Georgia Governor Brian Kemp greets President Donald Trump as he arrives at Dobbins AFB on Friday, November 8, 2019, in Marietta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Answered: The top 10 Georgia political questions of 2019

Before the start of 2019, your Political Insiders laid out the nine questions in Georgia politics to watch this year. 

We are reprinting that column in full, with answers attached beneath each question. Take a trip down memory lane with us. 

(For kicks, here are the 2018 and 2017 versions of this column.)

How will Brian Kemp govern?  

Call it the duality of Brian Kemp: He won the Republican nomination with a pledge to move Georgia firmly to the right on a range of cultural issues, including expanding gun rights, cracking down on illegal immigration and signing the nation’s strictest abortion controls. He won the general election with the help of broader appeals to buckle down on school safety, hike teacher pay, boost rural Georgia and enact a contentious “religious liberty” bill only under the strictest circumstances. So which Kemp will show up in January? He’s pledged he won’t abandon the conservative principles that electrified his supporters and helped him eke out a narrow November victory. But he’s also told a Legislature that hasn’t been this closely divided in more than a decade that he’ll focus less on the polarizing issues and more on the pocketbook ones. And he’ll face new pressure – from the courts, from Democrats and from his own party – to solve pressing voting rights issues that surfaced over the last year. He’ll also have a largely untested team dealing with a host of powerful players that include House Speaker David Ralston – who has solidified control of his chamber over the last decade – and incoming Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and a fractious Senate caucus. How he will navigate this high-wire act will set the stage for his first term in office. 

Answer: The governor embraced policies that even his more moderate predecessor, Nathan Deal, would not consider. He signed legislation that legalized the sale of medical marijuana, backed a healthcare overhaul that would cover tens of thousands of low-income Georgians — though stopped short of embracing a full Medicaid expansion— and surprised his critics with history-making appointments to top posts. But his most controversial policy achievement during his first year was the passage of stiff anti-abortion restrictions that sparked national attention and led to threats of a Hollywood boycott. Meanwhile, there was little movement on Kemp’s other promises to crack down on illegal immigrationexpand gun rights and adopt a “religious liberty” proposal. And he triggered tough budget negotiations with a call for 10% budget cuts over the next two years. The end of the year brought his biggest political decision: He tapped finance executive Kelly Loeffler for an open U.S. Senate seat, defying President Donald Trump’s push for a conservative lawmaker. 

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - NOVEMBER 20: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), is seen being broadcast on television monitors in the media room during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Tyler Perry Studios November 20, 2019 in Atlanta. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Will Georgia emerge as a legit battleground state?  

Let’s put it this way: It would be shocking if Georgia isn’t squarely on the political map over the next two years as President Donald Trump prepares for re-election and the field of Democrats challenging him takes shape. Let the numbers tell the tale: Eight. Five. One and a half. That’s the margin of Republican victories in Georgia by percentage point since 2014. That doesn’t mean that Georgia is fated to flip, but it does mean that Republicans will have to play defense in a state that was all but a lock for Republicans over the last quarter-century. In 2016, the “SEC primary” triggered visits from nearly every leading presidential contender before Georgia’s vote – but neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton visited after primary. Already, a slate of high-profile potential Democratic contenders has visited Georgia to stump for candidates and shore up their own networks of support here. Expect that to be just a taste of what’s to come. 

Answer: There’s no doubt about it. Even Republican leaders acknowledge Georgia is a battleground and that last year’s election was a “wakeup call.” Presidential candidates swarmed the state and targeted voters with Georgia-centric appeals that blasted anti-abortion restrictions and promised new attention to voting rights. Each courted Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic gubernatorial contender who penned a memo warning it would be “political malpractice” if Democrats fail to pour more resources into Georgia. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s retirement promised Georgia even more attention; with two Senate seats on the ballot next year, Georgia plays a more pivotal role in Democratic hopes of flipping the chamber. Then came the biggest award: Democrats picked Georgia to host the November presidential debate, selecting a site at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta to showcase the party’s push to recapture Georgia.  

United States President Donald J. Trump and US Senator David Perdue (Republican of Georgia), listen as US Senator Tom Cotton (Republican from Arkansas) makes an announcement on the introduction of the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., 2 August 2017. The act aims to overhaul U.S. immigration by moving towards a "merit-based" system. - NO WIRE SERVICE ' Photo by: Zach Gibson/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
Photo: Zach Gibson/Zach Gibson/picture-alliance/dpa

Who will challenge David Perdue? 

