It was supposed to be a slower year, at least in political terms.
Sure, it was Gov. Brian Kemp’s debut in Georgia’s highest office. The race for U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s seat was destined to take shape, Stacey Abrams’ future would be further defined and emboldened Democrats were set to flex their muscles after a slate of suburban gains.
But it was still an off-election year, a period of relative calm before 2020’s presidential election barrage. As it turned out, calm was not in the cards.
Kemp and Georgia Republicans were more willing to engage in partisan battles over culture wars that party leaders once eagerly tried to avoid. Democrats were more aggressive in fighting back. Major proposals aimed to overhaul Georgia’s health care and election systems.
Here are the top 10 stories that shaped Georgia politics this year:
10. The fight over farmers
It took nearly a year after Hurricane Michael ravaged southwest Georgia, but federal relief money finally started trickling to devastated farmers in September. Despite the towering influence of Georgia Republicans in Congress, it took a herculean effort to secure the federal funds. The strongly written letters and arm-twisting appeals made little headway for months, until the long-delayed aid was approved over the summer. Still, many farmers won’t receive financial relief until next year. Meanwhile, a growing trade war proved divisive in the agricultural heartland., though state Republicans have largely fallen in line with the Trump administration -- including Perdue, until recently a tariff critic.
9. Voting rights in the forefront
After a 2018 election clouded by questions about the counting of absentee ballots, lengthy lines at polling sites, voter registration cancellations and exact-match standards, state legislators set out to replace Georgia’s 27,000 electronic voting machines and overhaul elections rules. Kemp signed a bill that calls for new voting machines that print paper ballots, extends the time before registrations are canceled and places limitations on precinct closures. But Democrats and some voting rights groups wanted more significant changes. As 2020 nears, the possibility of more court intervention looms large, as sweeping lawsuits challenging state election policies move through the legal system and Georgia faces a pressing deadline to get rid of its outdated voting system before the March presidential primary.
8. Shifting politics in Georgia
The year started with more than a dozen new Democratic faces in the Georgia Legislature, fresh off flipping state legislative seats long seen as Republican locks. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan sought to quickly establish himself as a top Kemp ally, while House Speaker David Ralston quashed a challenge to his leadership after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News investigation found he frequently delayed criminal court cases by invoking his legislative privilege. In Congress, U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall announced he wouldn’t seek another term after narrowly winning the tightest House election in the nation in 2018, triggering a free-for-all that’s attracted more than a dozen contenders. Months later, U.S. Rep. Tom Graves – the senior-most Republican in Georgia’s House delegation – also said he would not stand for another term. And in November and December races, Democratic-backed candidates won several metro Atlanta mayoral races and flipped Savannah City Hall four years after a GOP “sea change” election.
7. Stacey Abrams’ growing profile
After her close finish in the 2018 governor’s contest – and her refusal to say she was conceding the race when she ended her campaign – Abrams’ national profile has only grown. She delivered the Democratic rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in February, breaking the curse of lackluster responses with a speech from an Atlanta labor hall. After flirting with a run for the U.S. Senate, she decided instead to expand her Fair Fight voting rights group nationally, launch a group aimed at producing an accurate U.S. census count and start a policy think tank. Just about every presidential candidate has courted her – several name-checked her in November at the Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta - and Trump began to roll her election defeat into his rally rhetoric. As Abrams prepares for a likely rematch against Kemp in 2022, another possibility looms large: She seems certain to be considered as a candidate for vice president in 2020.
6. Gov. Brian Kemp’s first year
Fresh off a narrow election victory, the governor’s inaugural speech blended a pledge to unite voters after a tumultuous race with a promise to pursue his conservative campaign pledges. In his first legislative session, he tried to do both. He signed legislation that legalized the sale of medical marijuana, backed a health care overhaul that aims to stabilize insurance premiums and enroll tens of thousands of residents in Medicaid, and surprised his critics with history-making appointments to top posts. And he engineered pay raises that brought a $3,000 increase in salary to Georgia educators. But the session might be most remembered for stiff anti-abortion restrictions that were adopted with his approval. He wrestled over how to handle two factories where cancer-causing gas emissions caused an uproar from worried residents, and he called for spending cuts of 4% and 6% over the next two fiscal years, respectively. After U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson announced he would retire, Kemp initiated a months-long application process to hash out what might be the most important political decision of his career – and ended with the promotion of Kelly Loeffler.
