Every Georgia legislative session is influenced by political machinations and maneuvering. But not every session features a bumper crop of 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.
For a glimpse at the potential political pitfalls and tangle of alliances of the 40-day session, look no further than the Georgia Senate.
Presiding over the chamber is Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, perhaps the biggest name in the Republican hunt for governor. He’ll be greeted each morning by the sight of state Sen. Michael Williams, a rival who is one of Cagle’s fiercest critics. A third contender, Hunter Hill, would have joined the spectacle if not for resigning to focus on the daily campaign slog.
That’s just the start of the awkwardness. One of the Senate’s leading GOP figures is the brother-in-law of Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a fourth candidate for governor. And the uncle of the fifth top contender, Clay Tippins, is chairman of a key committee.
To that stew, add two other senators seeking higher office: David Shafer for lieutenant governor and Josh McKoon for secretary of state.
Across the hall in the Georgia House, the atmosphere is only slightly less fraught. Two recently resigned legislators, Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans, are dueling each other for the Democratic nomination for governor, a race that will test their competing strategies for returning their party to power. At least three other House lawmakers are jousting for lesser statewide seats.
And every lawmaker not jockeying for higher office or calling it quits after this year will be on a November ballot with the highest of stakes.
By then, Democrats hope to go on the offensive, surfing what they project will be a national wave slamming against their GOP adversaries across the nation. Republicans will seek to fortify the firewall they’ve painstakingly built since 2002, defending their grip on every statewide office and commanding majorities in both chambers.
The next three months or so of legislative wrangling will help shape that debate, crackling with potential to offer candidates of both parties fuel to energize — or infuriate — voters.
“For a lot of us, this is a first-time experience in a lot of different ways,” said state Rep. Trey Kelley, a Cedartown Republican who outlined one of them: “We haven’t had an opportunity to see an open race for governor. Or an open race for lieutenant governor. And definitely not at the same time.”
Kelley, first elected in 2012, is right. He’s in a big club: Only a handful of lawmakers were in the Legislature in 1998, the last time both of the state’s highest offices — governor and lieutenant governor — were vacant at the same time.
It starts at the top. Gov. Nathan Deal’s final year in office — he cannot pursue a third term — has triggered an all-out brawl for his seat that has so far yielded seven credible candidates, most of whom have already raised seven-figure campaign hauls.
The domino effect, along with retirements, has left the posts of lieutenant governor, secretary of state and insurance commissioner wide open. And buoyed by special election victories that flipped three Republican-held seats, Democrats are homing in on more than a dozen legislative seats in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, mostly on suburban turf.
The pressure is sure to drive lawmakers from both parties to run for political cover — even if it’s in the form of election-year posturing with little chance of passing.
The spotlight may shine brightest on the ongoing “religious liberty” debate over legislation that has split the GOP into two uneasy camps — one made up of establishment, pro-business Republicans and another that is more populist and socially conservative, particularly on issues such as same-sex marriage.
Some GOP leaders have warned that merely reigniting the fight could damage Georgia’s reputation with industries who may be looking to expand or locate in the state.
“We’ve made a lot of progress growing this state and making this state a real winner in job growth and so many other areas that I really hope our focus will be looking ahead,” said House Speaker David Ralston, who has become one of the more vocal critics of the measures.
There will surely be a flurry of other proposals aimed at giving Republican incumbents, imperiled or otherwise, fodder for the campaign trail. Debates about some particularly juicy red-meat issues, including tax-cut proposals and new gun rights expansions, seem ripe.
Democrats will try the same tactics, though without much realistic chance of approval in a Legislature where they are outnumbered by Republicans by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. Expect efforts to expand Medicaid, limit sales of certain firearms and wipe the Confederate faces off Stone Mountain to struggle to reach a hearing, much less a vote.
“A lot of political theater” was how state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver summed up her expectations of the typical election-year session. She knows of which she speaks: The Decatur Democrat ran for lieutenant governor in 1998 from the state Senate.
“I want to do some real work,” she added, “and I have some hope that we won’t waste all our time on posturing.”
There’s plenty else on the table. Lawmakers must approve a budget expected to top $25 billion before the session can end. And gutty votes await on a range of proposals, including a potential framework for mass transit funding, a vast rewrite of adoption rules and incentives aimed at helping rural Georgians access the internet or start businesses.
One of the toughest may involve Georgia’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, a $5 billion prize that would bring 50,000 high-paying jobs to metro Atlanta. It will also require a trove of tax breaks and other lucrative inducements that lawmakers could be asked to approve.
And for Deal, the final session offers him a last chance to cement his stamp on the criminal justice overhaul he embraced 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, he’ll face new questions about whether he can corral the competing factions of his party one last time as his would-be successors intensify their campaigns to replace him.
Ralston, who opted against a run for governor, bristled at the idea that the specter of elections will deny him the chance to embark on an aggressive agenda that he hopes will center on the needs of rural Georgians.
“When you get older, you get more impatient — at least I do,” he recently confided.
“I don’t like the notion that just because it’s an election year we’re going to get out early,” he said. “We have elections every other year. Are we going to be an every-other-year General Assembly? Or one that will work each year?”
The right answer, he implied, needs no explanation.