One of the juiciest targets on the Senate map in 2020 is Republican David Perdue, who is running for his second – and he says final – term in the U.S. Senate. The businessman has become one of President Donald Trump’s most prominent D.C. allies – even in his most isolating moments – and he plans to stick to the outsider, anti-establishment message that won him his seat in 2014. No well-known Republicans are expected to oppose Perdue in a primary, but several Democrats have hinted they’re interested in challenging the multi-millionaire in 2020. Most are waiting for Stacey Abrams to decide her next step after her near-miss in the race for governor. If she sidesteps a 2020 race, Democrats could be in for a tempestuous primary fight from potential candidates that include outgoing Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Pastor Raphael Warnock, former congressional candidate Jon Ossoff and ex-Senate candidate Michelle Nunn. 

Answer: Four top Democratic candidates have joined the contest, including two named above. Former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson and investigative journalist Jon Ossoff are each in the hunt. So are Sarah Riggs Amico, the runner-up in last year’s race for lieutenant governor, and Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry. Just as significant is who is not in the race: Stacey Abrams, Jason Carter, Sally Quillian Yates and other top Democrats passed on the contest. As 2020 dawns, the bigger question revolves around the other Senate seat: Who will join the race to challenge incoming U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler next year? 

November 21, 2019 - Atlanta - Stacey Abrams makes some calls at the phone bank. Democratic presidential candidates including Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg, along with Stacey Abrahms, were calling and texting voters Thursday whose registrations could be canceled in Georgia at a Fair Fight phone bank at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The phone bank was in response to Georgia election officials' plan to cancel more than 313,000 voter registrations next month. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

What will Stacey Abrams do?  

That’s the question on the tips of the tongues of most Georgia Democrats. Her campaign for governor earned her dizzying national fame and a cadre of loyal supporters in Georgia and beyond. Since her loss to Brian Kemp – and a non-concession speech heard ‘round the world – she launched a new group challenging Georgia’s voting laws, joined the board of a progressive think-tank, launched a round of TV ads about healthcare and waded into national debates over ballot accessSome high-profile Democrats want her to challenge David Perdue in 2019, though her allies say she’s more likely to aim for a 2022 rematch against Brian Kemp. And she could well end up on some Veep short-lists in the coming years. No matter what she decides, she has plenty of political capital now – and can spend it as a queenmaker in Georgia politics

Answer: In defeat, Abrams’ political star might have soared higher than had she won. She delivered the Democratic rebuttal to the State of the Union in February, snapping a tradition of lackluster responses. In April, she decided not to run for the U.S. Senate but made clear she still had lofty political ambitions. And by year’s end, she was seen as a certainty to be on 2020 running-mate short lists. In between, she expanded her Fair Fight voting rights group to 19 other states, launched a group aimed at an accurate U.S. Census count and started a think tank

Will lawmakers tackle Georgia’s voting issues? 

Lawmakers seemed to have reached a consensus in 2018 that the state’s 27,000 direct-recording electronic voting machines should be replaced with a system that leaves a verifiable paper trail. But what they haven’t agreed on is what type of paper-based voting system Georgia should use and how much taxpayer money should be spent. And that’s just the start: Incoming Gov. Brian Kemp and a new Legislature will face questions over a slate of other voting issues, including uneven standards for counting provisional and absentee ballots, how to address lengthy lines at early-voting and Election Day polling sites, voter registration cancellations and the state’s embrace of exact-match standards. And if lawmakers don’t tackle those debates, the courts might do it for them

Answer: Sort of. Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill that calls for new voting machines that print paper ballots, extends the time before registrations are canceled and places limitations on precinct closures. But the polarizing debate infuriated Democrats who wanted more significant changes. They pointed to cybersecurity experts who warned it would leave Georgia’s elections susceptible to hacking and tampering. The courts still might force more sweeping changes: A far-reaching lawsuit that seeks to solve problems with voting machines, voter registration cancellations and election security is still pending. 

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts waves to supporters during a rally at Central Gwinnett High School, becoming the first Democrat to hold a campaign event in Georgia this year after launching a presidential bid. Gwinnett Democrats are touting the county, with its diverse population, as the future of the party and a destination for its presidential candidates. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Can Republicans make up lost ground in the suburbs? 

The GOP held onto all of Georgia’s major statewide offices in last year’s midterms, but the party’s poor performance in the rapidly diversifying Atlanta suburbs has prompted some soul searching for officials looking ahead to the 2020 races. The party is unquestionably tied to President Donald Trump, but Republican leadership in the Legislature is pledging to tackle economic policies rather than divisive social debates like abortion or “religious liberty” to keep suburbanites in the fold. Another area to watch could be infrastructure. Georgia has traditionally invested little in public transportation, but outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal supported many transit initiatives and 2018 was a watershed year for metro Atlanta transit. Kemp has pledged to continue “investment in targeted projects” such as bus rapid transit interchanges along Ga. 400 in north Fulton County, but he wants private as well as public investment.

