A secretive debate to decide if the race for lieutenant governor will matter

For the next 12 weeks, we will have what is likely to be a raucous campaign for lieutenant governor.

Constitutionally, the office is the second-most important in the state. The lieutenant governor is the spare tire we keep in a state Capitol trunk, just in case the governor goes flat.

Millions of dollars will be spent by and on behalf of Republican Geoff Duncan and Democrat Sarah Riggs Amico. The fight will be loud and public. More than 1 million voters are sure to take part.

But paralleling this race will be another contest. It will be conducted behind closed doors, with barely a word uttered in the open. Only three dozen or so Republican voters will be involved. And it will determine, to a large extent, whether the public race for lieutenant governor really matters.

Regardless of who wins on Nov. 6, GOP members of the state Senate are contemplating a move to strip the next lieutenant governor of the powers that traditionally come with the office. Key players on both sides tell us maneuvers are already underway.

Duncan is a former House member who had little support among Senate Republicans prior to winning the GOP nomination last month. He’s in the process of introducing himself to Republican senators whose support will be crucial to his chances on Election Day. Should Duncan win, they will also determine the extent of his clout within the chamber.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, arranged a dinner meeting between Duncan and Senate GOP leaders. A meeting between Duncan and the entire Senate Republican caucus was scheduled for Monday.

Underlying the debate over what kind of clout the next lieutenant governor will have is a chamber that has suddenly found itself rudderless. In the race for governor, most Senate Republicans lined up behind Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who had presided over them since 2007.

Even Cowsert was nominally a Cagle supporter. And his brother-in-law is Brian Kemp, who trounced Cagle in the primary runoff after receiving a tweeted endorsement from President Donald Trump.

In the race for lieutenant governor, most GOP senators backed a colleague, David Shafer of Duluth, the former Senate president pro tem. Duncan won with only a handful of votes to spare, and the assistance of a “dark money” organization that dropped $3 million into the race – much of it on his opponent’s head, with TV ads and mailers decrying “shameful Shafer.”

This could make relationship-building rather awkward, at least in the early stages. If Shafer was a swamp-dweller, so were the Republican senators who supported him.

By historical measures, the office of lieutenant governor in Georgia still has that new-car smell. The position was created in 1945. The first election to fill it was in 1946.

Like the federal office of vice president, the principal purpose of the lieutenant governor is to provide a named successor, should a sitting governor resign or die in office.

“Cactus Jack” Garner, who served as vice president under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, once denigrated the job as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Except that he probably didn’t say “spit.” In the current U.S. Senate, for instance, it is Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who calls the shots, not Vice President Mike Pence, who is technically the chamber’s presiding officer.

But in Georgia, the job of lieutenant governor has been more weighty — empowered under Senate rules that stand or fall on votes by the full chamber. In recent years, Senate Republicans have twice yanked those powers away.

In 2003, after the election of Sonny Perdue, the Republican governor-elect persuaded several Senate Democrats to switch parties. They put the chamber in Republican hands for the first time since Reconstruction.

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, had just won re-election. Senate Republicans stripped away his authority to make committee assignments and name committee chairmen.

This would almost certainly be the fate of Amico, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, should she win — given that Republican control of the chamber isn’t at stake in November.

(Asked to weigh in on this topic, Amico pointed to, among other things, the 500,000 Georgians without health insurance and seven rural hospitals that have closed since 2013. “If the Republican legislative leadership had spent as much time problem-solving as they have power-grabbing, perhaps these numbers would look better,” she said.)

In November 2010, Casey Cagle had just waltzed to a second term as lieutenant governor. But in the spring before, he had twisted one arm too many while collecting votes for a hospital bed tax required by Governor Perdue. Two GOP senators who balked lost their committee chairmanships.

A victorious Cagle saw his re-election rewarded with a coup. He, too, lost his power to make committee assignments and name committee chairmen.

But in their haste, Senate Republicans allowed Cagle to retain the authority to determine which bills went to which committees, and to name Senate members to House-Senate conference committees, where the final forms of legislation are often negotiated.

We’re getting deep into the weeds here, but that’s rather like taking away a general’s sword while leaving him a loaded cannon. Cagle was eventually able to claw back his lost powers.

That could be the scenario waiting for Geoff Duncan, who is not speaking publicly about the situation.

But if you are a GOP nominee for lieutenant governor meeting a new set of Senate Republican friends, there are two points you are likely to make — albeit very gently. The first is that, even stripped down, the office of lieutenant governor is a powerful bully pulpit, a high perch from which much sand can be thrown into the chamber machinery below.

The second point is that senators, whether Republican or Democratic, are judged by the legislation they manage to pass. And during sessions of the General Assembly, the dynamic that’s most important often isn’t Democrat vs. Republican, but House vs. Senate.

When the state’s part-time lawmakers convene in January, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, will be in complete control of his chamber. If the Senate is a body run by committee, without a firm hand on the tiller, it is likely to be at a disadvantage when it comes to a confrontation.

State senators, who to a person view themselves as future governors or members of Congress, aren’t known for their tiny egos. So that’s a hard sell. But if you’re Geoff Duncan, it’s a necessary one.