those who would contain and limit the powers of the federal government.  Quite the contrary.  Trump wants to use the muscle provided by various government entities to “make America great again”.  His message isn’t that the Federal Government has too much power. Rather, he believes we just haven’t been using that power “to win”.

If you listen to the rhetoric of Trump, you will scarcely find him offering a solution of “do nothing” to any problem, real or perceived.  Which brings us back to Georgia’s primaries.

The insular GOP “base” displayed their usual disdain for Georgia’s governing majority throughout the primary process.  There were threats to remove key members of the legislature for successfully passing laws that dealt with improving delivery of government services mandated by the Constitutions of the country and state.   

The alternative offered almost exclusively in contested primaries were candidates that offered empty platitudes rather than tough choices and workable solutions.  Those that ran against some of Congress’ most conservative members had a platform that would have ensured they had zero clout or influence in Washington.   

Voters rejected the “do nothing” candidates across the board.  Candidates that found constructive solutions to Georgia’s problems – even those that championed expanding mass transit – won sound re-election victories. 

There is only a disconnect here if you believe those making all the noise are in fact the (non)silent majority.  If, however, you believe that a majority of Republican voters want to see actual solutions to real problems, then Tuesday’s results are quite logical and understandable in the year that has given us Trump.

Charlie Harper is the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank focused on issues of Business & Economic Development, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He’s also the publisher of, a website dedicated to State & Local politics of Georgia.