Answer: Not sure yet, but off-year municipal elections offered more evidence of eroding GOP support in the burbs. Democratic-backed candidates won a string of metro Atlanta mayoral races, and flipped Savannah City Hall four years after a GOP “sea change” election. The Democratic suburban gains have also started to seep into Republican strategy, from a push for Medicaid waivers to Gov. Brian Kemp’s selection of Kelly Loeffler to the U.S. Senate. 

Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during a press conference to announce a proposed limited expansion of Medicaid in Georgia on November 4. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

How will Georgia adapt to a new healthcare landscape? 

The state’s Republican leaders have long rejected Obamacare’s offer to expand Medicaid, but a growing number of GOP lawmakers want Georgia to apply for a waiver that would let the state insure more people under Medicaid. The move, depending on how it’s designed, could insure thousands or hundreds of thousands of residents in a state with one of the country’s highest uninsured rates. But a federal judge’s recent decision striking down the entirety of Obamacare – a case Georgia had helped prosecute – has generated significant doses of uncertainty about what’s to come for the state’s health care system.  The lawsuit, which is still making its way through the appeals process, could impact more than the half-million Georgians who have an insurance plan through the health care exchange. One more piece of the puzzle to watch: Brian Kemp tapped Tom Price – Donald Trump’s former health secretary – to help craft his healthcare policy for his transition team. 

Answer: Shortly after taking office, Gov. Brian Kemp won legislative approval to pursue federal healthcare “waivers” to stabilize insurance premiums and enroll tens of thousands of residents in Medicaid without expanding the program under the Affordable Care Act. Whether his plan will win federal approval is an open question. His administration expressed confidence that the feds will sign off on the plan, but as the year ended, there were rumblings that his choice of Kelly Loeffler for an open U.S. Senate seat over President Donald Trump’s preferred pick could have repercussions. 

MARTA hasn't raised fares in eight years. That could change next year.

Will voters welcome more MARTA?  

If 2018 set the stage for mass expansion for mass transit in metro Atlanta, 2019 could be the overhauled system’s make-or-break year. The Georgia Legislature passed a measure last year that lets voters in 13 metro Atlanta counties approve new sales taxes for transit construction and operations. And several counties are already off to the races - including CobbDeKalbFulton and Gwinnett. Transit advocates are closely watching a March referendum in Gwinnett, where voters could give the go-ahead for a MARTA rail extension to Jimmy Carter Boulevard and bus rapid transit routes on several major routes. If it passes – and it’s no sure thing – it could pave the way for Cobb to follow suit. If it fails, transit expansion in metro Atlanta could hit the skids. 

Answer: Yes and no. Gwinnett County voters rejected a MARTA transit expansion plan in a March referendum that likely would have passed had it been on the November 2018 ballot. But county officials have said they will bring a plan back to voters, perhaps as soon as 2020. And the transit service has pivoted to other types of rail for future waves of construction: A proposal for nearly 30 miles of light rail in Atlanta, 22 miles of heavier commuter rail in Clayton County. Other transit referendums could potentially more than double the size of the rail network over the next two decades. 

Tensions were high at the Georgia state Capitol as lawmakers fought over a controversial bill that would ban most abortions at six weeks. Some Democrats stood up and walked out before the bill was introduced.
Photo: WSB-TV

How will Democrats leverage their new power in Georgia?  

Georgia Democrats enter the year with some hard-earned clout after winning more than a dozen state legislative seats across the close-in suburbs of metro Atlanta, offsetting the defeats of three imperiled House Democrats in more rural territories. The party also carried the crown jewel of the ‘burbs: The 6th District seat that was home in 2017 to the most expensive U.S. House race in U.S. history. With Lucy McBath’s congressional win and a slate of Democratic newcomers to the Legislature, the party has more power than it has at any time since Gov. Nathan Deal’s election. Democrats can handily block constitutional amendments and defeat other GOP proposals by picking off a handful of Republican votes. The party can also put more heft behind its major policy initiatives – expect a slate of progressive measures that include gun control - though they’re still unlikely to pass. The new Democratic muscle could also put pressure on Republicans to avoid culture-wars legislation that would turn off suburban voters. After sweeping DeKalb County, Democrats are eager to target the handful of Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett seats that are still in GOP hands. Next up may be the fast-changing area around Savannah. But they’ll face a tougher task in wooing rural voters, who overwhelmingly sided with the GOP in 2018. 

Answer: As the curtain fell on a tumultuous legislative session, this much was clear: Georgia Republicans are more willing than they have been in years to engage in partisan battles over culture war issues that party leaders once eagerly tried to avoid. And Democrats were more aggressive in fighting them, stoking threats of boycotts, a walk-out on the House floor and promises of political payback. One Democratic lawmaker was even forcibly removed from the podium as she railed against anti-abortion legislation. In the halls of Congress, all five Democratic members of Georgia’s House delegation, voted to impeach President Donald Trump – including U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, the most politically vulnerable incumbent in the state. 

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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