Political Insider

An AJC blog about Atlanta politics, Georgia politics, Georgia and metro Atlanta election campaigns. Because all politics is local.
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The top political questions of 2018, answered 

Before the start of 2018, your Political Insiders laid out the nine questions in Georgia politics to watch this year.

We're reprinting that column in full below, with answers attached beneath each question. Take a trip down memory lane with us. 

Also, you can find the top 10 political stories of 2018 here. And for kicks, here’s the 2017 version of this column

OK, here goes: 

Who will be Georgia's next governor? 

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Spoiler alert: Brian Kemp. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton)

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. 

Answer: Notice how the name “Brian Kemp” wasn’t mentioned in the answer above? It wasn’t because we weren’t paying attention to him, but at the point he was still lumped in with the “rivals” who were hounding Cagle. The lieutenant governor was indeed the frontrunner, but he failed to land a knockout blow in the primary and his numbers tanked after a secret recording released by another ex-contender, Clay Tippins, revealed his inner thoughts about conservative voters. Next came Donald Trump’s surprise endorsement, engineered by Sonny Perdue, and then the rout. Abrams had a clearer path to her party’s nomination, trouncing Evans back in May and then spending most of the summer retooling and broadening her campaign. And after months of grueling political combat – and 10 days of precarious limbo – Abrams ended her bid without conceding while Kemp readied to take office. 

What will Donald Trump do in his second year?

President Donald Trump led thousands of Georgians in a rally Sunday in a cramped airport hangar outside Macon to support Republican candidate for Georgia governor Brian Kemp. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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? 

Answer: Perhaps the real question is what didn’t happen in 2018? Trump had his triumphant moments, from the confirmation of his second Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to a NAFTA replacement deal and the relocation of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He had more headaches, including the forced separation of migrant families on the Southwest border, turmoil in his Cabinet and the mushrooming Russia investigation, which engulfed his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen. Congress couldn’t pass immigration legislation, but it did get him a landmark criminal justice measure. And a midterm election Trump framed as a referendum on his presidency cost the GOP control of the House but narrowly increased the Republican grip on the Senate. The president also got his first taste of divided government after Democrats declined to give him money for a border wall, resulting in the third government shutdown this year. One thing headed into 2019 is for sure: he won’t have an ambitious Georgia operative as his right-hand man. Nick Ayers, a former Sonny Perdue aide, recently passed on the chance to be Trump’s chief of staff and announced plans to return to Georgia. 

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

What could have been: A rendering of a proposed Amazon complex in the shadows of Ponce City Market.

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.

Answer: To think of all that wasted ink writing about this project! And, yes, we did write plenty about Amazon, including the specter of a special session to hash out incentives, how the hunt for the project was shaping the race for governor, what Georgia was preparing to offer the tech giant and the secrecy laws that shielded the public from knowing more. Georgia’s chances seemed doomed, though, after the company had a disastrous visit on the heels of a strained legislative session. In the end, Amazon decided to split its second headquarters between New York and Washington – leaving Atlanta and other finalists licking their wounds. Soon, we had the answer to another burning question: Georgia had offered more than $2 billion in incentives to lure the company – and an Amazon-dedicated car on MARTA

Is it Democrats' time in Georgia? 

Stacey Abrams and Sarah Riggs Amico pose for a photo with a group of men following a discussion on issues that impact black men at a campaign stop in October. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (Alyssa Pointer)

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.

Answer: Republicans this year were able to hold onto every major statewide office, but it took more money and elbow grease than any time this decade. Races for secretary of state and Public Service Commission went into overtime, while Stacey Abrams got within two percentage points of Republican Brian Kemp, netting the most votes ever cast for a Democrat in Georgia history. A surge of first-time candidates, including many women and people of color, ran for Congress and statehouse – and several of them won. With Abrams at the top of the ticket, Democrats were able to flip a dozen legislative seats in Atlanta’s once deeply-conservative suburbs, as well as the U.S. House seat held by Roswell Republican Karen Handel. The results helped cement the Georgia’s status as a battleground in the 2020 race for president and sent many Republicans into a state of panic about the party’s future. It also showed how far Democrats still need to come to take back the levers of power in Georgia: even a history-making candidate like Abrams, who commanded national attention and a boatload of campaign donations, couldn’t get there. 

