Weeks after Georgia Republicans suffered a wave of defeats across metro Atlanta, the party’s leaders are promising to focus on pocketbook issues rather than fights over social divides that energize the GOP’s rural base.
At last week’s biennial training session for legislators in Athens and in the hallways under the Gold Dome, the talk centered on improving rural development, increasing education funding and improving health care.
Gov.-elect Brian Kemp has scarcely mentioned his embrace of tough new abortion restrictions or tight new spending limits. House Speaker David Ralston said he has no appetite for a revival of “religious liberty” legislation that critics see as state-sanctioned discrimination.
And powerful GOP lawmakers said they learned a valuable lesson from their wipeout in the suburbs, where a Democratic tide flipped more than a dozen state legislative seats and almost propelled Stacey Abrams to an upset victory.
“Those social issues are extraneous issues — important but extraneous. And they’re going to be pushed aside,” said state Sen. Renee Unterman, a Gwinnett County Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee.
“Those bills on guns and abortion may be filed, but leadership is going to prioritize and focus elsewhere,” she said. “You’ve got to put the hardest issues first – to lay the groundwork now on health care, rural broadband and huge infrastructure changes.”
Democrats are guarded, at best, about the promise of a change of tone after a bruising campaign that featured Kemp’s promises to pursue new abortion limits, adopt a religious liberty measure, enact gun rights expansions and crack down on illegal immigration.
They’re preparing for what some see as an inevitable clash over cultural issues, particularly an expected push from Kemp to rewrite where guns can be carried. They recounted previous promises to focus on consensus-driven issues only to get caught in the riptide over other fights.
“I’m very glad that the governor-elect and Republican leadership are working toward a positive image for Georgia, but Kemp made a lot of promises to the Trump base,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur.
“I’m in wait-and-see mode,” Oliver said. “I’ve seen this before: There are some in Republican leadership who want religious liberty, who want more guns in more places.”
Those two issues are bound to resurface in the legislative session that starts next month; one conservative has already introduced a bill to let anyone who is legally allowed to own a gun carry it without paying for a state-issued license. But what’s uncertain is how forcefully any Republican leaders will push them.
Kemp has not abandoned any of the conservative proposals that helped him win a tough GOP nominating contest. But he also has not said whether he'll aggressively advocate for any of them either, suggesting his focus will shift to other campaign promises.
In his first major speech to lawmakers, he avoided mention of gun policy, abortion restrictions or other polarizing issues. Instead, he emphasized his support for an increase in rural hospital tax credits, new funding for school safety and teacher pay raises, and proposals to help rural Georgia.
“The rising tide in Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah has not lifted our rural communities,” Kemp said at the address in Athens. “Some continue to struggle. In some areas, it still feels like the Great Recession. As governor, I will work to ensure that someone’s potential is not determined by their ZIP code.”
Ralston outlined his trepidation about waging cultural battles in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He said he has "serious concerns" about stoking a new debate on religious liberty, nodding to supporters who often point to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, bipartisan legislation that Congress adopted a quarter-century ago.
“I think we have to recognize that the world’s a much different place than when Bill Clinton signed a bill that the Congress passed in ’93. The RFRA discussion then was totally different,” Ralston said, using shorthand for the legislation.
“It wasn’t about what it’s about now,” he said. “That’s one of those issues that divide us, and I think if we’re going to continue to move Georgia forward, we have to do it united as opposed to being divided.”
Through the glass
That’s welcomed by Democratic leaders, who promise to work with Republicans on issues they feel a consensus can be reached. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving lawmaker in Georgia, called those “windshield issues” — policies voters see every day.
“We need to do what we can to reach voters on those windshield issues, like health care, education, transportation and workforce development, that people wake up thinking about,” said Smyre, a Columbus Democrat. “That’s our immediate future.”
To that mix, Democrats hope to add broader changes to electoral policy after a November vote marred by claims of voter suppression. Their goals are to block the purging of voters who didn’t cast ballots in recent elections and set statewide standards for counting absentee and provisional ballots.
Kemp has said he’s open to some changes to voting rules, but he has not specified what he will back. Other Republicans are girding for a potential fight.
“We’ve shown through Governor Deal’s tenure that we will put forth policies that bring together all Georgians,” said state Rep. Trey Kelley, a Cedartown Republican and high-ranking member of the House caucus.
“We want all of our colleagues to work together, but we won’t let Democrats be obstructionist just because they want to engage in partisan politics,” he said. “I hope our responsible approach isn’t drowned out by partisan rhetoric.”
Some Democrats are quietly preparing for an aggressive conservative agenda they can use to mobilize their voters in two years. The party flipped about a dozen legislative seats in November, all in metro Atlanta’s densely populated suburbs. Leaders are now circling other districts that could be vulnerable.
State Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat from Midway, was first elected 15 years ago when his party still controlled the 180-member Georgia House — but Republicans were on the cusp of a takeover. Back then, Republicans had roughly the same number of House members as the 75 that Democrats do now.
“Georgia needs to concentrate on pocketbook issues, but if not, the numbers and demographics of this state have changed over four years,” Williams said. “Some Republicans have found they have to make big changes in areas they thought were locked down.
“I can feel it. It’s turning around. And the numbers don’t lie.”
Staff writer Jim Galloway contributed to this story.
WHY IT MATTERS
Democrats in November captured about a dozen legislative seats that had been held by Republicans, all in Atlanta’s suburbs. Republican leadership is responding by focusing on issues with suburban appeal, such as health care, and staying away from subjects such as gun rights and “religious liberty” that are more popular with the party’s rural base.
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