Gathering in smaller rooms: Counting the chairs at the counting party’s convention
By Tom Baxter
It wasn’t remarkable that Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr got booed at the state Republican convention last weekend. Johnny Isakson, Saxby Chambliss and Nathan Deal are among those who’ve been booed in previous conventions.
What was notable was the room they got booed in.
According to a release by the state party and various news reports, attendance at this year’s convention broke the previous record, with “roughly” 1,600 voting delegates and more than 3,000 — including families, alternate delegates and so forth — attending in all.
Funny thing, though. I’ve looked at videos and photographs of the room where the event was held at the Jekyll Island Convention Center. I count 25 rows of chairs, and 28 chairs in each row. That comes out to 700 chairs, and in no video or photograph are all those chairs filled. If you want to count for yourself, there’s a good photo in Sunday’s AJC.
There’s always a lot of milling around outside the hall at a state convention, so maybe the pictures don’t reflect how many people there were at this one. But if there were 1,600 voting delegates, don’t you think they would at least have put out enough chairs to seat a quorum?
Even if this convention had as many delegates as the party announced, would that really be a record? As Ronald Reagan said at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, let’s take a little stroll down memory lane.
I’ve been to the national conventions of the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian and Reform parties, and state conventions in Florida, Georgia and Texas — more than 20 in all. By far, the most dramatic of these was the 1988 Georgia Republican convention at the Albany Civic Center, when the forces allied to George H. W. Bush and Pat Robertson struggled openly for control of the party.
When it reached a boiling point, state party chairman John Stuckey ordering the convention to a close, banging his gavel so hard that the head came off and flew helplessly into the air. The Bush loyalists then walked up the steps and out of the 10,000-seat arena, waving sarcastically at the Robertson insurgents, who had moved to take control of the podium down on the floor as a gospel singer sang “Amazing Grace” through a megaphone. It reminded me, in a weird way, of the closing scene in “Zulu.”
“Any reasonable person would concur in my opinion that I had to adjourn the convention to prevent a riot,” Stuckey told the Washington Post. “There was a clear and present danger of mayhem.”
There were 1,600 delegates at that convention. This was convincingly documented because there was a court fight over who could be seated. After the Bush delegates walked out there were an estimated 750 people left in the arena, a number strikingly consistent with how many there were in a much smaller room when Kemp was booed, 33 years later.
Bear in mind that 1988 was more than a decade before Republicans took control of state government and Georgia’s congressional delegation, before a lot of lobbyists began showing up at their state conventions. I’m pretty sure there were even larger state GOP conventions in the years afterwards, conducted in big venues like the convention centers in Savannah and Augusta, but my memories of them are not as vivid.
This might seem like a long time to dwell on how many delegates there were at a state convention, but this is a political party which has grown increasingly obsessed with counting.
“What about the voting machines?” a heckler shouted when Kemp spoke about his role in the passage of the “heartbeat” abortion bill, an achievement conservatives have for years longed for. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who presided over the 2020 election count, didn’t bother to show up. Neither did Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, or for that matter, Hershel Walker. It speaks volumes that this convention gave its warmest reception to a renegade Democrat, Vernon Jones.
Georgia Democrats don’t hold a state convention, but if they did, I doubt they could stage one as big as the Republicans did last weekend, much less some of those that were held during the Republican heydays of the past couple of decades. But with their gains in counties like Gwinnett and Cobb, it would be bigger than what they could have mustered a few years ago.
It’s also true that the Republican Party which shows up at the polls is much larger than a convention seat-count might indicate. But that party is even more divided now than it was in 1988, and it’s not growing nearly as fast. It’s just gathering in smaller rooms.