Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams. (Alyssa Pointer/AJC)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

The 10 stories that shaped Georgia politics in 2018

The dawn of a new year gives us a chance to look back at a momentous 2018 in Georgia politics, a year that started with a visit by President Donald Trump and ended with a game-changing election for governor  -- and the indictment of a former candidate

Here are the top 10 stories that shaped Georgia politics this year:

10. The death of Zell Miller

The casket is brought in during the funeral for former Governor and U.S. Senator Zell Miller held at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church, Tuesday March 27, 2018, in Atlanta. Miller, a conservative democrat, died at 86 from complications from Parkinson's disease four days ago on March 23 at his home in Young Harris, Ga. (John Amis)
Photo: John Amis

A former two-term Democratic governor and U.S. senator, Zell Miller gave birth to Georgia’s HOPE scholarship and was a keynote speaker at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Miller, who died at the age of 86 in March, was a mountain man who was loyal to his Georgia roots even as he infuriated many in his political party with a knack for unpredictability. He helped revive Bill Clinton’s faltering 1992 campaign for president and later boosted George W. Bush’s re-election bid. And both men, along with former President Jimmy Carter, honored Miller at his memorial service in Atlanta with stirring speeches. His beloved hometown of Young Harris gave him an unforgettable sendoff, too. Read the 14 lessons he wanted his family to remember. (Our favorite showed off his wit: “‘Those who teach lessons are not smart or know everything. They’ve just lived a long time.”)

9. New Atlanta mayor’s first year

December 19, 2018 Dunwoody - Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks before the Atlanta Journal Constitution editorial board meeting on Wednesday, December 19, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After the narrowest of victories, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms took office this year with a heap of challenges that included an ongoing federal corruption probe delving deep into the corridors City Hall, uncertainty about the future of city-state relations and a costly new push to redevelop the stagnant Gulch in downtown Atlanta. She plans to appoint a new transparency officer to ensure the city complies with sunshine laws after repeated abuses under ex-Mayor Kasim Reed, and she plans to rebid lucrative airport concessions that drew the attention of prosecutors. And after much legislative drama, she secured nearly $2 billion in public financing for a massive project to redevelop the Gulch. Read about her ‘in spite of’ year.

8. A massive transit expansion

It was a game-changing year for transit in Georgia that triggered an era of expansion for metro Atlanta’s MARTA system. The transit agency adopted a $2.7 billion plan that includes 29 miles of light rail, 13 miles of bus rapid transit lines, three new arterial routes and the renovation of existing stations. And state lawmakers set the stage for more growth by establishing a new regional board to coordinate funding and allowing 13 metro Atlanta counties to raise sales taxes to pay for transit if their voters approve. First up: A March referendum in Gwinnett set after the MARTA board voted to enter a historic contract with the suburban county. Gov. Nathan Deal also set aside $100 million for a new bus rapid transit line along the spine of Ga. 400. And lawmakers are exploring ways to beef up transit in rural Georgia, including new tax credits and subsidies. Read about MARTA’s expansion plans for Atlanta. 

7. Gov. Nathan Deal’s farewell 

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal participated Monday in an announcement that the state will soon open its third inland port, a $90 million facility on 104 acres, in Deal’s hometown of Gainesville. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)(ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Gainesville Republican entered the final year of his political career with a daunting to-do list. And before he retires to his new home in north Georgia, he completed just about all of them: He put the final touches on his criminal justice initiative, implemented full funding of the state’s k-12 education system, secured a tax break long sought by Delta Air Lines after much drama, engineered an inland port for his hometown and expanded a cybersecurity center in Augusta. He didn’t punch out some of his most significant promises, most notably a pledge to overhaul the school funding formula. He also regrets not eliminating more mandatory minimum sentences. And an effort to woo Amazon’s second headquarters fell flat. But he’ll leave office as the most popular politician in Georgia who was often praised by both candidates seeking to succeed him. Read about how he influenced the race to succeed him.

6. Hurricane Michael

October 16, 2018 Bainbridge - Spectators line up as the Vice President motorcade processes in Bainbridge on Tuesday, October 16, 2018. Vice President Mike Pence touched down in this Southwest Georgia city Tuesday and addressed the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition in Moultrie as he surveyed storm damage from Hurricane Michael. Pence’s visit comes a day after President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump traveled through the central part of the Peach State and met with farmers. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The massive storm left southwest Georgia indelibly changed after it churned through the state in October, leaving a trail of destruction and claiming the life of an 11-year-old girl. Georgia farmers suffered an estimated $3 billion in ruined crops, including peanuts, pecans and cotton, and some worry about generational damage to the industry. The Federal Emergency Management Administration opened 20 offices across the region after President Donald Trump declared the area a disaster zone, and Georgia lawmakers approved a $470 million package of aid and tax cuts for residents of the area. But recovery will be slow-going. Said John Edward Wells, a Miller County farmer: “This is not something people are going to get over in a few months or a few years.” Read about the lives and towns still damaged by the hurricane.

