Perdue’s challenge could trigger new culture war in Georgia

Facing stiff Republican opposition to reelection, Gov. Brian Kemp is likely to lead Georgia legislators deeper into divisive cultural clashes over guns, race and gender during the upcoming legislative session.

The first-term governor has already endorsed efforts to restrict “obscene” materials from public schools and block k-12 educators from teaching critical race theory, graduate-level college coursework that’s a favorite target of conservatives though it’s not taught in Georgia.

The primary challenge announced this week by former U.S. Sen. David Perdue is expected to elevate other issues when the Legislature meets in January, including a long-stalled proposal that would let gun owners conceal and carry handguns without a permit.

Perdue, too, is trying to force Kemp into a debate over whether to allow Buckhead and its wealthy white residents to split with the city of Atlanta by calling on the governor to follow his lead and support the idea.

Other proposals will surely gain new attention as Kemp tries to protect his right flank and conservative legislators push for base-pleasing legislation, such as stricter anti-abortion measures and bans on transgender youth from competing in high school sports.

“This is going to be a nightmare,” said state Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta. “Partisan politics is going to be forced into the conversation, and we’ll risk missing the mark on good work that needs to be done for the people of Georgia this session in favor of playing political games.”

The governor has been unusually tight-lipped about his legislative agenda, sidestepping most questions about specific policies as he faces a push-and-pull from both Perdue and Democrat Stacey Abrams, who entered the race last week.

But faced with a Donald Trump-backed challenge from Perdue, he’s been less averse to criticize his new Republican rival as he races to shore up support with conservatives.

“I’ve been a governor that’s been doing something about the problems that exist, not just talking to them and making, you know, blow-in-the-wind promises to regain power again after losing a race to a 33-year-old,” Kemp said, referring to Perdue’s January defeat to Democrat Jon Ossoff.

Combined ShapeCaption
Faced with election challenges by Stacey Abrams on the left and David Perdue on the right, Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to lead Georgia's Legislature into fights over a number of cultural issues. With a push from Perdue, that could reinforce efforts to pass bills addressing guns, critical race theory and an attempt to break off the white, wealthy neighborhood of Buckhead from the rest of Atlanta.

Faced with election challenges by Stacey Abrams on the left and David Perdue on the right, Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to lead Georgia's Legislature into fights over a number of cultural issues. With a push from Perdue, that could reinforce efforts to pass bills addressing guns, critical race theory and an attempt to break off the white, wealthy neighborhood of Buckhead from the rest of Atlanta.

Combined ShapeCaption
Faced with election challenges by Stacey Abrams on the left and David Perdue on the right, Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to lead Georgia's Legislature into fights over a number of cultural issues. With a push from Perdue, that could reinforce efforts to pass bills addressing guns, critical race theory and an attempt to break off the white, wealthy neighborhood of Buckhead from the rest of Atlanta.

‘Own worst enemy’

The fate of the proposals will hinge on House Speaker David Ralston, who has been less eager than other GOP leaders to embrace polarizing cultural debates.

Senior Democrats, and more privately some Republicans, often acknowledge they rely on the House GOP leader as a safety valve to prevent some incendiary legislation from moving forward.

“I hope cooler heads prevail,” said state Rep. Al Williams, a Midway Democrat who is one of the longest-serving members of the House. “We have a solid speaker who holds things in the middle. And this is not the year to become a national laughingstock.”

In an interview, Ralston said he was open to exploring an expansion of gun rights and a referendum on Buckhead cityhood.

But he closed the door on revisiting abortion restrictions unless a Supreme Court ruling weakening the landmark Roe v. Wade decision is handed down during the session.

And he indicated he would take a cautious approach toward other controversial proposals that could get whipped up in the tailwind of the Kemp-Perdue rivalry.

Combined ShapeCaption
State House Speaker David Ralston will be looked to by some to keep some incendiary legislation from moving forward during the legislative session that begins in January. Ralston has said that he is open to exploring an expansion of gun rights, as well as a referendum on whether to allow Buckhead to form its own city. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

State House Speaker David Ralston will be looked to by some to keep some incendiary legislation from moving forward during the legislative session that begins in January. Ralston has said that he is open to exploring an expansion of gun rights, as well as a referendum on whether to allow Buckhead to form its own city. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Combined ShapeCaption
State House Speaker David Ralston will be looked to by some to keep some incendiary legislation from moving forward during the legislative session that begins in January. Ralston has said that he is open to exploring an expansion of gun rights, as well as a referendum on whether to allow Buckhead to form its own city. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“I spent a lot of years here trying to protect our brand and enhance the economic development stature of our state,” Ralston said, “and I don’t intend to be caught up in someone else’s campaign and put that in jeopardy.”

