Before they left for the beach, John Roberts and four of his brethren on the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Georgia should become the site of a scorched-earth campaign in 2020.
Not because of our brewing U.S. Senate race, or even President Donald Trump’s bid for re-election — though both contests will be on the ballot and certainly will get their share of attention.
Instead, among both Republicans and Democrats in Georgia, the highest priority will likely be given to two dozen or so state House seats – contests that usually are conducted in near-anonymity, but now hold the key to Georgia politics for the next decade.
At least in the short term, one of the chief beneficiaries of these readjusted game plans could be House Speaker David Ralston.
On Nov. 3, 2020, voters will decide whether Ralston even remains eligible to keep his job, the most powerful in the state Capitol — after the governor. But between now and then, a brewing sense of crisis is likely to short-circuit a revolt within the House GOP caucus that erupted earlier this year over reports about Speaker Ralston’s private law practice in north Georgia.
Let’s back up a bit.
As one of the last actions on its June calendar, in a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that federal courts are powerless when it comes to political gerrymandering – the drawing of federal, state and local district lines in order to preserve a ruling party’s power.
“Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions,” Roberts wrote.
One of the two cases that provoked the ruling concerned North Carolina’s congressional map. In a state that’s roughly 50-50 politically, a GOP-controlled state legislature drew district lines that resulted in the election of 10 Republican members of Congress, and three Democrats.
This was only because, according to official testimony, North Carolina state lawmakers couldn’t draw a map that created 11 Republican districts.
In essence, the high court has greenlighted a new era of realpolitik in Georgia and elsewhere. Yes, gerrymandering by race will remain unconstitutional. But race and voting patterns track closely in the South. In North Carolina, precincts were placed in “Republican” or “Democratic” congressional districts according to their electoral histories. Race wasn’t a stated factor, but it was there in all but name.
With the 2020 census will come a license to allow ruling parties in each state to cement their own gains with a much freer hand. The resulting image will be reflected in an already polarized Congress by 2022.
In Georgia, Democrats lost the 2018 governor’s race. Control of the state Senate remains out of reach for now. But Democrats made gains in state House races last year, particularly in north metro Atlanta. That chamber now has 105 Republicans and 75 Democrats.
If Democrats are to have a seat at the table in 2021, when redistricting will occur, they need to win at least 15 more House seats in 2020. Likewise, if Georgia Republicans want total control over those maps, they must keep Democratic success to a minimum.
Both sides are working with the same numbers. Last November, there were 22 House districts that were held by Republicans — but also saw Democrat Stacey Abrams win more than 40% in the governor’s race.
In 15 of those same GOP districts, Abrams won 45%. Many, but not all, are in metro Atlanta.
Neither side is likely to lack for cash — a situation unusual in state legislative races. Abrams’ group, Fair Fight Action, confirmed this week that it will be pouring money and ground troops into House races. Emily’s List, a national group that boosts women candidates, on Tuesday announced that it will spend $20 million — its “largest-ever investment in state legislative elections” — in several states, Georgia included.
The coming fight dominated the conversation at a closed-door gathering of the state House Republican caucus held last weekend in Adairsville.
During the past session, some 10 of the most conservative members of the House Republican caucus had demanded Speaker Ralston’s resignation after it came to light that he had persistently used court delays — permitted because of his status as a state legislator — to benefit his clients. Some of whom were criminal defendants.
Ralston said he did nothing wrong, but also said he would try to do better. The Legislature tightened the rules governing attorneys who are also legislators. The speaker said he would swear off any new criminal cases until those long-delayed ones were adjudicated. The last one goes to trial July 29. We’re told Ralston has also devoted more time to his law practice these last few months.
The speaker’s critics argue that his actions have left his fellow GOP caucus members vulnerable to attack — in both the primary and next year’s general election. And we will come back to that.
In Adairsville, Ralston came to that caucus meeting armed with two quotes. The first came from University of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart: “Bad decisions have bad consequences.”
In the second, Ralston paraphrased the late Gov. Zell Miller: “If there’s a snake in your house, kill it.”
That latter quote requires scrutiny. It is a metaphor with a history, dating to late 2002, when Zell Miller, a Democrat appointed to the U.S. Senate, who co-sponsored a resolution to allow President George W. Bush to use military force against Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein.
From the Senate floor, Miller made an existential argument. He told of discovering a next of copperheads near his back porch. “I didn't call my wife Shirley for advice, like I do on most things. I didn't go before the city council. I didn't yell for help from my neighbors. I just took a hoe and knocked them in the head and killed them. Dead as a doorknob,” Miller said. “They were a threat to my home and my family.”
Fast-forward to 2019. Overlaying the concern over Ralston’s law practice is a split between conservative members of the House GOP caucus — and its most conservative members. The right, and the hard right.
In large part, Democratic gains in the state House last November can be attributed to the antipathy of college-educated women toward President Donald Trump, and to a stellar Abrams GOTV effort in the suburbs of Atlanta.
But many Republicans fear that this year’s passage of House Bill 481, which requires most women to carry their pregnancies to term after six weeks, could accentuate that trend in 2020.
Republican control of the House, and Ralston’s speakership, could depend on the November survival of the remaining Republican legislators in the suburbs of Atlanta, Savannah and elsewhere. It is an existential worry.
A clearer translation of Ralston’s snake-killing metaphor might sound like this, aimed at Ralston’s most conservative members: “If you introduce and push legislation that will endanger more moderate Republicans — and thus GOP control of my chamber, then I will shut you down.”
Ralston has expressed similar sentiments before, but never when control of the chamber has been at stake. If the speaker follows through, this could have implications for some of the hottest legislation expected to surface in 2020, including “religious liberty” measures and attempts to expand gun rights in Georgia.
Now, as for whether Ralston’s troubles will provide fodder for Democrats looking to unseat House Republicans next year. During the past session, Democratic lawmakers – many of whom had legislation pending that was reliant on the speaker’s good graces – pronounced Ralston’s situation a Republican problem. They wanted no part of it.
This week, I asked House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville, whether Ralston’s problems might serve as a cudgel for Democrats next November. He had his doubts that concerns over the speaker would register.
“Voters have a way of deciding what’s important for them,” Trammell said. “If I were choosing a collective danger — if I were in their caucus, I would be worried about the rightward tilt when it comes to social policy and the negative effect that that has in seats that are becoming increasingly competitive. I think that would be the first and foremost concern.”
In other words, Trammell and his people intend to focus on health care and Georgia’s anti-abortion “heartbeat” law.
The fight for control of the Georgia Legislature will have money and issues galore. While they are nothing to dismiss, in the kitchen-sink battle headed our way, David Ralston’s travails will probably amount to no more than a plumber’s wrench.
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