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

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Chris Riley, Gov. Nathan Deal's chief of staff, confer in the Senate on the Delta/NRA flap. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM (Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com)

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.

Answer: When this question was written, the words “Delta” and “NRA” were not yet inextricably linked as cable talk show fodder and grist for the Georgia campaign trail. But those two power players got wrapped up in a larger political chess match after the Atlanta-based airline ended a discounted rate for members of the gun rights group – and prompted Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other GOP leaders to vow to end a jet-fuel tax break that would have benefited the company. What happened next was predictable: Georgia lawmakers voted to jettison the tax break over the objections of the state’s largest private employer. Democrats howled at the hypocrisy of the move. And Cagle earned the NRA’s endorsement. And then the not-so-predictable: Gov. Nathan Deal orchestrated the passage of a jet-fuel tax break during a special session. And the NRA wound up begrudgingly supporting Brian Kemp after its first pick was clobbered in the runoff.  

That drama aside, legislators got plenty more done: They struck an awkward, if emotional, truce on the state’s adoption laws that led to nasty infighting in 2017. And they took on metro Atlanta’s transportation mess, toughened penalties for distracted driving, passed historic tax cuts and fully funded k-12 schools — all major goals that have eluded the General Assembly for decades. 

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

Lake Lanier is at high levels now after a record drought sapped the reservoir. (BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM/bandres@ajc.com)

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. 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.

Answer: Georgia strode into the Supreme Court this January riding high. The state had racked up several preliminary legal and regulatory victories in its everlasting water dispute against Florida and Alabama and felt confident the justices would rule in its favor. But the court declined to give Georgia a quick ending. Instead, justices in a 5-4 ruling directed a court-appointed expert judge to reevaluate Florida’s legal challenge and answer five questions designed to evaluate the harm Florida said it suffered at the hands of Georgia and whether a legal remedy exists that could help them. In August, the court announced the appointment of a new expert judge, Paul Kelly of New Mexico, who will soon lay out a timeline for future proceedings. Meanwhile, congressional fights over the issue are still pending. Boiling it down, this fight isn’t anywhere near resolved. 

How will Gov. Nathan Deal ride into the sunset?  

Gov. Nathan Deal and his top aide, Chris Riley in December 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (Alyssa Pointer)

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.

Answer: On a high note. 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 prison sentences. But he’ll leave office as the most popular politician in Georgia who was often praised by both candidates seeking to succeed him. 

How will the #MeToo movement shake up Georgia politics?

(David McNew/Getty Images)

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.

Answer: The national reckoning continued in 2018, but its impact was mostly hidden at the Georgia Capitol. Some have called the culture under the Gold Dome a “cesspool of misogyny," and many women interviewed by the AJC over the past year said they were reluctant to discuss harassment or file complaints because it could cost them their jobs or influence. Indeed, a complaint filed against state Sen. David Shafer, then a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, by a veteran lobbyist was dismissed by the Georgia Senate Ethics Committee in April due to a "lack of credible evidence." At state agencies, the AJC found there was no uniform policy for investigating complaints and or centralized authority offering guidance on sanctions.

Will Sonny Perdue take the spotlight?

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue speaks as Governor Nathan Deal looks at Flint River Mills in Bainbridge on Tuesday, October 16, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC)

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 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

 

Answer: Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue rang in his 72nd birthday at the White House earlier this month, a day that gave him not one but two professional victories. President Donald Trump signed the farm bill into law, a hard-fought $867 billion measure that gave Perdue’s Cabinet agency fresh policy guidance for the next five years. On the same day, the former Georgia governor used his executive powers to deliver on a major priority he couldn’t get in the farm bill: stricter enforcement of food stamp work requirements. Perdue spent 2018 quietly working under the radar, remaining in seemingly good standing with his mercurial boss even as many of his Cabinet colleagues were shown the door. Perdue’s rapport with the president earned him a prominent role selling Trump’s trade policies, as well as a coveted presidential endorsement for Brian Kemp, a seal of approval that helped the candidate run away with the GOP nomination in July. Perdue has quietly maintained many of his Georgia ties from his perch in Washington, solidifying his influence in the state eight years after he left office. 

 

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