Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution commissioned a poll of Georgians that was conducted May 9-12. It is publishing the following stories based on that polling:
Saturday: How do Georgians rate the work done by U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and the rest of the state's congressional delegation?
Sunday: How do the state's residents expect to vote in November's presidential election?
Monday: How have his vetoes of a "religious liberty" bill and a campus gun bill affected Gov. Nathan Deal's approval rating?
Georgia voters have split almost evenly on Gov. Nathan Deal's veto of so-called "religious liberty" legislation but generally agree he was right to turn away a bill allowing guns on college campuses, an exclusive new poll from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
Those two topics — guns and protections for opponents of same-sex marriage — were the most hotly debated in the first half of this election year. And Deal’s subsequent break with Republican leaders in the state Legislature over them has only stoked a fire expected to linger into 2017.
The poll shows Deal’s approval rating has held steady despite the clash. Cracks, however, have begun to show among his Republican base. Voters such as Chad Matthews, 44, a construction foreman in Forsyth County, are disappointed with his veto decisions.
"I just thought it was a stupid thing to do," Matthews said, referring to the governor's veto of House Bill 757, the so-called religious liberty bill. "I don't think the government should be able to tell businesses where they can deny service to customers based on their sexual orientation. That's a private business."
An AJC poll in January showed Deal’s approval rating at 50 percent. Results this week show he’s now at 52 percent.
But Deal has seen a notable drop-off in support among fellow Republicans, from 73 percent in January to 58 percent now. That decline comes as Democrats have warmed to Deal, who is serving his last term in the governor’s office. His support among Democrats has grown from 38 percent to 51 percent.
“Totally predictable,” Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint said of those results. “Nathan Deal took steps that obviously aren’t going to make some conservative Republicans happy. But he really doesn’t have to worry about getting a majority in a primary because he’s not going to run again. The truth of the matter is the Legislature put him in a tough spot, and he did what he thought was right.”
And voters’ opinion of the Georgia Legislature? Forty-six percent of voters overall approve of the way state lawmakers’ are doing their job — with support rising to 55 percent among Republicans. Every seat in the state Legislature is up in this year’s state elections.
“Republicans in the Legislature are going to run again,” Swint said. “They have to take a strong stance.”
Brian Robinson, Deal’s former spokesman who now has his own consulting firm, said the governor made difficult decisions he felt were in the state’s best interest.
Republicans in power, he said, “have to strike a balance between showing progress to the base and not sacrificing the support of independents, who are deciding factors in statewide elections.”
“These issues are great examples,” Robinson said. “They have the support of a small majority of Republicans but are opposed by a majority of Georgians overall.”
Deal first raised the ire of many religious conservatives just four days after lawmakers adjourned for the year March 24.
That's when he vetoed HB 757, the "religious liberty" bill that critics said could allow discrimination against the state's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Supporters, however, said it was a careful compromise among Republican lawmakers that aimed to protect sincerely held religious beliefs of faith organizations and individuals opposed to same-sex marriage.
Several Republican lawmakers called for a special legislative session to try to override Deal's rejection of the bill, but the effort petered out before it became a serious threat. Since then, supporters of the bill's intent have rallied over what they say is a war on Christian values. They have also vowed to keep Deal's veto in the spotlight through this year's state election season and into January, when those groups expect to again push legislation they say would protect religious viewpoints and prevent discrimination against faith-based groups.
The poll suggested no clear mandate among Georgia voters over that effort.
According to the poll, 45 percent of voters supported Deal’s decision to veto the religious liberty legislation while 44 percent opposed it.
Paul Amburg, 67, a retired insurance broker from Buckhead, said he disapproves of how the governor and lawmakers are doing their job, particularly “some of the buffoonery stuff they’ve done.”
In particular, Amburg was frustrated with the religious liberty bill and the potential economic impact it could have had on the state’s economy.
“The movie industry here is up and coming, to say the least,” Amburg said. “They’ll pull out.”
Carolyn Cutbirth, 25, a student in Cobb County, likewise agreed with Deal’s veto of the bill and said lawmakers should not try to pass it again next year.
“The overall economy in Georgia would suffer, and if it was put in place, then a lot of businesses might go out of business,” Cutbirth said.
The poll found that, perhaps not surprisingly, 55 percent of Democrats supported the decision to veto the bill while 58 percent of Republicans opposed it.
A majority of voters — 51 percent overall — said Georgia lawmakers should not try to pass it again next year. That is a reversal from January, when 53 percent of voters wanted the bill passed (although that support dropped when voters were asked whether the bill could be used to discriminate against some Georgians).
As quickly as Deal acted on the religious liberty bill, he waited until the state's May 3 deadline to act on legislation involving the so-called "campus carry" gun bill. That bill, House Bill 859, would have allowed anyone who was at least 21 years old with a state-issued concealed weapons permit to carry a firearm on Georgia's public college and university campuses. The only exceptions were for on-campus dormitories, fraternity and sorority houses, and at athletic events.
Deal, in his veto message, doubted that the bill would make colleges safer.
“If the intent of HB 859 is to increase safety of students on college campuses, it is highly questionable that such would be the result,” Deal wrote in a letter explaining his decision. He coupled it with an executive order instructing the higher education system to submit a report on campus security measures by August.
The decision again inflamed conservatives and was met with resolutions at Republican district conventions across the state calling on Deal to reverse course. Republicans in the 3rd Congressional District even voted to "censure" the governor via a scathing resolution.
Matthews, the Forsyth County construction foreman, is among those angry with Deal’s decision.
“The bad guys are already toting guns on campus,” he said, adding facetiously that “obviously now that he’s vetoed it I’m sure the bad guys will put down their guns.”
“As long as the bad guys have guns, I know damn well the good guys should have guns,” Matthews said.
Georgia voters overall, however, backed the decision to veto the bill.
According to the AJC poll, 56 percent of respondents supported Deal’s campus gun veto — including 78 percent of Democrats.
Among Republicans, however, that support fell to 37 percent.
Fifty-nine percent of Republicans, but just 37 percent of voters polled overall, want lawmakers to pass it again next year.
Many voters, however, are split on the two issues. Cutbirth, the Cobb County student, supported Deal’s veto of the religious liberty bill but opposed his decision to kill the campus gun measure. Michelle Finn, 43, a Smyrna homemaker, felt the same.
“We could have lost so much money if he hadn’t vetoed the religious liberty bill,” said Finn, a Republican. “The government doesn’t need to impose their views on us. I was much more divided over campus carry. I think you should be able to carry guns on campus. This is still America.”
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