Former President Jimmy Carter and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate to become Georgia’s next governor, share a laugh while taking questions during a press conference Tuesday on rural health care at the Mercer Medicine facility in Plains. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Jimmy Carter plunges into Georgia race, underlining a Democratic shift

But her campaign event with Carter sent another signal, too, of the shifting political winds that have swept up Democrats both nationally and locally. She’s proud of her party’s progressive roots — and will continue to embrace them as her November race against Republican Brian Kemp nears.

And Carter embraced her right back with glee, smiling as he opened his remarks to make clear that he and his wife, Rosalynn, had endorsed Abrams because “she stands in diametric opposition” to Kemp on health care issues.

“This should be a top priority for all Georgians,” he said as the former first lady cooled herself with an Abrams-emblazoned fan.

The 93-year-old former president is a singularly complicated figure in state politics, at once towering over other politicians while also being held at a remove. While he remains popular in Georgia — and a revered figure in Plains — he is reviled among some Republicans who deride him as a failed leader.

When his grandson, former state Sen. Jason Carter, ran for governor in 2014, he struggled to carve out a role for his grandfather. The ex-president shunned any high-profile incursion until late in the contest, preferring behind-the-scenes roles raising campaign cash and providing quiet advice.

And Carter talked of skipping events only a short drive from his hometown lest he steal the spotlight from his grandson’s campaign. At the time, he said he was striving to show voters that his Jason Carter is “his own man.” 

Sensing a weakness, Gov. Nathan Deal was critical of the younger Carter’s “very famous grandfather” and warned that a Democratic victory would set up another Carter’s run for the White House. Deal wound up winning the race by an 8-point margin as Republicans wracked up victories nationwide.

These days, though, many Democrats are running on more purely progressive platforms — and don’t mind being tied to liberal politicians of yesteryear. Abrams has proudly trumpeted support not only from Jimmy Carter but also former President Barack Obama, who endorsed her and three other Democrats earlier this year.

That, too, indicates the shift in Georgia Democratic politics: Jason Carter and other high-profile Democrats faced criticism for skipping Obama’s September 2014 visit to Atlanta and not more openly embracing the White House during their unsuccessful runs for office.

His approach fit a conventional Democratic strategy aimed at winning back suburban voters, many of them former Democrats, with a centrist frame that supported expanding Medicaid but also aimed to avoid revving up Republicans who vilified Obama.

Abrams, 44, is staking her campaign on using progressive appeals to expand the party’s electorate to capture more left-leaning voters, many who are minorities who rarely cast ballots in midterms. She’s made expanding Medicaid a staple of that pitch.

‘Right thing’ or ‘failed program’

Which is why much of Tuesday’s event with Jimmy Carter, which began with a tour of the Mercer Medicine facility, was focused on her promise that expanding Medicaid will shore up the state’s struggling network of rural hospitals. At least seven have closed since 2010, and more are on the financial brink.

“This is a crisis that could be solved if Georgia could simply do the right thing and expand Medicaid,” Abrams said. “That is not only a solution, it’s the only answer that we have to solve a crisis that is ravaging our state.”

Even if she wins in November, Abrams could not expand Medicaid on her own. With the 2014 race for governor in mind, and out of concern that Jason Carter could have won, Republican lawmakers pushed through legislation that gave the General Assembly the deciding vote on whether to expand the state-federal health care program that serves 2 million poor and disabled Georgians and pays for the state’s elderly residents to live in nursing homes.

Kemp, who has proudly brandished the endorsement of President Donald Trump, has made opposing the expansion a key part of his campaign. He calls it too costly in the long run, and he said he won’t funnel more state dollars into a “failed” Affordable Care Act program.

He has, however, left the door open to applying for waivers that he said would help stabilize insurance premiums and expressed support for increasing a rural hospital tax credit to boost the net of health care systems. And he’s said more robust economic development will help lift struggling rural communities.

“When you have populations declining in rural Georgia, it’s hard to support a hospital, it’s hard to support kids that are coming out of school systems with good employment,” Kemp said. “We have to have people investing in rural Georgia, and we need a governor who can focus on that job creation.”

Beyond that, the secretary of state has yet to release a more detailed health plan, delighting Abrams’ allies. The Democratic Party of Georgia launched an attack ad Tuesday that mocks an “issue” page on Kemp’s campaign website that devotes only seven words to health care.

The former president seized on Kemp’s lack of details in his brief remarks, telling a bank of television cameras arrayed outside the tiny health center in Plains that the Republican was trying to paper over flaws in his policies.

“That’s a good way to avoid the issue,” Carter said, adding that the same argument can be used as a cure-all for poverty and other endemic problems. “That would be a good thing in the long term, but you can’t correct the immediate problems in Georgia by doing nothing.”

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