The wild November elections could just be a preview of the tumultuous year ahead in Georgia politics.
A new governor, a new lieutenant governor and a sweep of new lawmakers must feel their way through a new legislative session filled with fresh challenges.
Emboldened Democrats, buoyed by a string of suburban victories, will surely try to flex their muscles under the Gold Dome. And as the race for president heats up, all signs point to more focus and attention than ever being cast upon Georgia.
Here are some of the biggest questions in Georgia politics that your Insiders will be watching this year. (And check out our answers to last year’s questions here).
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How will Brian Kemp govern?
Call it the duality of Brian Kemp: He won the Republican nomination with a pledge to move Georgia firmly to the right on a range of cultural issues, including expanding gun rights, cracking down on illegal immigration and signing the nation’s strictest abortion controls. He won the general election with the help of broader appeals to buckle down on school safety, hike teacher pay, boost rural Georgia and enact a contentious “religious liberty” bill only under the strictest circumstances. So which Kemp will show up in January? He’s pledged he won’t abandon the conservative principles that electrified his supporters and helped him eke out a narrow November victory. But he’s also told a Legislature that hasn’t been this closely divided in more than a decade that he’ll focus less on the polarizing issues and more on the pocketbook ones. And he’ll face new pressure – from the courts, from Democrats and from his own party – to solve pressing voting rights issues that surfaced over the last year. He’ll also have a largely untested team dealing with a host of powerful players that include House Speaker David Ralston – who has solidified control of his chamber over the last decade – and incoming Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and a fractious Senate caucus. How he will navigate this high-wire act will set the stage for his first term in office.
Will Georgia emerge as a legit battleground state?
Let’s put it this way: It would be shocking if Georgia isn’t squarely on the political map over the next two years as President Donald Trump prepares for re-election and the field of Democrats challenging him takes shape. Let the numbers tell the tale: Eight. Five. One and a half. That’s the margin of Republican victories in Georgia by percentage point since 2014. That doesn’t mean that Georgia is fated to flip, but it does mean that Republicans will have to play defense in a state that was all but a lock for Republicans over the last quarter-century. In 2016, the “SEC primary” triggered visits from nearly every leading presidential contender before Georgia’s vote – but neither Trump nor Hillary Clinton visited after primary. Already, a slate of high-profile potential Democratic contenders has visited Georgia to stump for candidates and shore up their own networks of support here. Expect that to be just a taste of what’s to come.
Who will challenge David Perdue?
One of the juiciest targets on the Senate map in 2020 is Republican David Perdue, who is running for his second – and he says final – term in the U.S. Senate. The businessman has become one of President Donald Trump’s most prominent D.C. allies – even in his most isolating moments – and he plans to stick to the outsider, anti-establishment message that won him his seat in 2014. No well-known Republicans are expected to oppose Perdue in a primary, but several Democrats have hinted they’re interested in challenging the multi-millionaire in 2020. Most are waiting for Stacey Abrams to decide her next step after her near-miss in the race for governor. If she sidesteps a 2020 race, Democrats could be in for a tempestuous primary fight from potential candidates that include outgoing Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Pastor Raphael Warnock, former congressional candidate Jon Ossoff and ex-Senate candidate Michelle Nunn.
What will Stacey Abrams do?
That’s the question on the tips of the tongues of most Georgia Democrats. Her campaign for governor earned her dizzying national fame and a cadre of loyal supporters in Georgia and beyond. Since her loss to Brian Kemp – and a non-concession speech heard ‘round the world – she launched a new group challenging Georgia’s voting laws, joined the board of a progressive think-tank, launched a round of TV ads about healthcare and waded into national debates over ballot access. Some high-profile Democrats want her to challenge David Perdue in 2019, though her allies say she’s more likely to aim for a 2022 rematch against Brian Kemp. And she could well end up on some Veep short-lists in the coming years. No matter what she decides, she has plenty of political capital now – and can spend it as a queenmaker in Georgia politics.
Will lawmakers tackle Georgia’s voting issues?
