Georgia politics in 2018: How will Deal ride into the sunset?

Put 2017 on the books as a year that kept your Insiders very, very busy. We’re not expecting any let-up in 2018.

Every statewide office is up for grabs, and three of the top gigs - governor, lieutenant governor and secretary of state - are vacant. Every seat in the Georgia Legislature and U.S. House is on the ballot as well, and Democrats are emboldened by a string of recent upsets that flipped three state legislative seats.

In Washington, it's year two of Donald Trump's presidency, where Republicans will try to leverage a year-end victory on a package of $1.5 trillion tax cuts that also dealt a blow to the Affordable Care Act. But they'll have to do it with a razor-thin margin in the U.S. Senate after a Democrat's improbable win in Alabama.

Here are some of the biggest questions in Georgia politics that your Insiders will be watching this year. (And check out our answers to last year’s questions here).

How will Gov. Nathan Deal ride into the sunset? 

Gov. Nathan Deal. AJC file.

Gov. Nathan Deal last lost an election in the early 1970s, when he was defeated in a race for president of the Gainesville Jaycees. Seventeen contests - and 17 wins - later, the Democrat-turned-Republican is preparing for his last year in office before retiring to a new house in the north Georgia mountains. First, he has the chance to cement his stamp on the criminal justice overhaul he engineered in his first term as governor and vast changes to the education system he's pursued in his second. But even as he chases what could be an understated agenda as a lame-duck governor, he'll face new questions about whether he can corral the competing factions of his party one last time. (GB)

More: Georgia Legislature leaves governor with big decisions


Who will be Georgia's next governor?

The race for Georgia governor will dominate the state’s political debate over the next year and color every decision that’s made under the Gold Dome. Five leading Republicans are warring for the party’s nomination in May, each with a markedly different approach. The front-runner may be Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who was first elected to statewide office a dozen years ago and is blending a pro-business message with a tilt to the party’s grass-roots activists. But he’s besieged by rivals who either present themselves as more conservative, more willing to cater to the party’s rural base or more willing to counter the state’s political establishment. The Democratic side of the equation will get even more national attention: Stacey Abrams is defying conventional Democratic strategy as she runs to be the nation’s first black female governor, hinging her plan on mobilizing progressive voters, particularly black women, and energizing left-leaning minorities who rarely cast ballots. Her opponent, Stacey Evans, also has designs on winning over progressives along with rebuilding a tattered coalition of working-class and suburban voters who have drifted to the GOP. (Greg Bluestein)

More: Georgia governor race: Who is running in 2018


What will Donald Trump do in his second year? 

The question that topped our list last year is still just as pressing in 2018. Tax cuts in hand, what does the president turn to next? Immigration, children’s health care and government spending will be the most urgent issues for early 2018, but there’s broader disagreement among Republicans about what the next big push should be for the party. Could we finally see the details of Trump’s long-promised infrastructure bill? Or will the party undertake a riskier political gambit, perhaps overhauling welfare programs or taking another whack at Obamacare? (Tamar Hallerman)

More: Trump holds firm grip on Georgia GOP one year after his election victory


Will Amazon pick Georgia for its $5 billion second headquarters?

Amazon triggered more than a bidding war when it publicly aired its search for a second headquarters. It set off a once-in-a-generation competition. And Georgia’s hunt for the $5 billion bonanza offering 50,000 high-paying jobs has already helped shape political races and triggered debate across metro Atlanta about the impact of the biggest economic deal the city may have ever seen. There’s no telling whether Atlanta will beat out just about every other major city in North America for the prize, but Georgia is widely believed to be a top contender. And the tech giant’s search for another home will loom over everything in state politics, from the years-long fight over “religious liberty” measures to deeper conversations about affordable housing, economic incentives and infrastructure. (GB)

More: Amazon bid kicks off another Olympics-like chase for Atlanta


Is it Democrats' time in Georgia? 

The new year will put the party’s resistance movement to the test, starting with the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The race between Abrams and Evans will be seen nationally as a proxy fight between dueling strategies: Should Democrats focus on converting suburban voters who have drifted to the GOP or double down on motivating liberals? Other energized candidates who emerged from the ashes of the 2016 election are also eager to challenge Republicans in the Legislature and on Capitol Hill. When the dust settles from the primaries, a handful of female entrepreneurs seeking office for the first time could share space on the party’s statewide slate with a moderate who was once the last white Democrat in the U.S. House from the Deep South. And the biggest battles may yet be fought in the suburbs, where Democrats are trying to flip about a dozen state legislative seats in districts that Trump lost — and seats held by U.S. Reps. Karen Handel and Rob Woodall. It’s still not clear whether Jon Ossoff, the Democrat who lost the epic 2017 race to Handel, will make a comeback bid. But more than a half-dozen other candidates have already signed up for congressional races. (TH, GB)

More: Georgia Democrats think special election wins point to 2018 successes


Will election-year politics trip up Georgia's Legislature?

Every Georgia legislative session is influenced by political machinations and maneuvering. But not every session features a bumper crop of wide-open statewide races and a slew of newly competitive legislative seats up for grabs in an uncertain, combustible political environment. Which is to say: Get ready. The session that starts Jan. 8 could be a bumpy one. A familiar debate over "religious liberty" looms, though there will surely be a flurry of other proposals aimed at giving Republican incumbents, imperiled or otherwise, fodder for the campaign trail. Democrats will try the same tactics, though without much realistic chance of approval in a Legislature where they are vastly outnumbered. (GB)

More: How election year politics will shape Georgia’s legislative session


Can Georgia score a huge win in the water wars feud? 

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to take up a Georgia-Florida case on Jan. 8. It’s possible the court’s decision could bring more clarity to at least one of separate ongoing — and expensive — legal battles between the states in a decades-long dispute that also includes Alabama. It could also prompt all three states’ governors to reach a long-sought compact — and maybe it won’t. The issue will almost certainly continue to play out on Capitol Hill, where Alabama U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby appears on the cusp of assuming control of a key Senate committee that would give him more power to compel federal agencies to step in against Georgia.  (TH)

More: U.S. Supreme Court to hear Georgia-Florida water rights case


How will the #MeToo movement shake up Georgia politics?

The past year was one of national reckoning on sexual harassment in the workplace and in public life. But the impact it has on Georgia politics will become clearer in the coming year. The leaders of the Georgia House and Senate are re-evaluating how they handle sexual harassment at the state Capitol, and a wave of women won election victories in November and December in Georgia. In 2018, the national debate over sex, power and morality seems destined to intensify. (GB)

More: Sexual harassment complaints shed light on widespread issue in Georgia


Will Sonny Perdue take the spotlight? 

With Washington’s focus trained on health care and taxes, the former Georgia governor’s first eight months on the national stage passed under the radar. That could very well change in 2018, when Congress debates farm subsidies and the explosive issue of food stamps as part of its farm bill negotiations. Will Perdue choose to be very involved or stick to the sidelines? Led by House Speaker Paul Ryan, some Republicans want to pursue changes to welfare in 2018. With the U.S. Department of Agriculture in charge of overseeing food stamps, Perdue could be a major player. He has already signaled he’s open to major changes. (TH)

More: Sonny Perdue signals he's open to major food stamp changes

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.