Still, his fellow Republicans are bracing for an anything-goes legislative session that could bring more attention to the state’s status as a premier battleground state.

“Sometimes Republicans are our own worst enemy,” said state Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton. “I hope that the internal drama doesn’t prevent us from moving Georgia forward. But election-year politics are pretty tricky.”

‘Grown-ups’

An early dividing line has formed around Republican-led legislation that would allow Buckhead residents to vote in 2022 to decide whether to split from the city of Atlanta.

Perdue’s quick embrace of the legislation was the talk of a fundraiser this week staged by pro-Atlanta leaders that united some of the most powerful business and civic figures in the city. Many expect Kemp to eventually endorse the idea rather than risk leaving Perdue a political opening that he can exploit.

“The Republican civil war has started and there will be collateral damage, including the city of Atlanta’s efforts to stop Buckhead City,” said Fred Hicks, an Atlanta political consultant. “I can’t imagine Gov. Kemp standing in the way, particularly if the donor base in Buckhead wants to leave.”

Kemp has left the door open to supporting the cityhood referendum, saying that “people are fed up with violent crime in Atlanta” though he’s so far stopped short of endorsing it. Atlanta’s violent crime rate has made it a target of Georgia Republicans, though data shows rural areas struggling with a spike in violence as well.

Combined ShapeCaption
When former U.S. Sen. David Perdue announced he was running for governor, one of the first issues he embraced was an effort to allow Buckhead to break away from Atlanta. Gov. Brian Kemp has remained neutral so far, but many expect him to eventually endorse plans to allow residents of the wealthy, white neighborhood to decide. “The Republican civil war has started and there will be collateral damage, including the city of Atlanta’s efforts to stop Buckhead City,” said Fred Hicks, an Atlanta political consultant. “I can’t imagine Gov. Kemp standing in the way, particularly if the donor base in Buckhead wants to leave.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

When former U.S. Sen. David Perdue announced he was running for governor, one of the first issues he embraced was an effort to allow Buckhead to break away from Atlanta. Gov. Brian Kemp has remained neutral so far, but many expect him to eventually endorse plans to allow residents of the wealthy, white neighborhood to decide. “The Republican civil war has started and there will be collateral damage, including the city of Atlanta’s efforts to stop Buckhead City,” said Fred Hicks, an Atlanta political consultant. “I can’t imagine Gov. Kemp standing in the way, particularly if the donor base in Buckhead wants to leave.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
When former U.S. Sen. David Perdue announced he was running for governor, one of the first issues he embraced was an effort to allow Buckhead to break away from Atlanta. Gov. Brian Kemp has remained neutral so far, but many expect him to eventually endorse plans to allow residents of the wealthy, white neighborhood to decide. “The Republican civil war has started and there will be collateral damage, including the city of Atlanta’s efforts to stop Buckhead City,” said Fred Hicks, an Atlanta political consultant. “I can’t imagine Gov. Kemp standing in the way, particularly if the donor base in Buckhead wants to leave.” (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Perdue told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he expects Kemp to enthusiastically back measures popular with Trump supporters this session out of a “sense of desperation.”

“The signs are there that he’ll do whatever he has to do politically to fight back. The problem is that doesn’t pull together the party,” Perdue said, adding an open-ended question: “The truth is, without my political pressure in the primary would he have done any of this?”

Kemp spokesman Tate Mitchell said the governor “ran on a promise to do what he told hardworking Georgians he would do when he took office -- and he intends to keep that promise, regardless of who’s in the race.”

With the GOP in control of the Legislature, Democrats are powerless to stop measures that Republicans unify behind. But they are betting on a backlash from voters that could pay electoral dividends in November, when every statewide office is up for grabs.

“We’re going to be focused on what voters care about — expanding access to health care, education and economic opportunity,” said House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, the top Democrat in the chamber. “We’re the grown-ups in the room right now.”