5. Plant Vogtle

The cooling towers for Plant Vogtle reactors Nos. 3 and 4. Special/Georgia Power

The debate over Plant Vogtle’s future was destined to be a tortured one: If the Waynesboro nuclear project was canceled, billions invested would have been wasted. If construction continued, ratepayers would have to pour in more of their money to keep the embattled idea alive. Regulators in late 2017 decided to keep the nation’s only commercial nuclear construction project alive, even though it’s billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. This year, though, brought a fight between the plant’s warring co-owners about the project’s soaring costs that could have brought it to a standstill. A last-minute compromise was struck in September to shift more of the costs to Georgia Power if future overruns grow big enough. Meanwhile, two Republican incumbents on the Public Service Commission who supported the Vogtle project survived tough challenges. Read about the wrangling over the mounting costs and what it means to ratepayers.  

4. Women flex their muscles

The Women’s March in Atlanta drew 63,000 people. DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The elections of 2017 served as a preview for what was to come: In that vote, metro Atlanta residents sent a wave of women to public office. The victors saw it as a sign of increased clout ahead of this year’s vote, and they were right. The women’s marches that spilled across American streets after Trump’s inauguration, coupled with the #MeToo movement, led a record number of women to run for office in 2018. Democrats nominated a pair of women for the state’s top two jobs – Stacey Abrams and Sarah Riggs Amico - as well as female contenders for insurance commissioner, two Public Service Commission posts and four U.S. House seats. That energy spilled down the ballot, where 121 women sought state legislative seats in Georgia – compared with 75 in 2016. Dozens of women won, including Lucy McBath, who defeated Republican Rep. Karen Handel to flip the hard-fought 6th District. Many Republican women running in competitive districts – including Handel – struggled to contend with voter frustration toward Donald Trump. The Democratic victors, meanwhile, bring new approaches on gun restrictions and healthcare policy, among other issues, that could help define 2019. Read about how McBath won the suburban Atlanta seat here

3. The Democratic suburban surge

Voters line up at a Sandy Springs voting site. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It wasn’t a statewide blue wave, but it was a suburban tsunami. That’s how one ousted Republican incumbent described the GOP’s November wipeout in metro Atlanta’s close-in suburbs. Democrats painted the dense suburbs circling Atlanta a bright shade of blue, capturing a swath of territory that just four years ago overwhelmingly tilted to the GOP. Republicans lost about a dozen state legislative seats, the U.S. House seat held by Karen Handel – and only narrowly kept the neighboring district held by Rob Woodall. Led by Stacey Abrams, Democrats carried a sweep of precincts that had transformed from unassailable to vulnerable since Donald Trump’s election as president. They helped boost her to nearly 49 percent of the electorate. Brian Kemp won the election because of huge turnout in deeply-conservative rural Georgia, but he and other party leaders plan to ratchet up their efforts to appeal to suburban voters ahead of 2020 – when President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. David Perdue are on the ballot. Read about how the blue ‘tsunami’ reshapes Georgia politics. 

2. Voting rights debate intensifies

Democrat Stacey Abrams ended her campaign on Nov. 16, more than a week after Election Day. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The race for governor always seemed destined to hinge on a clash over voting rights: Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp had fought over ballot access and electoral policies long before they entered the contest to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal. But in a race featuring two candidates dramatically opposed on nearly every major policy issue, voting rights stood out. Abrams pummeled Kemp for refusing to resign as secretary of state while running for Georgia’s top job, while he claimed incorrectly that she wanted people to illegally vote. The fight centered on stark numbers: More than 53,000 voter registration applications have been put on hold because of discrepancies in government records. Over 1.4 million voters’ registrations have been canceled since 2012, often because they didn’t vote for several elections in a row. Hundreds of absentee ballots were rejected, especially in Gwinnett County, because signatures don’t match or some information is missing. And many voters, particularly in metro Atlanta, waited in lines stretching for hours as county elections officials struggled to cope with explosive voter participation. The debate is far from over: About a dozen lawsuits challenging the state’s electoral policies are pending, and lawmakers are poised to tackle the issue in 2019. Read about how the right to vote engulfed the race for Georgia governor.

1. The race for Georgia governor

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp speaks Tuesday to crowd of more than 100 lawmakers at the legislative biennial on the University of Georgia’s main campus. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A secretly-recorded tape. A presidential proxy fight. An unprecedented level of political money. Just about every big-name politician in the nation. And enough twists and turns to warrant a mini-series. To absolutely no one’s surprise, the race between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp emerged as one of the premier political contests in the nation. 

But let’s not forget what came before: A clash over competing approaches in the Democratic primary, a race to the right among Republicans, a GOP rally for gun rights that clipped the wings of Delta Air Lines, the surreptitious recording that helped undo Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and then the surprise Donald Trump endorsement that catapulted Kemp. 

With the nomination contests over, the real fight began. The general election featured more money than any state contest of its kind – and more attention, too.

Abrams was the state’s first female gubernatorial nominee – and was running to be the first black female governor in U.S. history. Her focus was on appealing to left-leaning minorities who often skipped midterms and wooing suburban moderates infuriated by GOP policies. 

Kemp countered with his own push to electrify his party’s base with a slate of conservative proposals on guns, abortion and taxes – and a mix of some other policies, such as teacher pay hikes, meant to broaden his support. 

The race went down to the bitter end – and 10 days after – as a trickle of outstanding ballots showed Kemp with a slim but insurmountable lead. Abrams refused to concede but ended her campaign – and promptly launched a voting rights group that challenged the state’s voting procedures in federal court. 

And Kemp, as the winner of the most gubernatorial votes in Georgia history, looked to strengthen his coalition going into his first legislative session in the governor’s mansion. Read about how the race for governor came down to the wire. 

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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.