President Donald Trump’s election victory has lifted with it the profiles of a bumper crop of Peach State natives. From his West Wing inner circle to the heart of the self-styled “resistance,” Georgians have helped shape the commander in chief’s behavior, execute his policies — and in some cases lead the fight against his leadership.
Some longtime power brokers like the Perdues and the Gingriches have seen their clout skyrocket during Trump’s 19-month D.C. tenure. Others such as John Lewis and Sally Yates have reached new levels of prominence as heroes to Democrats horrified by the president’s unlikely political rise.
But not all Georgia politicos have enjoyed sustained clout in Trump’s Washington.
Some, such as Tom Price, lost their jobs, their influence, their bully pulpits — and perhaps their political futures. Mainstream Republicans have been forced to toe delicate political lines that have at times left them at odds with both their critics and allies.
Here’s how some notable Georgians have fared:
The Perdue network
The Perdue family was already one of the most potent forces in Georgia politics, but Trump’s election put the clan in a different stratosphere.
U.S. Sen. David Perdue, one of the first senators to endorse Trump’s campaign, is among his most vocal defenders — and one of his consiglieres to the chamber. His first-cousin Sonny Perdue, a former Georgia governor, landed a powerful spot in Trump’s Cabinet as agriculture secretary.
The proximity to power has paid off. Sonny Perdue is credited with helping preserve the NAFTA trade agreement and is now a key point man on tariffs. David Perdue has become one of the most important voices in Washington in the immigration debate — and even a barometer for Trump’s views.
Their influence is felt far beyond the halls of Congress. The family’s stamp of approval is much sought-after in state politics. And though his allies deny it, signs point to Sonny Perdue having encouraged Trump to endorse Brian Kemp in the governor’s race. That fueled his dominating victory in the GOP runoff.
Their extended network has also thrived from the trickle-down effect. After starting his career as an aide to Sonny Perdue, Nick Ayers is now Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff. Billy Kirkland, who managed David Perdue’s 2014 campaign, is another key Pence adviser. Paul Bennecke, another operative in the Perdue orbit, runs the Republican Governors Association.
The Gingrich clan
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had pursued a decidedly D.C. path since his Capitol Hill ouster, working as an author, political commentator and lobby shop employee. But perhaps his most lucrative move might have been aligning himself early with Trump, serving as an informal campaign adviser and cable news emissary.
The gamble paid off. The 2012 presidential candidate was for a time seen as a serious contender for vice president and secretary of state. Trump eventually opted for others, but Gingrich has only seen his soapbox grow since Trump’s inauguration. He’s penned two books about Trump’s political rise and is a frequent surrogate for the president on television. But he also has on occasion criticized the commander in chief, most notably after Trump appeared to side with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the U.S. intelligence community on the issue of election meddling.
Gingrich has done much of his work in recent months from Rome, where he’s been stationed after his wife, Callista, was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
And across the Alps is Randy Evans, Newt Gingrich’s longtime lawyer and confidante who is now the top U.S. diplomat to Luxembourg.
In the crosshairs
Tom Price was one of the first Georgians to earn a top spot in the Trump administration as secretary of health and human services. But his Cabinet tenure lasted less than eight months before he was pushed out over an ethics scandal involving charter flights.
And despite keeping a head-down approach, Chris Wray, the Atlanta attorney tapped by Trump to lead the FBI, has faced criticism from the president and his allies questioning the integrity of the agency’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Then there are the Georgians who have risen in notoriety because of their outright opposition to the president.
Civil rights hero and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis established himself as one of Trump’s most prominent foils after he said he did not see the New Yorker as a “legitimate president” and skipped his inauguration, comments that drew a sharp Twitter rebuke from the then-president-elect.
Former Atlanta U.S. Attorney Sally Yates became one of the first people to be fired by Trump when she refused to execute his travel ban while serving as a caretaker attorney general. Yates’ actions made her a punching bag of the right, a hero to the left — and a potential candidate for higher office down the road.
The uneasy truce between establishment Republicans and the drain-the-swamp Trump insurgents has given way to a new sort of status quo. The “Never Trump” movement among Republicans in Georgia has all but vanished, and there are no outspoken GOP critics of the president in top elected office.
It’s had a profound effect on this election cycle. Every Republican candidate for governor and every other office pledged his or her support — even as some try to distance themselves from Trump’s latest tweet or controversy. And Democrats hope that a Trump backlash can lift turnout in November.
And, yet, some of the loudest Trump loyalists have flailed. Republicans who based their bids for Congress around loyalty to Trump tanked in last year’s special election. And neither of the runoff candidates for governor — Kemp and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle — were early or particularly vocal Trump supporters in 2016.
While never cozy with Trump, the mainstream Republicans at the top of Georgia’s food chain have leveraged his policies to their own advantage. The federal tax cuts, for one, allowed Georgia legislators to cut state income tax rates and boost k-12 education funding — both policies that candidates are now trumpeting on the campaign trail.
And U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, the heart of the GOP status quo in Georgia, has charted a possible course for others who look to his mentorship. He has largely refused to criticize Trump, often dismissing questions about the president’s latest comments, saying he prefers instead to focus on veterans issues and state priorities.
Trump’s ascent has elevated a generation of young conservative Georgia judges to the federal bench.
The president has appointed three jurists to lifetime positions on the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, including onetime Georgia Supreme Court Justice Britt Grant and former Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Elizabeth Branch, helping ensure the influential court’s rightward tilt.
Not all had an easy time getting installed to their positions, however, as Senate Democrats have ramped up efforts to block or stall the quick confirmation of Trump’s judicial picks.
The nominations of two other Georgia district court picks, Billy Ray and Stan Baker, have been trapped in the chamber for months as the parties have done battle over more high-profile nominees. Ditto for the executive branch nomination of former GOP Congressman Lynn Westmoreland to be a member of Amtrak’s board of directors.
Early Trump adopters
Meanwhile, the small circle of Georgia operatives who helped Trump secure the nomination have had a checkered impact.
Rayna Casey and Brandon Phillips, two prominent Georgia Trump officials, have become sought-after campaign advisers. And Brian Jack is firmly ensconced on the White House’s political team after leading the president’s delegate-wrangling operations during the convention.
Bruce LeVell tried unsuccessfully to parlay his role as a leader of Trump’s diversity coalition into a seat in the U.S. House, but as a consolation prize he now travels the Southeast as an advocate with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Others have sputtered, most notably state Sen. Michael Williams. He finished in fifth place in the GOP primary for governor after a campaign that relentlessly reminded voters he was the first state elected official in Georgia to endorse Trump during the 2016 campaign.
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