How the ‘religious liberty’ debate threatens the GOP hold on a metro House seat

One late evening in March, at a state Capitol meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Mike Jacobs gutted the session’s "religious liberty" bill.

Six weeks later, Gov. Nathan Deal offered the Brookhaven Republican a DeKalb County state judgeship. Jacobs took the job and resigned his seat.

Tuesday gave us a first round of voting to replace him in the Legislature. Jacobs may have disappeared from the scene. But the mark he left on the gay marriage debate lingers — and not in a way that has boosted Republican chances of holding onto Jacobs’ seat.

When the votes were counted, Taylor Bennett, a 29-year-old former Georgia Tech quarterback who spoke often about his lesbian mother and her wife, led the four-candidate field with 37 percent of the vote. He was the only Democrat on the special election ballot.

“I give great credit to now-Judge Jacobs. He was responsible for killing that bill in committee. But I look at the way the situation might unfold next session — the Republican Party has basically stated that they’re going to revive that bill,” Bennett said this week. “I wasn’t going to sit idly by and watch that happen. That’s the hair-trigger reason why I wanted to jump in.”

Former Brookhaven Mayor Max Davis, dogged by accusations of personal misconduct during his City Hall tenure but backed by House Republicans, finished second. He and Bennett will meet in an Aug. 11 runoff.

It can be dangerous to draw hard-and-fast lessons from low-turnout, midsummer elections, and several caveats apply to this particular contest.

The DeKalb County GOP is currently engaged in a struggle between more libertarian-minded Republicans and those who might be described as being part of the GOP establishment. The split appears to have played out between Davis and Catherine Bernard, who lost a spot in the runoff by only 57 votes.

Moreover, Republicans note that students return to DeKalb schools on Aug. 10, the day before the runoff vote, which means their parents are likely to be more engaged.

That said, it is significant that of the three Republicans in the contest for the House District 80 seat, Bernard was the only one who appeared to disagree with what Jacobs did on that day in March.

Senate Bill 129, authored by state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, was demanded by religious conservatives as protection against the coming U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.

Jacobs succeeded in adding a nondiscrimination clause to the measure, which the bill’s supporters said would negate the legislation’s purpose — to allow individuals to act according to their consciences when it came to religious ceremonies, commerce and other matters.

McKoon was forced to concede defeat, but not before promising that the issue would return with a vengeance in 2016. He has spent the past several months building grass-roots support for the rematch.

In most Republican-leaning districts in Georgia, support of a measure to allow the religious to shelter themselves from the Supreme Court’s approval of same-sex marriage wouldn’t be considered a liability.

But House District 80 — dominated by upscale and trendy Brookhaven — isn’t like most GOP districts.

“This area is a pretty strong, fiscally conservative area. Social issues — it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that they’re just not at the top of our list,” Davis said.

Most Republican candidates do well here. But in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, only 10 percent of Republican voters in District 80 picked Rick Santorum — that year’s evangelical standard-bearer. That same year, 82 percent of District 80’s voters approved the Sunday sales of beer, wine and liquor in retail establishments.

Therefore, when it comes to gay marriage and religious liberty legislation, Davis will attempt to walk a fine line over the next three weeks.

On one hand, Davis said it is “unintelligent and wrong” for a business to deny service to a customer based on sexual orientation. But neither does he want to see government coercion to prevent such discrimination.

When he decided to leave the Legislature, Jacobs called Davis — then still the mayor of Brookhaven — to ask whether he was interested in the seat. Given that, I pressed Davis on whether he agreed with Jacobs’ decision to deep-six SB 129.

“Mike did what he did. He was representing the wishes of his constituency. I’m not going to disagree with what Mike did,” Davis said.

But the Republican candidate said he would pursue a “fresh approach from a different angle.”

That angle might be the “pastor protection” legislation that House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, introduced this week. The limited measure would simply make clear that no member of the clergy could be forced to preside over a gay couple’s nuptials.

But Davis would prefer not to address the gay marriage issue at all. When he knocks on doors, the candidate said he intends to focus on his two primary initiatives: A cap on local property taxes and an independent school district for the city of Brookhaven.

Both issues are aimed at older, established voters. Which brings us to another reason that the religious liberty issue might play a role in the next few weeks of campaigning.

Over lunch on Thursday, Bennett, the Democrat in the contest, noted that the average age of a House District 80 resident is 35.

“We attract a young, urban professional crowd. I see that as a trend, of where the district is going in the future,” Bennett said.

But there’s a crucial problem with building a campaign aimed at younger voters. They don’t vote. “The 18-to-35 age range is still the worst-performing group in any election, across the country,” Bennett conceded.

Property taxes don’t drive young people to the polls. Most don’t own homes. Outside of paying off college loans, education isn’t a prime concern. Many don’t yet have families.

But younger voters are intensely interested in the gay marriage and religious liberty debate. That is a topic that will drive them to the polls, Bennett said. “You have social issues that make everybody stop and say, ‘Wait, what are we trying to do here?’ " he said. “You see an awareness when it comes to issues like that.”

And so, over the next three weeks, House District 80 will become something of a Democratic laboratory. If Bennett is right, and if the religious liberty issue proves a reliable driver of younger voters, the strategy could have serious implications for the 2016 debate in the Legislature on the topic, and the 2017 race for mayor of Atlanta.

At week’s end, former Savannah Congressman Jack Kingston, one of the state’s most popular GOP veterans, announced he would host a Saturday meet-and-greet for Davis. Republicans may still hold the edge in House District 80. But they are taking this fresh challenge seriously.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.