5. Georgia gets 2020 battleground treatment
Even before the Democratic National Committee picked Atlanta to host its November presidential debate, Georgia was on the receiving end of a wave of attention. White House hopefuls made a beeline to the state, armed with Georgia-centric messaging about expanding ballot access and abortion rights, as state GOP leaders warned last year’s narrow victories amounted to a “wakeup call” for the party. Encouraged by Abrams, who warned it would be “political malpractice” for national Democrats to ignore the state, the specter of dual Senate races next year promised to energize voters on both sides of the aisle. And intense lobbying by Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms helped Georgia win its first primary debate since 1992 – and a chance to showcase the party’s push to land major victories next year.
4. A fight over abortion dominates
Few could have predicted when the legislative session opened in January that it would end a few months later with stiff new anti-abortion restrictions in the books – and promises of payback from Democratic women and leading Hollywood figures. Kemp initially seemed to sidestep the debate by backing a “trigger law” that would outlaw abortion only if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its 1973 ruling that legalized the procedure. Under pressure from conservatives to uphold his campaign promises, he soon endorsed a measure that would ban abortions as early as six weeks. That set up an emotional fight in the Legislature that led to the measure’s narrow approval – and stoked threats of boycotts, a walkout on the House floor and a protest by actress Alyssa Milano. The governor canceled a trip to Hollywood and blasted “C-list celebrities” who criticize his agenda, while Abrams trekked to Los Angeles instead to urge film producers to resist a “moral pull” to abandon Georgia. A federal judge blocked the measure from going into effect, the first step in a legal battle that anti-abortion advocates hope winds up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
3. Impeachment jolts Georgia politics
In the span of a few dramatic September days, Georgia’s Democratic U.S. House delegation went from neutral on Trump’s impeachment to openly advocating for it. That included U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, one of the politically vulnerable Democrats that U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been trying to shield from politically damaging votes. The watershed moment might have been U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ fiery noontime speech saying that staying on the sidelines would “betray” the U.S. Constitution. Republicans quickly brushed aside the impeachment charges as a “sham” and a “hoax.” And Democrats framed their votes as a solemn stand for democracy, even if doing so could cause them political harm. The Democratic-controlled House voted in December to impeach Trump, and Georgia’s delegation of nine Republicans and five Democrats split along party lines. How it will play out in 2020 is anyone’s guess, but an AJC poll in November found a majority of voters approve of the impeachment investigation but are more divided over whether Trump should be ousted from office.
2. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s retirement
The most enduring Republican politician in Georgia, Isakson stunned state leaders with an August announcement that he would step down at year’s end. He said it went against “every fiber of my being” to leave in the middle of his third term, but that mounting illnesses complicated by his Parkinson’s disease forced his decision. Over more than four decades in politics – he’s the only Georgian to be elected to both chambers of the state Legislature and both chambers of Congress – Isakson built a reputation as a conservative Republican proud of his bipartisan bridge-building. That showed in an emotional farewell at the U.S. Senate that united lawmakers, even if for just a few hours, as a debate over impeachment raged. Isakson liked to say he divided people into two buckets – friends and future friends – and he spent his final weeks in the Senate pushing to revive the dying art of bipartisanship.
1. Georgia’s new Republican U.S. senator
In a decision that will not only define his first year in office but also the immediate future of the Georgia GOP, Kemp tapped Loeffler for a U.S. Senate seat after a months-long search. He’s wagering that a finance executive and political newcomer who is relatively unknown to voters can win a string of elections that start with a race in 2020. He hopes that Loeffler can help Republicans win back voters, particularly suburban women, who have fled the party. Her pledge to spend at least $20 million of her own money won’t hurt, either. But Kemp is also taking a calculated risk that his pick won’t entice a conservative challenger to enter the race, potentially splitting the GOP vote in a special election. Trump, along with some prominent conservatives, lobbied Kemp to select U.S. Rep. Doug Collins for the seat and by year’s end, the congressman still hadn’t decided whether to run against Loeffler in November. Democrats, meanwhile, celebrated the Republican fissures over her selection even as they tried to coalesce around a candidate backed by party leaders.
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