The forces that will decide Georgia’s primary election

Every state office is up for grabs this year in Georgia, and Tuesday’s primary will be a big first step in determining who will fill them.

Republicans now control every statewide office and have a commanding majority in the Georgia Legislature. But Democrats hope a tide of new energy — along with frustration with President Donald Trump — will power the party to heights it hasn’t seen since the early 2000s.

The May 22 primary elections for the state legislature are more competitive than they've been in years.

From the race to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal to contests down the ballot, Democrats and Republicans are clashing over a host of issues and trends that are shaping state politics. Here is a look at a few:

The party’s pull

The primaries typically draw the most dedicated party voters, pushing candidates toward their party’s flanks to win the nomination. But the gulf between the top Democrats and Republicans in the state is as wide as it has been in modern history.

Republicans trying to appeal to the most right-wing bloc of the electorate are dueling over their conservative chops, with each trying to outdo his opponents with more aggressive plans to cut taxes, combat illegal immigration and expand gun rights.

And Georgia Democrats up and down the ticket are following the same strategy, largely jettisoning centrist talk for the first time in decades to frame themselves as progressive candidates who will challenge not only Republicans but policies held by their own party leaders.

The party’s push to the left is reshaping races across the state, where Republican incumbents who rarely faced opposition over the past decade suddenly have multiple Democratic opponents warring over who would best fight Trump if elected.

Women step up

Mirroring nationwide trends, more Georgia women are running for office and getting involved in political campaigns. A record number of female candidates is running for Congress in Georgia this year, and the state’s first Republican congresswoman, Karen Handel, is seeking a second term.

Two Democratic women, Stacey Evans and Stacey Abrams, are looking to make history Tuesday as Georgia’s first female gubernatorial nominee from a major party. If Abrams wins, she still could potentially become the country’s first black female governor.

No single factor is behind the record number of female candidates running this year, although many Democrats cite their resentment of Trump and his policies. Others say they have been inspired by the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.

While much of the energy this year has been on the left, Republican women have also stepped up their efforts. Some say they want to counter the narrative that only Democrats represent women, while others want to return to what they see as the GOP’s core principles of fiscal responsibility and limited government.

National forces

Georgia’s top races have attracted heaps of national attention, plenty of out-of-state contributions and a string of national endorsements. But no outside force may loom as large as Trump.

Most Republicans on the ballot have cozied up to the president even if they didn’t initially support him, while a few candidates are staking their campaigns on their loyalty to the White House. Democrats hope that will come back to haunt the GOP, and many pledge to fight Trump’s policies.

Abrams has spent the most time in the national spotlight, and out-of-state donors account for roughly two-thirds of her campaign funds. She’s nabbed endorsements from big-name politicians, including the party’s 2016 presidential adversaries: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Republicans are trying to get in on the game, too. Former state Sen. Hunter Hill rolled out a robo-call from U.S. Sen Ted Cruz of Texas, while state Sen. Michael Williams has emphasized his early support for the president — and blasted his rivals for not endorsing Trump’s candidacy as quickly as he did.

One of the biggest conservative heavyweights has also weighed in on the race: The National Rifle Association backed Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle after he orchestrated the defeat of a tax break for Delta Air Lines when it cut ties with the group.

Suburban energy

Last year’s surprisingly competitive special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District has re-energized Democrats, who see the state’s suburbs as a new political battleground. They’re banking that demographic changes and unhappiness with Trump will help flip long-held Republican seats.

The energy is clear. Congressional districts that for years had not seen credible Democratic challengers are now flush with candidates, many running for office for the first time. But the benefits of incumbency, including fundraising advantages and gerrymandered districts, makes winning those races an uphill climb.

The Gold Dome is also being reshaped by similar forces. Three long-held GOP legislative seats flipped last year in special elections. And nearly a dozen Republican state legislators representing suburban districts are retiring or running for other offices, leaving competitive seats open. Early-voting numbers nearly rivaled the 2016 primary, when presidential politics helped pique voter interest.

Digging in on firearms 

Gun rights used to be a bipartisan issue in Georgia, but political polarization has changed the debate in recent years. Many of the Democrats running for top office back new restrictions such as expanded background checks and bans on certain high-powered rifles.

A national gun control advocate, Lucy McBath, is challenging Handel in the 6th District with her own powerful story about losing her son to gun violence, and the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety has spent more than $830,000 to get her elected.

Republican candidates, meanwhile, have reaffirmed their support for gun rights and rejected new gun control measures. To address recent school shootings, most have endorsed beefing up school security, with some calling for teachers to carry firearms into classrooms to defend their students. One candidate for lieutenant governor challenged another to a shootout; Republicans running for down-ticket races that have little to do with gun policy are highlighting their stances on gun rights.

In the governor’s race, the fight over gun rights is most pronounced. While Abrams and Evans scrap over which would be the bigger thorn in the NRA’s side, Hill was branded a traitor by another Republican candidate for initially suggesting after the Parkland, Fla., shootings that the minimum age for purchasing some firearms should be raised to 21. He walked back those comments — and then filmed a campaign ad at a shooting range for good measure.

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