Michael McNeely answers a question during a debate at a Buckhead Republicans meeting on March 14. McNeely along with Mike Walsh, John Watson and Alex Johnson are running for chair of the Georgia GOP. (Evelyn Andrews)

The four candidates running to lead the Georgia Republican Party debated before the Buckhead Republicans on March 14.

They focused on strengthening the conservative base in Georgia, how to attract millennial and minority voters and how to fix the Georgia GOP’s poor financial state.

Although the party won all statewide offices in the 2014 midterm elections and won Georgia for President Donald Trump, federal financial disclosures show the party is in debt and had $56,000 in cash on hand at the end of 2016. Just a few years ago in 2008, they ended the year with $1.5 million.

The party’s finances were a major topic throughout the debate and also the question moderator Phil Kent, a commentator on Fox 5’s Sunday morning talk show, chose to begin the night.

Alex Johnson, an Atlanta attorney in his third bid for the chairmanship, said they don’t need to only look at improving fundraising but also determine if there is overspending or mismanagement.

Mike Welsh, the District 12 GOP chairman in Georgia, said the party needs to pay off all debts and build a cash reserve.

The current Georgia GOP Vice Chairman Michael McNeely played down the importance of financial opinions and said they candidates are “not being elected to finance chair.”

McNeely argued that he knows what the spending priorities need to be. In a later question, McNeely remarked on the abundant space in the party’s large office space in Buckhead.

“When a chairman has two offices, there’s a problem there,” McNeely said.

John Watson, a lobbyist and former chief of staff to Gov. Sonny Perdue, had the opposite opinion, arguing fundraising is a main part of the chairmanship. As chair, Watson said their “responsibility is principally to be a fundraiser.”

Watson also expressed concerns that the Democratic Party is gaining power in Georgia.

“Even after years of dominance, Democrats have more money than us,” Watson said. “They’re getting faster, hungrier, meaner.”

Although Georgia did go to President Donald Trump, two major counties – Gwinnett and Cobb – that typically go red voted for Hillary Clinton.

The party also has a declining support from millennial voters. An audience member, noticing that only a handful out of 75 people at the debate were younger than middle age, asked the candidates how they would attract millennials’ support.

All the candidates agreed more needs to be done to reach young voters and spread their party’s message, citing the need to have a stronger social media and online presence. McNeely said the party needs to make young voters a part of the party, listen to their ideas and keep them involved.

On minority voters, Watson said they need to be reaching out to minority voters all the time, not show up only around election season.  

Welsh, who often focuses on technology’s benefits, said they need to use data analysis and voting engagement analytics to target minority voters to reach them more effectively.

Johnson said they need to show minority voters they aren’t racist and that “we aren’t what the media says.”

In exit polls reported by the New York Times, 55 percent of voters age 18 to 29 voted for Clinton and 37 percent for Trump. However, fewer young people voted for Clinton than voted for former President Barack Obama.

However, Phil Kent, the moderator, said that he is optimistic about the future of the party. Kent, a political commentator, said he believes that losses in Gwinnett and Cobb had more to do with people staying home than voting Democratic. He also thinks the Republican party has since united around Donald Trump.

“A lot of Republican voters were split about Trump, but I think since then they’ve come together,” Kent said.

All the candidates supported Trump for the presidency and frequently referenced him positively throughout the debate.

As the only candidate in favor of gambling, Watson, although not directly addressed, immediately volunteered to take an audience question on the topic. As a lobbyist, one of his clients is in favor of legalizing gambling, Watson said, however, his personal beliefs will not be part of his role as chair if he were elected.

“I am the ‘L-word’. I am the lobbyist in this bunch,” Watson said. “You will not hear from me one promotional item as chairman.”

The chair will be elected at the State Convention June 3 in Augusta.

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