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Georgia's GOP Convention Begins

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Georgia Republican Party's convention is underway this weekend, just months after the party lost both the state's U.S. Senate seats and presidential votes. The pro-Trump base dominates the party infrastructure. Some Republicans worry that will affect their ability to win general elections in what's now a very competitive state. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Emma Hurt reports.

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MATT GAETZ: Welcome, my fellow Americans, to the greatest political show on earth.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz and Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene are on an "America First" tour. This was a recent stop in Dalton in Greene's Northwest Georgia district.

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GAETZ: We are the Republican Party. This is Donald Trump's party. And I'm a Donald Trump Republican.

HURT: Gaetz and Greene spoke about a lot of things, including debunked election fraud claims. But former President Trump was at the center.

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MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: Who won the presidential race on November 3 for Georgia?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Trump.

HURT: Trump, Trump, the crowd answered. This is what one big segment of the Georgia and the national Republican Party looks like right now. Here's another.

GEOFF DUNCAN: Every time I hear Marjorie Taylor Greene talk, I feel like it hurts the brand.

HURT: Geoff Duncan is Georgia's lieutenant governor.

DUNCAN: It hurts the brand of Republican that I grew up with, that I was raised around.

HURT: Donald Trump lost fair and square, he says. And to win again, Republicans need to get over that and change their strategy.

DUNCAN: You know, this focus on trying to win the battle but not the war - I mean, it doesn't do anybody any good to win a primary and not be able to win a general.

HURT: Duncan is giving up a reelection bid to focus on what he calls GOP 2.0. Two statewide Republicans have already gotten challenges from the Trump wing of the party. So which GOP path leads to victory in 2022? David Shafer is chair of the state party. To him, the answer is clear - Trump.

DAVID SHAFER: If you spend any time at a Republican Party gathering in virtually any part of the state, he is and remains the leader of the party.

HURT: And Trump is still motivating people to get involved, he says.

SHAFER: One of my greatest worries after the elections is that conservatives would become discouraged and give up. And we've seen the opposite in this convention cycle. More than half of the delegates to the state convention are participating for the very first time.

HURT: Despite recent losses at the top of the ticket, the party has never been stronger, he says. Jason Shepherd is running against Shafer for party chair. He agrees Trump is important but thinks the party also needs to talk to swing voters, which he says it didn't last cycle.

JASON SHEPHERD: It was a one-size-fits-all strategy. We were going to run the same campaign in rural Georgia as we did in the suburbs. And that strategy didn't work.

HURT: Shepherd is also worried about the party's grassroots organizing, that it's fallen behind the Democrats and isn't ready to harness the energy of the new people showing up - people like Kesha Kennings. She's a retired Navy veteran from Dallas, Ga., who came to Greene's Dalton rally.

KESHA KENNINGS: I actually want to get more politically involved this year. I mean, I keep saying it. I keep saying it. But I'm tired of being a keyboard warrior. It's time for me to make my face known.

HURT: Kennings has a message for Republican politicians.

KENNINGS: We have a lot of - I guess they call it RINOs that are always quick to jump to the liberal media to talk about Republicans. They need to stop doing that. If we have infighting, keep it in the House.

HURT: Rusty Paul is a former chairman of the state party. He, too, wishes Republicans would talk more about what they agree on.

RUSTY PAUL: I don't happen to believe the election was stolen. Doesn't keep me from finding common ground, though, with some people who thought the election was stolen, particularly if we start talking about what we want to accomplish.

HURT: That's the only way, he says, for Republicans to avoid more losses in what is now a crucial swing state.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Hurt in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.