Lawmakers seemed to have reached a consensus in 2018 that the state’s 27,000 direct-recording electronic voting machines should be replaced with a system that leaves a verifiable paper trail. But what they haven’t agreed on is what type of paper-based voting system Georgia should use and how much taxpayer money should be spent. And that’s just the start: Incoming Gov. Brian Kemp and a new Legislature will face questions over a slate of other voting issues, including uneven standards for counting provisional and absentee ballots, how to address lengthy lines at early-voting and Election Day polling sites, voter registration cancellations and the state’s embrace of exact-match standards. And if lawmakers don’t tackle those debates, the courts might do it for them.
Can Republicans make up lost ground in the suburbs?
The GOP held onto all of Georgia’s major statewide offices in last year’s midterms, but the party’s poor performance in the rapidly diversifying Atlanta suburbs has prompted some soul searching for officials looking ahead to the 2020 races. The party is unquestionably tied to President Donald Trump, but Republican leadership in the Legislature is pledging to tackle economic policies rather than divisive social debates like abortion or “religious liberty” to keep suburbanites in the fold. Another area to watch could be infrastructure. Georgia has traditionally invested little in public transportation, but outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal supported many transit initiatives and 2018 was a watershed year for metro Atlanta transit. Kemp has pledged to continue “investment in targeted projects” such as bus rapid transit interchanges along Ga. 400 in north Fulton County, but he wants private as well as public investment.
How will Georgia adapt to a new healthcare landscape?
The state’s Republican leaders have long rejected Obamacare’s offer to expand Medicaid, but a growing number of GOP lawmakers want Georgia to apply for a waiver that would let the state insure more people under Medicaid. The move, depending on how it’s designed, could insure thousands or hundreds of thousands of residents in a state with one of the country’s highest uninsured rates. But a federal judge’s recent decision striking down the entirety of Obamacare – a case Georgia had helped prosecute – has generated significant doses of uncertainty about what’s to come for the state’s health care system. The lawsuit, which is still making its way through the appeals process, could impact more than the half-million Georgians who have an insurance plan through the health care exchange. One more piece of the puzzle to watch: Brian Kemp tapped Tom Price – Donald Trump’s former health secretary – to help craft his healthcare policy for his transition team.
Will voters welcome more MARTA?
If 2018 set the stage for mass expansion for mass transit in metro Atlanta, 2019 could be the overhauled system’s make-or-break year. The Georgia Legislature passed a measure last year that lets voters in 13 metro Atlanta counties approve new sales taxes for transit construction and operations. And several counties are already off to the races - including Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett. Transit advocates are closely watching a March referendum in Gwinnett, where voters could give the go-ahead for a MARTA rail extension to Jimmy Carter Boulevard and bus rapid transit routes on several major routes. If it passes – and it’s no sure thing – it could pave the way for Cobb to follow suit. If it fails, transit expansion in metro Atlanta could hit the skids.
How will Democrats leverage their new power in Georgia?
Georgia Democrats enter the year with some hard-earned clout after winning more than a dozen state legislative seats across the close-in suburbs of metro Atlanta, offsetting the defeats of three imperiled House Democrats in more rural territories. The party also carried the crown jewel of the ‘burbs: The 6th District seat that was home in 2017 to the most expensive U.S. House race in U.S. history. With Lucy McBath’s congressional win and a slate of Democratic newcomers to the Legislature, the party has more power than it has at any time since Gov. Nathan Deal’s election. Democrats can handily block constitutional amendments and defeat other GOP proposals by picking off a handful of Republican votes. The party can also put more heft behind its major policy initiatives – expect a slate of progressive measures that include gun control - though they’re still unlikely to pass. The new Democratic muscle could also put pressure on Republicans to avoid culture-wars legislation that would turn off suburban voters. After sweeping DeKalb County, Democrats are eager to target the handful of Cobb, Fulton and Gwinnett seats that are still in GOP hands. Next up may be the fast-changing area around Savannah. But they’ll face a tougher task in wooing rural voters, who overwhelmingly sided with the GOP in 2018.