The most liked figure in Georgia politics right now is not Donald Trump, Mike Pence, David Perdue or Barack Obama. It’s Gov. Nathan Deal. And his popularity is shaping the crowded race to succeed him.
Not so long ago, Deal was a pariah to some conservatives for his controversial vetoes and loathed by Democrats for refusing to expand Medicaid, enacting crackdowns on illegal immigration and a string of ethics-related issues.
But as the two-term governor enters the final stretch of his political career, even the Democratic candidates are tying themselves to his policies. And Republicans who once bitterly clashed with Deal now talk of him in glowing terms.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the GOP front-runner in the May 22 primary, invokes his legacy so regularly he might as well bring a cardboard cutout of Deal to campaign stops. Secretary of State Brian Kemp has pledged to build on his economic policy and adapted Deal’s “No. 1 state in the nation for business” mantra.
And business executive Clay Tippins, running as a GOP outsider, talks of Deal in almost biblical terms, saying he’s brought “seven years of plenty” before warning that his successor better be prepared for seven years of famine.
It’s not unusual for candidates to cozy up to popular figures from their own party, but the rhetoric in this race is striking. Democrats running to undo his policies and Republicans who claim Atlanta is run by entrenched elites have both largely avoided biting criticism of the man who’s run the state for the past seven years.
Most of the candidates in the race vow to boost his signature policy initiative, a seven-year overhaul of the criminal justice system. And Republicans hope to stay the course on his broader economic plans and shower him with praise, even though they sharply oppose his “religious liberty” veto.
The latest Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News polls suggest why they are taking the velvet glove approach. One showed roughly half of Democrats approve of the way he’s handled his job as governor. In a separate poll of Republicans, a whopping 85 percent gave him positive reviews.
That makes him far more popular than Trump, who earned an 80 percent approval rating from Republicans — and only about 7 percent from Democrats. And Deal is towering over institutions such as Congress and the state Legislature.
It reflects a difficult political balancing act. Republicans seeking votes from the state’s most conservative voting bloc criticize his policies without assailing the governor. And Democrats can’t afford to alienate a segment of supporters who feel the state is on the right track despite the GOP leadership.
“Republicans have incentive to attach themselves to him,” Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie said. “And given the Republican advantage in the state, Democrats have to reach out to people who are happy with his performance because they don’t want to alienate that constituency.”
For Democrats, the late-stage embrace of Deal seems unthinkable.
A former Democratic U.S. House member who flipped to the GOP, Deal was forced to apologize for using the term “ghetto grandmothers” in his 2010 campaign for governor and was criticized for formally raising questions about Obama’s birthplace.
Once elected, he infuriated Democrats by supporting gun rights expansions and sharp cuts to the HOPE scholarship while defying Obama’s plan to expand the Medicaid program because he said it would be too costly.
And his critics seized on a swirl of alleged ethics lapses, including a jury’s 2014 decision backing a former Georgia ethics chief who claimed she was unfairly forced from office because she was pursuing an investigation into Deal’s campaign activities.
But his seven-year effort to remake the criminal justice system, with policies that shift nonviolent offenders away from costly prison sentences and toward other treatments, endeared him to some liberals.
So did perhaps his most contentious act in office: a 2016 veto of “religious liberty” legislation that critics saw as thinly veiled discrimination toward same-sex couples. He cast that veto as crucial for safeguarding Georgia’s welcoming reputation, and he endlessly repeated an industry publication’s labeling of Georgia as a top place for business.
“You know, it’s funny. I’m a lesbian woman and I didn’t think I’d say this. But there are a few times he stood up for his principles that I actually admire,” said Michelle Putnam, an Atlanta Democrat who works in health care. “There are many things we don’t agree on, but he’s stood his ground and acted on his beliefs and didn’t cave.”
The two Democrats running to succeed him — former House state Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and former state Rep. Stacey Evans — rarely mention Deal by name even as they critique his decision to oppose Medicaid expansion.
When they do, it’s usually in positive terms; Abrams tells audiences she proudly stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the governor to support his prisons overhaul.
The Republican turnaround may be just as startling.
He was so reviled by conservative activists after his religious liberty veto that party activists in many of Georgia’s GOP districts voted to rebuke him for his stance — and one district even called for his “censure.” That year, faced with considerable conservative backlash, he skipped the GOP state convention in Augusta, citing a scheduling conflict.
Now, though, many GOP candidates for his job go out of their way to avoid criticizing him.
Asked directly at a debate to address concerns about Deal’s legacy, state Sen. Michael Williams said “I would prefer not to” and pivoted instead to attack his rivals. Another contender, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said “I don’t want to get into those issues.”
Those who do knock him are measured with their language. Hunter Hill, a former legislator, said he wished the governor had more aggressively heeded calls to cut the state income tax rate. Lawmakers approved a measure this year to cut the rate from 6 percent to 5.5 percent, but Hill has centered his campaign on a pledge to eliminate it.
“He’s put us on an excellent footing financially, but there are some game-changing things that have been left undone,” Hill said. “The next governor can eliminate the income tax — it needs to be on the front of the agenda.”
No politician, though, has tethered themselves more directly to the governor than Cagle, who like Deal is from Gainesville — and with whom he has had a strained political relationship.
After Deal’s veto of the religious liberty bill, Cagle insisted a “silent majority” of voters backed the measure. And Deal’s allies seethed when Cagle effectively spiked a tax break on jet fuel supported by the governor after Delta Air Lines cut ties with the National Rifle Association.
Still, the lieutenant governor has steadily gravitated toward Deal. He’s hired former aides to the governor to advise his campaign and recruited many of his heftiest donors. And he talks about the pair as a team who worked in lockstep to further conservative causes.
“Governor Deal has done a remarkable job,” Cagle said at a recent campaign stop, “and it’s been an honor for me to partner with him over this economic time of prosperity.”
The candidates from both parties could be playing with fire.
Infuriated by Trump’s victory, some Democrats are pressing their candidates to more aggressively challenge GOP politicians. And there’s a bloc of Republican voters who will never forgive the governor for nixing the religious liberty measure two years ago.
Consider Randy Smith in the latter camp. In a crowded Red Lobster in Rome, he challenged Hill to explain why the governor vetoed the legislation. Hill ducked a chance to swipe the governor — the candidate suggested “misinformation” about the bill led to a charged atmosphere — but Smith made clear it still stings.
“Governor Deal was a Democrat at one time, and I believe he still possesses that liberalism,” said Smith, a small business owner. “That may have shown in the veto of that bill, and I totally disagree with that philosophy.”
The governor has acknowledged those sore feelings aren’t likely to go away. And as a lame-duck politician with no plans to run for another office, he seems to relish being freed from the political grind.
In an interview, he said he hoped his administration provides a solid foundation for the next governor. And then he offered some advice for the seven leading candidates striving to follow him.
“As they seek to distinguish themselves from each other,” he said, “I hope they’ll select positive issues that will make our state better.”