Under Kemp, Georgia Republicans wade back into culture war

5 facts about Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp

As the curtain fell on a tumultuous legislative session, this much was clear: Georgia Republicans are more willing than they have been in years to engage in partisan battles over culture war issues that party leaders once eagerly tried to avoid.

The first lifelong Republican elected to the state's top office in generations, Gov. Brian Kemp allied with conservative GOP leaders in the Legislature to start fulfilling a series of campaign pledges that helped him narrowly win the November vote.

His support for the contentious “heartbeat” bill that would ban most abortions as early as six weeks meets a vow that helped him entice conservatives during last year’s victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams — and, say his critics, will inevitably lead to the GOP’s undoing in Georgia.

That fight over the measure came after other debates on election rules and health care policy that sharply divided lawmakers along party lines. And it overshadowed other parts of his agenda that had broader support, such as $3,000 teacher pay raises, more security funding for schools and the compromise he brokered to allow the in-state cultivation of medical marijuana.

Kemp told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he’s giving voters exactly what they should expect: He outlined a series of promises on the campaign trail, and he’s using the levers of power and his influence with the Republican-controlled Legislature to carry them out.

“I’m just doing what I told people I would do,” he said in an interview. “I heard out there from people during the campaign they were starving for somebody who would actually do what they tell them they were going to do.”

Indeed, he waded into debates that his immediate predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal, avoided: A health care “waiver” that could lead to a limited Medicaid expansion. A costly new elections system. A push to ease some hospital regulations.

But the showstopper was the anti-abortion bill, which triggered threats of a Hollywood boycott that brought actress and producer Alyssa Milano to the Georgia Capitol — and another wave of national attention — as lawmakers were putting the finishing touches on a final burst of legislative proposals.

That demand from religious conservatives for the anti-abortion legislation, which even supporters concede is bound for a lengthy legal battle, bewildered Democrats who believed Kemp would embrace more consensus-driven legislation after a bitter election.

"If I were the governor and came in on that slim of a vote, I would want to convince the people that didn't support me that I was worthy of the office," said state Rep. Michelle Henson, D-Stone Mountain.

“Instead, he’s pushed too many highly emotional and partisan bills,” she said. “And he never had the chance to win over the people who didn’t support him in the first place.”

New faces

Few doubt that Deal, who sidelined many socially contentious proposals in an alliance with business boosters, would have squelched debate over the “heartbeat” bill if he were still in office. A former Deal aide, Brian Robinson, flashed a grin as he said the ex-governor tended to “shy away” from those issues.

But Kemp won by appealing to conservatives on social issues, first as an underdog in a crowded primary and later as the GOP nominee who pledged to sign a “religious liberty” measure, crack down on illegal immigration, expand gun rights and enact the nation’s toughest abortion rules.

And accomplishing those promises can put Kemp at odds not just with Democrats, but also pro-business forces who worry that a clash over cultural legislation could undercut the state’s economy. In his first months in office, Kemp struggled to navigate those competing tensions.

A prime example of the difficulty of that balancing act came when Kemp personally pressed for an extension of a tax break on jet fuel that would benefit Delta Air Lines — and failed to win over Senate Republican critics who saw it as a corporate giveaway.

In pulling his party further to the right, Kemp found a reliable ally in Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, the first-term president of the Senate who as a candidate promised to fight "malicious" organizations that support abortion rights.

That alliance posed a challenge to House Speaker David Ralston, who for much of the past decade enjoyed a tight partnership with Deal and sweeping control over nearly every piece of legislation up for debate in Georgia.

This year, though, Ralston had a more uneasy relationship with his counterparts — and faced new threats to his leadership after the AJC's investigation into his use of legislative-leave privileges for his private law practice that prompted a small band of Republicans to call for his ouster.

The trio united behind major legislation, including a new elections law that replaces the state's voting machines and a measure that gives Kemp broad authority to pursue more federal health care funding. But no longer was there a reliable hedge against contentious social proposals in the Legislature.

When Senate Republicans last year revived a decades-old idea to give the state control over Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Deal's aides quickly maneuvered to crash it.

This year, despite opposition from the Metro Atlanta Chamber and City Hall, different attempts to weaken Atlanta's oversight of the airport were still pending until the final minutes of the legislative session.

Democrats said the volatility bred mass confusion. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving member in the Legislature, said the session was defined by its "unpredictability." State Sen. Jen Jordan quipped that she wasn't sure which "headless horseman" was leading the way.

But that vacuum also gave some rank-and-file legislators a chance to emerge.

Jordan's fervent opposition to the anti-abortion bill prompted speculation of a future statewide run, and state Rep. Erica Thomas became a fixture on CNN with her promise that Kemp's agenda dooms his 2022 chances. State Rep. Ed Setzler, the chief House sponsor of abortion restrictions, and state Sen. Renee Unterman, its main backer in the upper chamber, became heroes to religious conservatives.

‘A very hard decision’

If any debate crystallized the new political fault lines under the Gold Dome, it was the one over abortion.

The governor initially supported a weaker "trigger bill" that would have set up another vote to outlaw most abortions in Georgia only if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. But he abandoned that measure in favor of Setzler's "heartbeat bill" as soon as it cleared a key committee.

Within hours, both Kemp and Duncan had forcefully endorsed the measure, effectively forcing Ralston to bring it up for a vote. It narrowly passed the House, though some vulnerable Republicans pointedly voted against it.

"It was a very hard decision," said one of them, state Rep. Sharon Cooper of Marietta, who stressed her opposition to abortion. "The bill is blatantly not constitutional. And we do swear an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. And there are many, many flaws with it."

In the interview, Kemp acknowledged that the bill will continue to dominate the headlines long after he signs it. But he’s planning a series of trips across the state in hopes of reconnecting with voters on other topics.

“If you get outside the Capitol, and really talk about what we’ve done, inevitably there’s a teacher who says they’re so excited about the pay raise or school security or health care,” Kemp said. “Those are real issues that are going to help people who aren’t paying attention to this process.”

He's preparing for next year, when he'll likely mix an effort to overhaul foster care regulations with new efforts to stimulate rural Georgia's economy and a revived attempt to use taxpayer money to send students to private schools.

And Kemp said he’s got his eye on other socially conservative legislation, declaring that he is unfazed by protests and boycott threats that could make the blowback over the anti-abortion legislation seem small in comparison.

“We cannot change our values of who we are for money,” the governor said, adding: “Everyone talks about Atlanta being the city too busy to hate. Well, I’m the governor too busy to hate. I know there’s a lot of hardworking Georgians out there who appreciate what we’re doing, who appreciate our values.”

Democrats, too, are readying for next year. Moments after the anti-abortion bill earned final legislative approval, the state party sent a list of top Republican targets that included many Republicans in competitive districts who voted for it — and some, such as Cooper, who did not.

As lawmakers streamed from the Capitol early Wednesday, another session enshrined in the books, Democratic state Sen. Nikema Williams paused for the briefest of moments when asked about Kemp's pursuit of conservative pledges.

“This is Brian Kemp’s Republican Party, and he showed us exactly who he was when he was campaigning. We should have believed him,” said Williams, who is also the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

“Now people are awake, and they are paying attention — and ready to run for office and vote against people not moving us forward.”

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